Claiming Space: Culture, Arts and Resistance
All Illustrations by Frederick Noland. [people. power. media] spoke with all of San Francisco's eight Cultural Districts to understand their role in achieving equity in city planning.
In this series of essays, [people. power. media] lays out a revolutionary framework to achieve equity in city planning. This piece on Culture and Arts is the third on this entirely new approach.
To achieve equity in city planning, you need to intentionally address Desegregation, Affordability, Culture and Arts, Stability, and Sustainability. To read more about the elements of [people. power. media]'s DACSS framework, click here. Based on community feedback, our framework has evolved to now include Culture and Arts as integral components.
To write this piece, we spent months learning directly from all of San Francisco’s Cultural Districts, which have become strong advocates in building community power against the forces of displacement and gentrification.
Leveraging the city's legislative processes is one of the ways communities have pushed back against threats of erasure. In 2018, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in collaboration with community leaders, passed legislation that created a process for establishing Cultural Districts to acknowledge and preserve neighborhoods with unique cultural heritage. The City acknowledged these Cultural Districts as a means to counteract gentrification and displacement through legislative protections.
As of 2021, there are eight official cultural districts in San Francisco:
- Calle 24 Latino Cultural District (Est. 2014)
- SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District (Est. 2016)
- The Transgender District (Est. 2017)
- LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District (Est. 2018)
- Japantown Cultural District (Officially Est. 2018)
- African American Arts and Cultural District (Est. 2018)
- Castro LGBTQ Cultural District (Est. 2019)
- American Indian Cultural District (Est. 2020)
Through conversations with each district, we were better able to understand the importance of preserving and celebrating the culture and people for whom the Cultural Districts were created. We also gained a more thorough understanding of the role Cultural Districts play in increasing equity, as well as current efforts to sustain these districts.
This intensive process also informed illustrations that showcase the diverse and vibrant cultures that thrive within San Francisco’s boundaries. These illustrations (below) by Frederick Noland have been shaped directly by each Cultural District to be empowering, respectful, and authentic.
Claiming Space in the Wake of Redevelopment
For one weekend every August, as the summer sun burns away the cold blanket of fog, San Francisco’s downtown streets come alive. At the Filipino-American Pistahan parade, you'll see colorful banners featuring the distinctive yellow sun of the Filipino flag and floats handmade by community organizations. An endless sea of smiling faces march and dance along Market Street, meeting at a large park and arts center, Yerba Buena Gardens, in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood.
Walking through the park, you're surrounded by Filipino dance, music, art, and food. Families sit together on the grass and clap along with the rhythmic taps of bamboo sticks, expertly dodged by dancers performing the folk dance called Tinikling. Teenagers gather under the tree-lined shade, laugh, share lumpia (spring rolls), and nod their heads to the beat. Vendors proudly offer handmade clothing and artwork. Through it all, the sounds of native tongues from various regions of the Philippines hum loudly and lively, as Filipinos fully immerse themselves in a space that feels like home.
For nearly 30 years, Pistahan has become a cultural celebration for Filipino-Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also stakes a claim to the South of Market neighborhood. The popular event is one of many cultural assets that make up the newly formed SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District.
The site that hosts the festival, Yerba Buena Gardens, has its origins in Redevelopment, as the community is keenly aware. Major neighborhoods such as the Fillmore, Japantown, and South of Market were razed by Redevelopment. As a result, thousands of mostly low-income and people of color families and individuals were displaced. This pattern, also called Urban Renewal, is one that was repeated in every major city in the U.S. Enabled by federal legislation, San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency carried out the real estate development ambitions of the city starting in the 1950s.
It's because of racist and prejudiced city planning, such as Redevelopment, that cultural districts are so important. In the South of Market, thousands of families and seniors, including many Filipinos, were displaced during Redevelopment, part of a development push in the downtown area since the early 1970s to expand the financial district and the City’s growing tourism sector.
In 1994, a year after Yerba Buena Gardens was completed, the Pistahan Parade and Festival was created to preserve and celebrate the legacy of the Filipino community in the South of Market– their struggles, victories, and resilience. It is a way for Filipinos to reclaim space and show that they are still here, despite the traumas of historic displacement and the ongoing forces of gentrification.
Resisting Exclusion, Erasure & Exploitation
Establishing place through cultural expression gives agency to communities targeted for removal either by the government, such as by Redevelopment, or market forces like gentrification. Cultural expressions, such as Japantown's Nihonmachi Street Fair, the Mission District's Carnaval, and the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District's Folsom Street Fair, make communities visible in defiance to those who wish to erase them. Cultural expression of colonized and racialized peoples has been a fundamental strategy for survival and adaptation throughout history, especially in the face of exclusion, white supremacy, and racial violence.
For those who were forced here from their homelands such as Filipino and Latino immigrants, or had their land outright stolen from them such as the Ramaytush Ohlone, there is no choice but to create their own sense of belonging and community by asserting their cultural identities. San Francisco is on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land. Exclusion, violence, and exploitation of Indigenous and immigrant peoples have been constant throughout the city's history.
White settlers, enabled by federal legislation, stole Native land, and through removal policies forced Native Americans onto reservations. Establishing cultural districts provides historically oppressed communities an opportunity to claim space, reclaim narratives, and validate the lives of communities that have been consistently told that they do not belong.
“Designating a small part of this City as the first American Indian Cultural District in this Nation provides a small reparation for the land stolen and genocide of us, the original people on this land,” said Mary Travis-Allen, Advisory Board President of San Francisco’s American Indian Cultural District.
“It shows the strength and spirit of our people to survive and be resilient. This area will allow us to establish needed resources and space to give honor to those that came before us, support for those who are here, and a foundation for those that will follow after us. It also elevates our visibility to those that believe or want us to be gone to show: we are still here,” she continued.
Marginalized peoples have long been engaged in struggles over the use, occupation, and appropriation of land. American legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and racism are deeply rooted in how land is controlled. These legacies and colonial strategies persist today.
U.S. industries, bolstered by federal policy, exploited migrant labor to build the country’s infrastructure, like the thousands of Chinese migrants who built the Transcontinental Railroad, and were subsequently segregated into cities' Chinatown neighborhoods. African Americans were recruited from the South to work in shipyards in San Francisco during World War II, but had their neighborhoods razed shortly thereafter by Urban Renewal, resulting in the destruction and forced displacement of African American residents and other communities of color from San Francisco.
Labor exploitation was rampant in U.S. agriculture, where migrant workers— including Latino, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese farm workers— were responsible for growing the country’s agriculture, but are subjected to horrible working conditions and pitiful wages.
Migrants put their lives on the line to fight in this country’s wars, including the thousands of Filipinos who enlisted during World War II with promises of U.S. citizenship and veteran benefits, only to have these promises rescinded after the end of the war.
“SOMA was the neighborhood where hundreds of Filipino WWII Veterans and generations of Filipino migrants landed, who faced the shattered promises of America. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and generations of community activists and unsung heroes and sheroes who laid the foundation for our cultural district,” said Raquel Redondiez, Director of the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District.
Reforming City Planning from the Bottom Up
In order to stop viewing cultural enclaves merely as places of consumption, a complete shift in the practices, beliefs, and functions of those who plan and develop our cities is necessary. For far too long, city planners and local governments have relied on prescriptive and top-down approaches that impose ideas of “acceptable” uses of space— which are ones that typically garner profit— and largely ignore community-based planning initiatives that are rooted in the lived experiences and needs of marginalized communities.
For example, the South of Market— which is home to two cultural districts, the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District and the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District— has continued to suffer as ground zero for commercial and residential development. In 2018, despite fervent community opposition, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the Central SoMa Plan, an area plan that would upzone the South of Market neighborhood and create enough new hotels and office skyscrapers to accommodate approximately 33,000 workers and 8,300 units of mostly market rate, luxury housing. And in 2020, as in prior years, the South of Market had the most new construction of any San Francisco neighborhood with 1,755 units of housing built, or 44% of the City's total new housing construction, which largely consisted of market-rate, luxury development. The City is effectively doubling down on the intensive new development in this area that has borne the brunt of both luxury housing and office development for decades.
While on the surface, it may appear as if these efforts would provide more housing for all, the reality is that market-rate housing is completely out of reach for low-income and working class residents. These development plans, approved and recommended by city planners, clearly cater to private interests, and are in stark contrast to demands from the existing community to prioritize affordable housing, stabilize rent-controlled buildings and the tenants who live in them, and cultivate a neighborhood that is youth and family-friendly. These instances of top-down planning without taking into account community input and leadership are emblematic of the fundamental inequities that exist in systems of planning and development.
Struggle For Control and Survival in Racist Institutions
The City's topdown approach to planning isn’t unique to the South of Market. Other cultural enclaves face similar challenges while pushing for planning that truly centers the needs of marginalized communities. In San Francisco’s Japantown, private developers and corporate owners have decisive control over many of the existing commercial spaces in Japantown’s commercial core, leaving the stability of community-serving businesses at risk. Sadly, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Japantown has already lost many culturally relevant businesses, as private developers continued to prioritize profit over the existing community.
“If we don’t prioritize what the community wants, Japantown will be Japantown only in name. If the people are not there, if they don’t feel reflected in their surroundings, if the space doesn’t feel authentic, the cultural district will just be a co-optation and static caricature of our culture,” said Nina Bazan-Sakamoto, Cultural District Project Manager of San Francisco’s Japantown Task Force.
“In order for a place to have a living, breathing, and evolving culture— you need to support the vision of the people within that culture to determine what they want to see and how they want their community to develop,” she continued.
As communities push back against forces of erasure, those in power— city planners, policy makers, and elected officials— invariably back developers and private interests, often forcing communities to negotiate with developers. With communities at a huge disadvantage, these negotiations often result in piecemeal concessions, including community benefits agreements between community organizations and for-profit developers that provide nothing significant for communities.
An example of the concessions developers agree to are limited project-based opportunities, such as inviting communities to paint culturally-specific art on the walls of the new buildings. These concessions are almost always superficial, not going nearly far enough to reverse systemic disinvestment and disparities in incomes and ownership.
More substantial opportunities from local government and philanthropic entities, including funding that could support vulnerable communities, are often given to large, white-dominated art institutions or white artists who have enormous influence over the artistic and cultural landscapes in cities. This is only compounded by the fact that many artists and cultural workers of color face interpersonal and systemic racism in predominantly white institutions, making it even more difficult to keep marginalized artists in creative sectors with stable income.
Skyrocketing rents have made it nearly impossible for community-based artists and cultural workers to live in the places where they work and feel connected to. This has only become worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, as arts, cultural, and creative communities across the country are struggling to find resources for relief and competing for already scarce resources. Even cultural districts are in a precarious position, as their funding relies heavily on tourist dollars through the city’s hotel tax. In this way, even the city’s attempts to preserve and invest in cultural heritage are deeply tied to leveraging and exploiting cultural offerings for profit.
Opposing Cultural Appropriation & Commodification
Today, the marginalized communities in Cultural Districts— which include people of color, immigrants, people with low incomes, the working class, and LGBTQ+ communities— continue to struggle for belonging. They face ever-escalating, aggressive attempts of erasure through intensified displacement. They are also experiencing new forms of exploitation through cultural appropriation and commodification.
At a time when consumerism and tourism are increasingly central to the world’s political economy, cities continue to use the diverse communities within their bounds to extract profit. An estimated 26.2 million tourists traveled to San Francisco, generating approximately $10.29 billion in tourist dollars in 2019 alone. Because of this focus on tourism, local governments and city planners leverage and exploit cultural enclaves and their cultural offerings, such as murals, restaurants, and festivals, purely for economic gain. But the City still treats those who created this value as expendable. Unique expressions of culture are exploited and assigned value by city planners, elected officials, and policymakers, and marketed to others as places to extract from and enjoy solely for recreation and entertainment.
There are other cultural enclaves throughout the city that have historical significance and rich cultural heritage, but aren’t formalized cultural districts. San Francisco’s Chinatown— the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. is home to many Chinese residents and is a gateway to newly arrived immigrants. Though it may not be a legislated cultural district, Chinatown has a long history of resistance using architecture, murals, and many other visible cultural and artistic expressions. This neighborhood was created and formed by forced segregation. In 1995, the community advocated for and enacted its own land use protections, which undoubtedly helped pave the way for legislative efforts to protect cultural enclaves today.
One important example of commodification is the annual Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco, a powerful showcase of Chinese culture that the city has enjoyed for over 150 years. The Chinese New Year Parade is a critical event that commemorates the community’s long history in San Francisco and celebrates the community’s rich culture and the residents who keep that culture alive. The parade started off as a small event to showcase the growing Chinese community during a period of intense racism and xenophobia in the 1860s. Now the parade draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and generates millions of dollars in revenue, in addition to generating 30% of the annual income for many Chinatown businesses during the parade’s festivities.
But Chinatown is more than just a tourist attraction to extract profit from. It is a living, breathing community that deserves support from the City every day, not just during parade season. While the city profits from the community’s culture, a third of Chinatown residents live below the poverty line, and many of them can only afford to live in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels that do not provide enough space for the many families that live in the neighborhood.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing inequities in the neighborhood. Longstanding businesses have had to close due to lack of financial support to sustain their operations, the lack of COVID-19 testing capacity and community outreach, and spikes in unemployment, especially for SRO tenants. Cities cannot continue to commodify cultural communities for profit, while also neglecting to support them when they need it most.
LGBTQ+ movements, most notably Pride, have also been subjected to over-commercialization and commodification that some call “rainbow capitalism.” In San Francisco, the Pride Festival has been running since 1970. It is first and foremost a commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, as well as the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 that took place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, which is the present day Transgender District. Today, San Francisco Pride is one of the largest LGBTQ+ celebrations in the world, generating millions of dollars in local revenue, including $3.7 million generated in 2019 alone. Every June, Pride celebrations can be found across the U.S., as well as globally.
However, as cities adorn their streets with Pride flags, and companies barrage consumers with pride-themed merchandise and marketing (e.g. Target releasing a Pride Collection, sparking widespread critique), dozens of states across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills to suppress the rights of transgender people in 2021 alone. This once again demonstrates the tendency towards exploiting culture and its expressions, but not providing any material or political support for those who create this cultural value.
“You cannot just market to our community,” says GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis in an interview with CNN. “You have to join the movement, and that’s a social justice movement. You need to speak out when there is bad legislation, especially when you have outsized influence.”
While visibility is critical, corporations and cities alike cannot be true allies if they are not engaging in structural work that supports the political and material realities of LGBTQ+ communities. In San Francisco, LGBTQ+ communities deserve support year-round, not just during Pride Month.
“Though visibility gives us some power and humanizes our struggles, places aren’t part of culture just because of their artwork and architecture, says Cal Callahan, District Manager of San Francisco’s LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. "Places are part of culture because they are where those who practice that culture gather, create, and celebrate what makes us who we are."
Transformation, Visibility & Reparations
As cities promote the art, food, and businesses in these neighborhoods, city planners, elected officials, and policymakers play an active role in the erosion and displacement of these same cultural enclaves. While boasting of the rich cultural diversity in their cities, these officials create and promote policies that prioritize profit-oriented development, such as market rate housing, to attract higher-income residents. This gentrification puts marginalized communities at high risk of displacement.
For communities that have historically been denied resources and have experienced dispossession and discrimination, the establishment of cultural districts represents a form of reparations. Marginalized communities claiming space physically and through legislation, provides an opportunity for them to establish visibility and advocate for overdue and long deserved resources.
However, cultural districts still face an uphill battle, because those tasked with the enormous responsibility of planning our cities often fail to understand the impacts of their prioritization of profit-oriented development. Our city planners, elected officials, and policymakers must confront the ways in which their actions have directly resulted in the erosion and displacement of communities that have provided cities with so much value, yet must continuously fight for recognition, visibility, and the right to live in and have decisive control over how their communities develop.
For many marginalized communities, including the San Francisco African American Arts and Cultural District, they have to contend with struggles over visibility in addition to the everyday realities of discrimination and oppression.
“Culture is understanding. When there’s a misunderstanding of culture, and a misunderstanding of how we commune, how we celebrate, and the practices that have brought about our resilience and survival, we get devalued and dehumanized,” says Ebon Glenn, Director of Operations of the San Francisco African American Arts and Cultural District. “Because for Black people, a misunderstanding of culture can mean the loss of Black lives and the disappearance of our communities through displacement, incarceration, and death,” he continues.
Communities with decades-long histories of cultural and artistic contributions should not be commodities to extract value from. A system that enables market forces to displace marginalized communities— while at the same time exploiting the value they have created through their cultural expressions— is one that is fundamentally broken and inequitable, and must be changed.
Cultural Districts: People, Power & Placemaking
Cultural districts are one legislative tool to lessen the impacts of gentrification and stabilize these cultural enclaves. As the first legislated cultural district in San Francisco, the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District was formed in 2014 in response to the rapid displacement of Latino-American residents and businesses in the Mission District. Calle 24 helped pave the way for the subsequent establishment of other cultural districts.
Cultural Districts’ efforts to claim space and push back against erasure include promoting visibility and engaging in placemaking. Placemaking involves reimagining and transforming the built environment into areas that reflect the cultural, social, and political identities that exist within a community. People want to see themselves reflected in their surroundings, especially when these spaces are where they feel a sense of belonging and shared identity. Examples of placemaking include public art and murals, cultural markers (such as banners, lamp poles, and gateways), renamed streets that reflect the existing community’s history, and cultural events.
The Mission District has been an important home and landing place for immigrants from all over Latin America. For decades, this neighborhood has served as the city’s locus for Latino activism, arts, culture, and commerce. Locals and tourists alike are drawn to the Mission District for its rich history, expressed through vibrant murals, cultural events, community-serving businesses, and nonprofits. At the same time, Latino residents in the Mission have faced rapid displacement, with 8,000 Latinos displaced between 2000-2013.
In order to truly prioritize the needs of the Latino community, we need to ask these critical questions: If art and cultural elements are preserved in the built environment, but Latinos are not able to stay and remain in their homes, does this truly celebrate and preserve cultural heritage? What is a cultural district without the people who created it?
“Above all, culture is people," says Erick Arguello, President of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. "Culture is language. It’s food. It’s music. It’s art. It’s how we relate to each other. It’s a way of life. People are the stewards and creators of culture."
"If we want to truly value our culture and allow our artists and cultural producers to thrive and keep Calle 24 a living, breathing cultural district, we need to stabilize them through affordable housing and living wages. Without people, a cultural district becomes a museum, open for consumption and viewership, but not true cultural appreciation,” Arguello says.
Developers' interest in the neighborhood has resulted in escalating market rate housing, high end commercial retail, and other forms of speculative development that displace Latinos from their community. Real estate development has increased steadily since the establishment of two stops for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) regional rail system in the 1970s, and conversions of light industrial buildings into office spaces for tech offices starting in the 1990s. Recent organizing campaigns and the establishment of Calle 24 have leveraged grassroots power to advocate for community needs.
Many of the cultural districts share this struggle to stabilize their residents, advance anti-displacement efforts, and support legislation that helps protect tenants, prevent evictions, and build communities’ capacities for stability and ownership. For example, many cultural districts in San Francisco supported the establishment of the city’s Small Sites Program, which aims to preserve affordable housing; and the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives qualified non-profit organizations the right of first offer to purchase properties offered for sale in the City.
San Francisco’s cultural districts also engage in activism and advocacy to ensure that new development in their districts and neighborhoods are responsive to the needs of their communities and other vulnerable communities across the City. They employ multi-pronged strategies to stabilize existing residents and businesses through economic and workforce development, including advocating for living wages, connecting residents to gainful employment, and providing small business support and assistance. Cultural districts focus on strengthening community resources, culturally competent services, and other efforts that preserve history, heritage, and culture, as well as honor the historical struggles and triumphs of their communities.
Achieving Equity in City Planning
As we phase out of the COVID-19 pandemic, our city planners, elected officials, and policymakers must not lose sight of how structural inequities have worsened during the pandemic. A year of heightened political struggle and uprisings in the face of systemic racism and white supremacy, coupled with unprecedented public health and economic crises, make it more clear that our current systems do not work to create equity. In fact, they worsen and perpetuate inequality and marginalization.
A truly equitable system would recognize that people— low-income, working class, immigrant, LGBTQ+, and people of color communities— deserve to be the primary beneficiaries and decision makers in shaping the neighborhoods and communities they live in, work in, and cherish. This means envisioning communities that are free from the constant pressures of capitalism and systems that accelerate displacement and foster inequity, segregation, and instability. This means recognizing that in order for culture to live and thrive, communities need stability through affordable housing, living wages, and meaningful investment and support in their cultural and artistic infrastructures.
Ultimately, this means creating new systems that stop enabling for-profit exploitation and instead provide opportunities for dispossessed communities to own land, determine their own futures, and be the beneficiaries of the cultures that they themselves have created— and that those in power have extracted from for far too long.
What planners must learn is that culture cannot thrive on its own. Culture is much more than just the external, physical things that are visible in the built environment. Culture is created and kept alive by the people who breathe life into it— those who practice it, create it, and pass it down to newer generations. Giving communities decisive control over the neighborhoods they inhabit and places they call home, as many were already once removed and displaced from their native homes, is a crucial step towards creating more racial and social equity. Cultural districts are not a panacea. Those in power must recognize both the power of places and their profound historical and cultural significance, as well as those who inhabit these spaces, for it is only through them that these cultural enclaves, and our cities as a whole, maintain their significance.
Sample Strategies for Promoting Equity in Culture & Arts in San Francisco
Land Use Strategies:
- Create a plan with identified sites for affordable, culturally and linguistically accessible rehearsal, performance, workshop, residency, and exhibition spaces to increase community-based use, stewardship, and ownership of space, including publicly owned buildings.
- Protect existing Production, Distribution, and Repair (PDR) spaces for arts-production, cultural programming, blue collar jobs, and community uses.
- Use the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) and Small Sites Program to purchase existing apartment buildings, including those with storefronts - to ensure stability of existing residents, slow the displacement of residents, and provide opportunities for community based and community serving businesses and cultural institutions to thrive without threat of displacement.
- Develop community-based and community-led Special Area Design Guidelines to ensure that site design, architecture, and public realm components of development projects respond to the unique cultural characteristics of neighborhoods.
- Develop community-based and community-led Arts Master Plans to articulate neighborhood and district-wide visions for art and design. This includes identifying and prioritizing locations for art opportunities, developing processes for art project selections, and securing dedicated funding for the creation and maintenance of public realm components and public art projects.
- Preserve, maintain, and honor the history of existing cultural assets, including public art, historically significant buildings, cultural institutions, and art organization spaces.
- Strengthen cultural district support with dedicated, multi-year funding that is not tied to tourist dollars.
- Dedicate government funding to arts education and programs that provide language, history, and cultural education.
Capacity Building Strategies:
- Support and strengthen the capacity of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists, art organizations, and cultural institutions through dedicated government funding to more robustly invest in arts and culture infrastructure.
- Invest in community-led creative and transformative placemaking efforts.
Disclaimer: Jeantelle Laberinto was contracted as a consultant at SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District to lead the development of the cultural district’s Cultural History, Housing, and Economic Sustainability Strategy (CHHESS) report from 2019-2020.