Hollow City

Hollow City


102 Pages


Surveying the transformation of San Francisco in the early millenium by Silicon Valley, critically acclaimed writer Rebecca Solnit and photographer Susan Schwartzenberg describe the complex interactions that make up a living, creative, diverse city.

One of our most impassioned and acclaimed chroniclers of American urbanism, Rebecca Solnit explores the impact of skyrocketing rents, architectural homogenization, and the links between artists and gentrification. Wealth, she argues, is just as capable of ravaging cities as poverty. Schwartzenberg’s social documentary photographs work with Solnit’s interlinked essays to memorialize San Francisco’s vanishing spaces of civic memory and public life.

Both a portrait of an acute crisis and a call to defend collective public life, Hollow City makes a fervent case for the imaginative potential of cities.



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Published 06 November 2018
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EAN13 9781788731355
Language English
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HOLLOW CITY TraNçisçO aNd heaN F iege Of S he S crisis Of AmeriçaN UrbaNism
The artworks on the following pages are copyright by the artists as indicated: Estate of Wallace Berman, 101; Sam Cherry, 96; Bruce Conner, 95; Jaime Cortez, René Garcia, John Leanos, Gerardo Perez, Monica Praba Pilar, 63; Janet Delaney, 50, 69, 70; Eric Drooker, 19; Connie Hatch, 71, 72, 73; David Johnson, 42, 45, 46, 47, 48; Kate Joyce, 137–39; Ira Nowinski, 56, 57, 58, 59, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68; Rigo, 110; San Francisco Print Collective, v, 134, 146; C. J. Snyder, 109; Together We Can Defeat Capitalism, 122, 123, 130.
This paperback edition published by Verso 2018 Paperback edition first published by Verso 2002 First published by Verso 2000 Text © Rebecca Solnit, 2000, 2002, 2018 Images © Susan Schwartzenberg and the individual artists, 2000, 2002, 2018
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the authors have been asserted
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Verso UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG USA: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Verso is the imprint of New Left Books
ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-134-8 ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-135-5 (UK EBK) ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-136-2 (US EBK)
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
The Library of Congress Has Catalogued the Hardback Edition as Follows:
Solnit, Rebecca. Hollow city : the siege of San Francisco and the crisis of American urbanism / Rebecca Solnit, text; Susan Schwartzenberg, photographs p. cm. Includes bibliographical references (p.). ISBN 1 85984 363 8 (paper) 1. Gentrification–California–San Francisco. 2. Urban poor–California–San Francisco–Social conditions. 3. Working class–California–San Francisco–Social conditions. 4. San Francisco (Calif.)–Social conditions. 5. San Francisco (Calif.)–Economic conditions. I. Schwartzenberg, Susan. II. Title.
HT177.S38 S65 2001 307.76’09794’61—dc21
Designed by Steven Hiatt and Susan Schwartzenberg Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY
Foreword Wrecking-Ball Overture San Francisco, Capital of the Twenty-First Century Tools for Managing Loyalty The Shopping Cart and the Lexus Three Photographers and the Transformation of Yerba Buena A Real Estate History of the Avant-Garde The Last Barricades Skid Marks on the Social Contract Amnesia Is a Club San Francisco in Chains Delivered Vacant Notes Acknowledgements
dedicated to the artists and activists born in 2000 and in memory of Frances Solnit Gallegos East Los Angeles, July 31, 1937–Sonoma County, March 24, 2000 bohemian, saboteur of bulldozers, supplier of books, excellent aunt
Hollow C ityf a boom economy useful to recall even in awas written and published in a rush, and it now depicts a crisis in amber, a portrait of the perils o bust one. While nearly everyone expected the tech boom to subside, it did so sooner, faster, harder than anticipated, and the global economy followed. B ut the real estate boom is still with us— prices have slipped slightly, sale and rental real estate stays on the market longer, but prices are still so much higher than they were only a few years before that they have ef fectively gated San F rancisco (and the same conditi ons are arising or expanding in other cities, from Dublin, Ireland to C hicago, Illinois). The majority of artists and activists survived the last boom, but the circumstances for generating future generations of such activists and artists here look bleak. There’s good news too, though. The boomtime crisis roused the rabble who are more than and more amorphous than “the progressive community,” and they elected the most radical B oard of Supervisors in the city’s history. The new supervisors immediately set about implementing some of the best ideas for protecting the city’s economic and cultural diversity, reforming the corrupt planning commission, and otherwise cleaning house, and with that Mayor Willie Brown’s reign was finally challenged. Sometimes I myself think I was too much of an alarmist when I wroteHollow City, but it is an accurate picture of the time, when there seemed no end to the loss. And after all, the good news amounts to this: the amputation didn’t take the whole limb; the city limps on. Sometimes I remember how dramatic that loss was when I recall all the many nonprofits that folded for lack of affordable space or cracked under the strain of huge rents and all the people who left. Aaron Noble and Marisa Hernandez (pp. 156–59arted for, respectively, Los Angeles and New York.arricades”) dep in the photochapter “The Last B  and E ighteen months after his home was threatened, R ené Yañez (pp. 105,153) and his family still live there, but their security has been undermined. C ountless others are gone. How do you calculate the costs of such insecurity, of all the time and calm gnawed away by real estate speculation? More than a portrait of a crisis, I hopeityHollow C nnections that make a city matter, interactions thatstands as a portrait of the complex social interco include artists, activists, the poor, the middle class, public places and institutions, collective and individual memory and much, much more— in other words, of the interplay between imagination and urban spac e. The book’s readers were often positive but the r eviewers, particularly those from the region traditionally known as the left, were often scathing. Over and over again we were chastised for defending artists— or I was, since almost without exceptio n these hostile reviews neglected to note Susan herself and the many other artist-activists and artist-historians and community artists represented in this book’s 170 images and who would have undermined their assertions about art as a disengaged luxury good (and they ignored the book’s definition of art as including all media to excoriate visual artists alone). The ever-popular story goes that artists move into an area and gentrify it, by making it so attractive the affluent follow them, and there goes the neighborhood. As a Yale-based spokesman for the masses put it in a pro gressive magazine, “Solnit is reluctant to ‘blame’ artists for gentrification.” B laming artists for gentrification seemed to be easier than addressing the complex market forces that affect a neighborhood or recognizing the diverse roles artists play in their communities. B ut what b others me most about this story is that, in the gui se of deploring the white middle class, it secretly celebrates the white middle class by suggesting that only members of that group are artists. The story is more complicated, and thereby richer. The first artists we depicted in words and images were the musicians of the St. John C oltrane African Orthodox C hurch, w ho were evicted from their inner-city storefront church after twenty-nine years and have yet, eighteen months later, to find another home. They were exemplary artists and activists: keeping alive the jazz tradition that had otherwise been uprooted by the 1960s urban renewal in the center of the neighborhood where they played and prayed, feeding the homeless, and making avant-garde music into an accessible spirituality. I deplored the displacement of artists and activists even though not all artists were heroes of the revolution; and deplored the impact of the dotcom boo m mostly without condemning dot-commers as a species (thus the contradictions addressed in “Skid Marks o n the Social C ontract” and commentary elsewhere on the multiple roles artists have played in gentrification— seepp. 99–105). Such ambivalence and such porous categories seemed incomprehensible to many reviewers, and I wonder if this is evidence of a wider crisis of binary thinking, one believing that every conflict exists between opposites and every category is an adequate description of reality. If nothing else , it makes a good case for the need for the expansi on of imagination and understanding— for further intersections between art and politics. What I was arguing for inHollow C ityis the value of a kind of urban free space in which ideas circulate, the young come to invent themselves as artists and activists, and new ways of thinking and new movements both political and cultural arise, and this is neither a middle class nor a working class phenomenon but something whose value consists in its openness and its indefinability. It is subversive precisely because there the categories melt down and new things emerge. San F rancisco has been a significant place in American politics and culture precisely because the two are so inseparable here, or have been, and out of this mix have come some of the most potent insurrections of the past half-century or more. The late-breaking news in San F rancisco and cities like it wasn’t that the poor were getting screwed (though chapter two is devoted to that history). It was that the subversive life that cities had always fostered was getting squeezed out by economics and homogenization, and that that squ eeze was also going to affect the marginal and resistant communities here and around the world that artists— some artists— and activists have served. The life of the imagination is now more critical than ever. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the great revolutionaries of recent times are artists with a sense of humor: playwright Vaclav Havel, who was heroic and often hilarious as the figurehead o f the Velvet R evolution before he became prosaic president of a reborn C zechoslovakia and then the C zech R epublic; and, more importantly, Subcomandante Marcos, who writes manifestos in the form of poetry and parables in the form of children’s books. B oth of them were faced with situations that didn’t fit the old definitions of class or revolution o r right and left. How do you face a time that, with new tec hnology, new globalizations, new hybridizations of art, entertainment, race, politics, media, genes, new economic principles, can’t be described in old terms but demands a response before it’s too late? With imagination. That’s one reason art matters. Rebecca Solnit 2002
Demolition of a housing project, Hayes Valley
Wrecking-Ball Overture
Demolition of an office complex, Mission Street near First Street