Artists, Anxiety, and Gentrification

There are a lot of impassioned arguments against gentrification. In San Francisco, it’s the certain death knell of an artist’s tenancy. The creative community here has watched the long, slow bleed of talent to places where they could afford the rent, dreading the day the nice elderly landlord gets tucked away somewhere and an unsympathetic property management company takes over, on behalf of the more practical heirs.


People in the creative community of this city, if they haven’t yet become famous and bought a place, live in a state of constant high anxiety. It’s not a matter of if, but when, you’re going to lose your great place to live and work—unless you can get a day job in something like tech and pay triple the rent. The days when you could work part-time as a barista, and spend the rest of your life making art or writing novels, are absolutely gone. The neighborhoods where artists know their neighbors and merchants and feel at home in a community are being slowly leached away. Very likely, the city-wide community, built up over years, will go, too, before long, except on Facebook. The result—naturally— is a very high level of anxiety.


To the general anxiety that gentrification visits on long-established communities, you have to add all the other anxieties of life in the modern world. The fact that ISIS wants to bomb humanity out of existence does not breed relaxation. The possibility that huge corporations may kill the planet in our lifetimes for financial gain hardly brings us serenity. The chance that Donald Trump—or worse, Ted Cruz—could be president gives reasonable people hives. Given our current economic picture, if we’re poor, we can expect to get poorer, and if we’re rich, we can expect to get richer, or perhaps lose it all when bubbles burst or the economy tanks. Conservatives are terrified of socialist tendencies; progressives are terrified of fascism. Mass murderers could pop up at movies, churches, or schools. Our food may be deadly or our potential lovers infected with something. Our computers get hacked. How, exactly, are people supposed to maintain equanimity in such a world?


If you’re an artist in San Francisco, the loss of home is probably the greatest anxiety of all. Home is where you retreat to, from a world of mass insanity. It’s the place of peace (unless you’ve got relationship issues), where you can shut the door and devote your attention to the work you were born to do—work that is dismissed as “unproductive” in a country where  value is monetized. And yet, even people who think artists are a waste of space listen to music and watch movies and read books, without giving a thought to the process of producing those things, and the time, effort, and steadfastness it takes to do something well. To be an artist in America is almost by definition a lifetime of PTSD: to know that what you do is considered irrelevant by the power brokers, to worry that you can never do it well enough to earn a living, to compete in a market that is rigged, and to hear countless lectures about getting a real job does not make the creative process restful. And to know that the place of peace that is your home is threatened by gentrification is the last straw in a fragile mental wellness.


Our entire culture is in a state of hysteria, and media whips it into a deadly froth to maintain ratings. If you’re intelligent and basically sane, you can put the anxiety where it belongs and forge ahead, in spite of all the reasons to be profoundly nervous. If you’re not that smart, and diagnosable to begin with, you might react with fear and start shooting. All people, not just artists, are dealing with too much anxiety in this country, and we can see how much good that’s done us. A huge percentage of Americans need meds to keep functioning.


When we want to withdraw from the anxieties of life, what do we do, if we can’t retreat from the harshness of city life in some beautiful natural setting? Read a good book, watch a movie, go to a museum, peruse entertaining blogs, or put on music we love? Isn’t it time for our culture to recognize that the production of artists mitigates our mushrooming shared anxiety, and for this reason alone, we want them to remain productive and striving towards greatness? We need them, more than ever, to give us moments of respite from an avalanche of fears.  We need to start thinking of our artists as an antidote to hysteria, a valuable role in our traumatized culture. And we need to keep them here, or bring them back, to add their un-monetized world view to our suddenly over-monetized urban identity—in the interest of diversity, sanity, and the quality of life.


Gentrification is hard to halt, in a city where people with decent salaries want to live, and where the value of money is incontestable. It’s easy to fault the city’s current administration, which incentivized businesses to move here without considering the effect it would have on the housing stock, or landlords who got tired of dealing with potentially annoying, low-rent tenants, and turned their buildings over to short-term vacation rentals for vastly increased profitability. On the other hand, it’s very hard to find people who think they have enough money and are willing to provide affordable rents to keep the city diverse—and, ideally, full of artists, who give us things to help relieve our anxiety.


This is why nonprofit housing is essential in this city. It takes profitability out of the equation, and permits diversity—which we say we value—to thrive here; nonprofit housing enables people to remain and do work that has social value, without a sure promise of substantial income, as one might get from an IT degree. Nonprofit housing offers an antidote to the anxiety that especially cripples our creative class, and all other people who live below the current median income, who must worry constantly about the dread 3-day notice to quit. It’s one easily implemented solution to a particularly thorny issue in this city’s litany of anxieties.


Bohemia Redux wants to create nonprofit housing for artists in particular here, but the nonprofit solution works for everyone unable to pay market rents. We need childcare workers, emergency medical technicians, teachers, restaurant workers, and all those other people whose absence only raises our anxiety, when we need them and they’re gone. We almost universally suffer, as a society, from a shared diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, which will only get worse when all the people we count on to take care of the things we don’t do for ourselves aren’t there to provide what we need. It is easy to recognize the immense value of an EMT, when they arrive to save the life of someone we love, or maybe even our own life, but harder to fathom why artists serve an equally life-saving function. We can, after all, buy their products without having them around. But artists endure a great deal of rejection, financial strain, and worry to get to the place where they give us anxiety-reducing pleasure. Better we should honor them for their contribution to our mental health, doing something about their shared anxiety: loss of place in the city they love.