All afternoon and evening, artists convened around, peeked out of and disappeared into the small hole in the art house floor. They explained it symbolized the Mission’s present being built over its past, at the expense of longtime residents who are slipping through the neighborhood’s floorboards.
Called “Our Built City,” the event reimagined the neighborhood in performance and as “sculptural housing” designed by artists and neighbors, addressing “tensions between race, class, ownership, authenticity, and cultural expression.” Those sculptures stood outside, on the Red Poppy’s 23rd Street sidewalk — a model neighborhood constructed in recent weeks with the help of local artists, families, and members of the Mission’s homeless population.
Caleb Duarte Piñon and Mia Eve Rollow, acting co-artistic directors at the Red Poppy, organized the project as part of the weekend’s Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP) festivities. They hoped it would bring neighbors — new and old — together as actors and illustrators demonstrating their perspectives of the neighborhood’s growing pains.
Behind the sidewalk housing sculptures loomed a mural of victims of police shootings, including 28-year-old Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, by the artist Yescka. Below the model homes lay a sleeping bag for the homeless.
The event was “both personal and social,” Duarte said, because the organizers themselves have been homeless since coming to San Francisco from Chiapas, where they founded their arts project “EDELO” and worked for about half a decade. Duarte, whose bachelor’s degree is from the San Francisco Art Institute, said that during San Francisco’s previous tech boom he lived in a van.
This isn’t the first time Duarte has used shelters to address population loss in San Francisco with art. In 2008, he made and marched with portable temples, since immigration officers typically cannot search churches. “We occupied the streets,” said Duarte. “It was a hugely wide audience confronted with an underground labor force … and people acknowledged one another.”
This time, “there have been a lot of positive reactions,” said Rollow. “It’s also been a theatrical space for people’s true expressions to come out.”
Most feedback was simply of the supportive, picture-snapping variety, the co-directors said. But there were a couple notable encounters. One was with a woman who identified herself as a gentrifier, seeking advice in dealing with local perspectives that left her feeling alienated. The most disruptive involved a neighbor who threatened to call the police about the sidewalk display.
But the greatest challenge faced by the organizers was finding a home for their project — and for themselves. Though small, the Red Poppy was able to accommodate the artists faster than larger art institutions, which can take the better part of a year to process grants, Duarte said. The art house at 23rd and Folsom is facing hardship itself, operating on “a thread” according to founder Todd Brown. It has grants from the Hewlett Foundation and San Francisco Grants for the Arts, but was recently declined an SF Arts Commission grant.
Despite content that has fueled many a debate about the Mission’s identity, the event this weekend lacked contention. Inside and outside of the Red Poppy, countless neighbors and tourists from as far away as Russia sat on couches and window seats to observe the art and chat. The Folsom Street sidewalk emulated a jolly living room as MAPP attendees — largely young couples and friends — passed through, eating ice cream and sipping coffees, while artists mingled post-performances.
Little discussion amongst visitors addressed the displacement illuminated in artists’ work, but occasionally someone would expound upon the topic at hand. The Mission wasn’t always Latino, it was said, but it was working class.
Around the corner from the living room, residents cheerfully collaborated to finish the housing sculptures with their kids.
Dean Garza, 42, was driving by the Red Poppy when he spotted the sculptures on the sidewalk. He decided to follow the performances while his son painted. “I think it’s amazing,” he said. “It brings people together who wouldn’t normally have conversations. It’s a windy, cloudy day, and people are out here painting.”