In Oakland and San Francisco, cities once defined by radical creativity, electronic artists are finding it ever harder to survive. But as Matt McDermott finds out, they’re not giving up just yet.
The push and pull between San Francisco’s past and future is on plain display in The Mission. The neighborhood’s parallel main streets, Mission and Valencia, reveal the city’s messy, diverse underpinnings and beckon towards a whitewashed present. Walking on Mission, you see discount shops, open-air produce markets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Just a couple of blocks away on Valencia, it’s single-origin coffee, boutique clothing stores and towering lofts for the city’s moneyed class.
I meet San Francisco-based music journalist, DJ and label owner Chris Zaldua at the Latin American Club, a watering hole that gestures towards the city’s fading bohemia, on 22nd street between Mission and Valencia. “The main reason everyone wants to live here and the reason that it’s so fucked up is because it’s a bubble,” Zaldua says. “There is no other place like it in The States. It has the high-roller financial energy of Manhattan… but it also has this free-spirited creative, living-on-the-edge undercurrent that makes it such a weird place. So many musical, artistic, literary traditions and scenes have thrived here—there’s a history that has coexisted with the strivers, the hustlers and the moneymakers. At different points in history they’ve been symbiotic to greater and lesser degrees. Right now it’s a low-point.”
A few notes on San Francisco. The peninsula city is just seven by seven square miles—it doesn’t crack the top 100 largest US cities measured by area. It’s devastatingly beautiful. The ride in on the Bay Bridge is among the most dramatic preambles to an urban environ I’ve experienced. Sometimes the fog rolls in as you crest the hills over Hayes Valley and the city feels alive with mystery and promise. You can walk or take public transportation damn near everywhere. There’s also rampant homelessness. It’s the most expensive place to rent in the US.
Zaldua talks about the city like a spurned lover, with a mix of affection and chagrin. “Everything I love about the Bay Area is also what makes it so hard to be here. Rent is the obvious one. Space. The city is so beautiful because it was built in a certain way… That’s the trickle-down thing that affects everything else. That makes it hard for artists, for waiters, for teachers… for all these people that cities need to thrive, it becomes an inhospitable environment. So much of the culture that San Francisco is historically known for has been pushed out.”