Every morning, I sit beneath a series of images telling me “Sí. Existimos.” I remember when I first noticed their presence, boarding the 5R hurriedly and letting my eyes only scan the bus peripherals in the undirected way that they normally do. I’m plugged in to my music, all other visuals and stimuli are largely uninteresting, as they usually are before 8:00 a.m. But this is. Not an advertisement for the newest food delivery service app, not an image my senses are expecting, not an ad at all. Graffiti-style portraits. Mission residents. Name, occupation, where they live, where they’re from.
Candidness says “existimos.”
Then there’s something else. I’m giving this poster my attention now, listening to what the artist, J. Sabogal, has to say. She has her name in the top left corner, positioned opposite of a tag from SF Planning in small print at the bottom. Huh. How did this get here? Initially, I heard the art of communication I was experiencing as a direct message from artist to audience. Noting the sponsorship of SF Planning raised this to a multiple-stakeholders campaign.
What is the role of local government in the art of cultural preservation?
Jessica Sabogal is a first generation Colombian American artist approaching her work “by unraveling stories she once heard, lived, struggled, and loved.” Jessica’s website enforces that she identifies art as a place of sanctuary. Creating that space in a community of ever-increased displacement is an act of resilience.
Gentrification is on the tip of everyone’s tongue in this city. It is known, discussed constantly, and, at this point, something few residents of San Francisco can ignore. The national media has flocked to the Mission district over the past several years to project images of long-time residents being pushed out of their homes by organic vegan ice cream and start-up money to news outlets across the country.
The Ellis Act has caused serious damage by allowing landlords to “go out of business,” issue eviction notices to residents, and sell out to hungry developers. The list of tactics and justifications for eviction is becoming endless. And this has been happening for years. Between 2010 and 2015, 8,619 San Francisco tenants received notices of eviction. This is an issue of skyrocketing costs of living met by serious racial inequities. A USC study calls attention to the fact that San Francisco is the sole Bay Area county that will see a decrease in ethnic and racial diversity between now and 2040. How much longer will this city’s reputation as a diverse, inclusive, liberal utopia hold out?
Gentrification, as an indirect war of cultural displacement, is a huge social issue facing our communities and we expect legislative action to stop it. Two main goals of the San Francisco Planning department’s Mission Area Plan are to increase the amount of affordable housing and minimize displacement. Housing objectives 2.1 and 2.2 are to “ensure that a significant percentage of new housing created in the Mission is affordable to people with a wide range of incomes” and “retain and improve existing housing affordable to people of all incomes.” This plan was adopted by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors in 2008. We’re still waiting on results.
What we can see is the manifestation of public art programs like Jessica Sabogál’s “Sí. Existimos.” poster campaign. The work of the San Francisco Public Arts Commission is thriving and since 2013 we’ve had a Public Artworks Requirement as part of a New Planning Code that requires art installments, like murals, for buildings beyond a certain size.
The city recognizes the importance of the arts as a sounding board for community voices. The concrete objectives of the City General Plan’s Arts Element are frankly more easily met than efforts to ensure affordable housing for all income levels in the most expensive city in the country. Gentrification and the looming decrease in diversity are incredibly hard to tackle. So the problem persists.
So, what then, is the role of the public art here? What would compel San Francisco Planning to sponsor this on a public bus, and why do we need it?
Public art, I realized, snaps us out of the funk that we often make of day-to-day life. As public performance artist and founder of New York’s Art in Odd Places (AiOP) Ed Woodham says, we are a public frequently “buried in [our] responsibilities.” I get on the bus for work or school every morning nowhere near thinking deeply about everything happening in the Mission. I bury myself in the day of commitments ahead and devote my attention to the music that makes me feel good or a world news podcast that tells me what’s happening outside my community.
These messages from Jessica Sabogál snap me out of the desired seclusion of normalcy. The “SF Planning” tag complicates that with the weight of all the complexities and difficulties of city politics.
Public art can make us uncomfortable. It can make us furious, saddened, it can make us laugh when we didn’t know we needed to. It makes us feel something. It shakes us up from the trance of our own comfortable public behaviors when we’re “hypnotized by [our] routines” (Ed Woodham). Sí. Existimos. isn’t selling us a product, but amplifying through silence the visual voices of perseverance. Art speaks to us in a way that advertisements cannot. When it reaches us in public space, those messages can speak even louder than the ones we seek out ourselves in galleries or theaters.
I was happy to be spoken to by these portraits. I felt conflicted when I realized that my city government sponsored their speaking to me. Why put this artwork here when effective legislation to tackle displacement is not?
I realized, ultimately, that I needed this campaign to be there. If anyone else heard it too, then maybe we all did. No issue so complex is so easily tackled. If my city government respects the art of cultural resilience enough to publicly invite me into the conversation, then that’s a start.