Cultural Placekeeping, Part 1 of 3: The Case for Cultural Placekeeping in Low-Income Communities of Color

Cultural Placekeeping, Part 1 of 3: The Case for Cultural Placekeeping in Low-Income Communities of Color

Co-authored by:
Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng
(Follow Karoleen on 
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Director of Fondo Adelante Nathanial Owen
(Follow Nathanial on 
LinkedIn)

Many cities across the nation struggle with gentrification and its subsequent displacement of low-income communities of color, but nowhere is this more evident than in San Francisco’s Mission District. This vibrant neighborhood — long a welcoming hub for immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America — is at the epicenter of income inequality, whereby households with skyrocketing incomes around $130,000 a year pushing out longtime households annually earning an average of $52,000 (Source: Social Explorer – ACS 2017 – Five-Year Estimates).

As MEDA pivoted to combat displacement in the last five years, our organization recognized that to maintain the Latino presence in the Mission we needed to focus not just on stemming the displacement of residents, but also securing and expanding small businesses, nonprofits and arts & cultural institutions.

It’s taking our work from generating family wealth to fostering community ownership.

For MEDA, community ownership is expressed as: owning real estate that is permanently dedicated for the community (community real estate); providing capital that does not displace (non-displacement capital); and wrapping the neighborhood’s resources around our schools (community schools).

In this three-part series, MEDA will speak to our comprehensive — not piecemeal — community-development strategies that are reversing this trend of overall displacement. Our social and cultural fabric is the foundation for community development. We discuss our cultural placekeeping approach as integral to the housing, health and economic needs of a neighborhood. This successful, scalable model can be replicated in other urban centers.

Following is Part 1 of 3.

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Rooted in the Mission District in San Francisco and now serving the entire San Francisco Bay Area, the mission of the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) is to strengthen low- to moderate-income Latino families by promoting economic equity and social justice through asset building and community development.

Since 1973, the organization has worked with tens of thousands of families to obtain and build wealth-generating assets, such as homes and small businesses, to strengthen their roots in a part of the city long known for welcoming recent immigrants. In addition to housing counseling and microenterprise development services, MEDA also provides vital services such as financial-capability training, tax preparation and workforce-development training, plus various other programs and services as a lead agency of the Mission Promise Neighborhood education initiative.

When the Great Recession ended in the early 2010s and a technology boom fueled hundreds of thousands of new jobs in San Francisco and the nine-county Bay Area, the number of six-figure earners moving into the Mission quickly skyrocketed, these jobseekers wanting to live in an urban, transit-rich neighborhood with convenient freeway access to tech campuses in Silicon Valley to the south. In just a few years, this led to an unprecedented level of displacement of generations of Latino families who could no longer afford to live in their neighborhood of choice. The numbers tell the dire story: In just one decade, the Mission lost over 25 percent of its Latino population (8,000 residents) according to a March 2015 report by the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) in association with Marquez Community Strategy.

This situation translated to MEDA needing to leverage its strong foundation as a direct-services agency to transform into a comprehensive community-development organization. We had to go beyond achieving asset and wealth building for individual families. Our integrated strategy for cultural placekeeping through community ownership means reversing displacement of residents, coupled with ensuring a supportive neighborhood remains in place for Latino families. It entails culturally relevant nonprofits. Small businesses offering affordable items, and not just catering to the new high-earners. And arts & cultural organizations with permanent homes in the Mission.

We saw the dramatic changes in our major commercial corridor as business after business shuttered to be replaced by high-end boutiques and bars catering to the new high-income residents; many commercial spaces remained vacant indefinitely as the owners waited for a new business owner to pay five to ten times more in rent than the previous mom-and-pop tenants.

San Francisco’s Creative Placekeepers
The dire situation of the displacement of the city’s arts community was corroborated in summer 2015 when the San Francisco Arts Commission conducted a survey of over 600 artists, finding that over 70 percent of respondents had been, or were being, displaced from their workplace or home (some from both). As for the 30 percent who were not being displaced, most expressed fear that it could happen in the future.

Since that comprehensive survey was conducted, there have been many more stories of artists priced out of their neighborhood of choice.

Take the case of the eviction of scores of artists from the Mission’s Redlick Building, with tech companies moving in, drawn to the same high ceilings and light-filled spaces creative types seek.

When artists converge to live and create together, a community of shared values is the result. Proximity is paramount to creativity. Artists critique each other’s work and exchange cultural, political and social influences. They push each other, and the envelope, so that their art is taken to the next level. This work is then put forth as a way to represent — and even challenge — the values of the community at large. For the Mission, arts and culture is a way of life. The ubiquitous presence of dance troupes, muralists, Latin drag queens, and so many other artists has made the Mission the hub for Latino cultural life in the Bay Area for generations. And with each loss in recent years, we see the music, dance and celebration rapidly destroyed.

Without these artistic communities, synergy dissipates and art must be created in a vacuum, with the result stifled creativity. Even if a San Francisco artist is open to flying solo, it is simply not feasible in our city of tight living quarters, with it rarely possible to eke out enough space to work in one’s home.  

A comprehensive strategy for cultural placekeeping — one that addresses the underlying economic pressures in a neighborhood — is the needed approach for keeping our communities strong.

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Part 2 of this three-part series, to be published April 16, will discuss the strategies we conceptualized in 2017 to deepen community ownership in the Mission, as a means to reversing displacement.

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