Lola McKay was 83 years old and living in San Francisco's Mission District. She'd lived there for at least 20 years, in a small, relatively cheap apartment, located on the ground floor of one of those typical San Francisco row houses. She'd go get her groceries at the store around the corner, and once a week she had a hair appointment at a nearby salon. McKay had no children or family.
In the spring of 2000, McKay was suddenly evicted.
"I don't understand why," she tells Mark Liiv's camera at the beginning of his film, Boom - the Sound of Eviction. "I've kept the place up, I own everything in here. I don't want to move to a home, what would I do there? Maybe it'll come to that I don't have to move; maybe I'll be dead by that time."
Lola McKay did die while fighting her eviction, and the documentary Liiv produced about the developers' battle over the Mission District is dedicated to her memory. The documentary will be screened in Spokane on Friday.
All of McKay's old neighbors were kicked out, too, and as soon as the door slammed behind the last low-income tenant, the landlord turned the old apartments into living spaces Martha Stewart would be proud of. As the Porsches began to pull up, single moms left by the van-ful -- with no specific place to go.
The gentrification of the Mission District is a grim but socially honest portrait. Liiv's film chronicles the original Mission District residents' fight against the dot-com companies that took over their community while tearing down old buildings and evicting families, small businesses and artists.
The film juxtaposes the construction crews moving into the neighborhood, with the other side of town where the mayor and most of city hall celebrate the fact that San Francisco is once again hosting a Gold Rush.
Don't worry, says Mayor Willie Brown, the low-income tenants will find better housing in other areas of town, and the small businesses in the area will boom as dot-commers look for places to spend some of their millions.
As for the evicted tenants living under the nearby bridges, Brown promises they will be gone soon, as he vows to clean up the neighborhood. And the millionaires' party goes on.
Gentrification is not a problem that's
specific to San Francisco or Southern
California or even America. Every big city across the world struggles to create a balance between the older and cheaper parts of town and the need for new housing and new offices close to the downtown core. Red light districts have gone pastel and empty warehouses on forgotten piers have turned into fashionable lofts -- all because it's considered good for business.
But the people who live in cheap apartment buildings often can't afford to stay when their buildings are updated and modernized. Regardless of how many times economic booms are reported to have hit their city, these people still make minimum wage doing housecleaning, street sweeping and staffing the night shift at the local supermarket.
Liiv adds a historical perspective to this battle between the white collars and the blue collars, using clips from old tourist and educational movies to show how San Francisco has always projected an image of prosperity and excitement. Corny, but thought-provoking.
Liiv also manages to shed light on "the bigger issue" -- that low-income people are the easiest to evict and get rid of in the name of downtown development, and that "bad" neighborhoods are often ethnically diverse neighborhoods that may not look attractive, yet harbor that real sense of community that developers and city planners try to recreate.
As we follow the struggle over the Mission and gain intimate knowledge about many of the grassroots activists -- without the film turning into a sobfest over the trials of low-income Americans -- we also get a close look at how a civic movement comes to life.
We're there at the first meetings. We are there when dancers protest the closing of their studio space. We follow the single mom who's evicted. We follow the activists as they turn more mainstream and put initiatives and people on the ballot for that fall's election.
It's old news by now that much of what was dot-com is now dot-gone. Toward the end of the film, we meet some of the has-been-millionaires who just spent $600,000 on condos and now find themselves unemployed. We see the red brick headquarters of companies like petopia.com, all locked up and vacated. We follow the office clerk who now is the only employee of a busted dot-com as she shows the camera crew through a landscape of empty cubicles.
In a sense, everyone lost the battle over the Mission District -- but Liiv and his team at Whispered Media, a video activist collective located in San Francisco, have done an incredible job illustrating how and why things went as they did.
Boom plays at the Mother Goose Progressive
Coffee House, 35 W. Main Street, on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm. Tickets: $5-$10 on
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