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San Francisco Music Venue Struggles to Stay Open as Rents Rise

San Francisco venue Sub Mission’s struggles to stay afloat.

Sub Mission in San Francisco. (Photo: Julie Blaustein/Flickr)

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Tucked at the corner of 18th and Mission Streets in San Francisco’s Mission District – one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by gentrification – lies an independent art and music gallery called Sub Mission. Like many art and music venues in San Francisco, Sub Mission has taken a blow at the hands of the city’s latest wave of gentrification – a blow so hard that the gallery might close down. Its plight exemplifies the drastic cultural changes sweeping San Francisco, and the heavy toll that gentrification takes on arts scenes.

Sub Mission has been around for 12 years. It started as an art gallery on Mission and 24th Streets, but soon began to incorporate music into the space since some of the artists had friends who were in bands. Eventually, Sub Mission became more of a music venue. Nine years ago, Sub Mission moved to its current location at the building on 18th and Mission, which provides a bigger space for music shows. These days, Sub Mission mostly offers live music, including hardcore punk and metal concerts, but it also has art shows. It emphasizes booking up-and-coming bands, providing an opportunity for emerging musicians to showcase their work in front of an audience. On its second floor, Sub Mission houses art studios, which are not open to the public.

Now the venue is having trouble staying afloat. Its lease is up, meaning rent will increase, according to Txutxo (pronounced “Chucho”), a visual artist who handles Sub Mission’s bookings. On top of that, “We have a problem with the city that’s asking us to do some improvements in the building,” Txutxo told Truthout. Among those improvements are building an elevator for the second floor, and adding sprinklers and an additional exit. Currently, there is only one door at the front of Sub Mission for entry and exit. Some of their music shows, such as one with Boston Strangler last February, draw large crowds, so having only one exit poses a safety problem. Sub Mission hired an architect to draw construction plans for adding necessary improvements to the building. The plans are mostly done but the city has yet to give Sub Mission a permit to do construction.

“With all the new restaurants, and techies and new businesses going up, the value of the place goes up. So rent is increasing.”

In addition to waiting for the city to grant a construction permit, Sub Mission is being hurt by high rents. “This area, with all the new restaurants, and techies and new businesses going up, the value of the place goes up. So rent is increasing,” Txutxo said. Sub Mission’s rent has increased 10 percent every year, hovering in the $9,000 to $10,000 per month range for the past few years. Now that the lease is up, Sub Mission will have to pay an extra $3,000 per month – totaling more than $13,000 per month – until it finds a new lease. With the lease expired, the new rent conforms to the current value of property, which keeps going up as the area gentrifies. The landlord – with whom Sub Mission’s owners have a good relationship – offered another lease but as long as everything in the building is up to code and all necessary improvements are made.

In order to do the necessary construction, Sub Mission would have to close down temporarily. That would mean less income coming in even as their rent – along with property values in the area – increases. However, as a small business without a large budget, this makes it hard for Sub Mission to stay afloat. “Because we are a small business – and not even a business that makes a lot of profit – we don’t have the budget,” Txutxo said. With the city taking a long time to grant the permit, “you’re never going to know if your money is going to be spent on rent, on trying to survive, and waiting for the permits,” he added.

City delays and rising rents caused by gentrification are squeezing the small budget of Sub Mission. As Txutxo put it, “Everything’s coming at once.”

The venue can probably make it until the end of May – but after that, it will be hard to stay afloat. Unless Sub Mission receives its construction permit, this cultural institution may have to shut down.

Sub Mission is also a Latino-owned and operated gallery. They have also hosted many Latino and Filipino rock bands from the San Francisco Bay Area. The venue’s closing would contribute to the ongoing displacement of Latinos from the historically Mexican and Central American Mission District. A study conducted by the Council of Community Housing Organizations and the Mission Economic Development Agency found that 8,000 Latinos have left the Mission District in the past decade. In 2000, Latinos comprised half of the Mission’s population. Today, they are less than 40 percent of the neighborhood’s population and, should this trend continue, their numbers could drop to a third.

The Farm

Sub Mission’s struggle is reminiscent of another art center that was also in the Mission District – The Farm. Its story is told in a documentary called Farmcore. The Farm was started in 1974 by Jack Wickert and Bonnie Shirk as an art and community center, which thrived as a place for multicultural activities. It housed a two-acre community garden, a barnyard with animals, an art gallery, a large performing arts space and a children’s preschool.

However, beginning in the mid-1980s, it struggled to stay open because its landlord, Marilyn Goode, continuously increased rent and refused to sign long-term leases or sell the property. Around the same time, San Francisco’s punk scene was dealt a major blow when the last big venue to hold all-age shows – On Broadway – closed down.

Rising rents and gentrification bring in new, wealthier residents to areas that traditionally host live music.

In need of revenue, The Farm began hosting punk rock shows beginning in the summer of 1984. Several well-known punk bands performed at The Farm, including Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag, MDC, DRI, Circle Jerks and Butthole Surfers. It soon became the biggest venue for punk shows in San Francisco during the mid-1980s and a vital part of the punk scene that developed in the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with New York City, the Bay Area was a breeding ground for the punk subculture.

Aside from being a genre of rock that emphasizes minimalistic instrumentals and short, energetic, fast-paced songs, punk is an anti-establishment subculture. Punks typically embrace radical left, particularly anarchist, politics and a do-it-yourself ethic in their lyrics, lifestyle and even activism. Rather than go through record labels, many punk bands will self-produce records and distribute them independently or through alternative channels.

But in 1987, The Farm was forced to close down once the landlord evicted the venue. Its closure dealt a blow to the Bay Area’s punk community.

Local and Nationwide Cultural Changes

The story of artists and musicians being displaced from cities is not a new one nor is it limited to San Francisco. Sub Mission’s struggle is just one example of how rising rents and gentrification are hurting the city’s arts and culture scene. Other artists and creatives are being hurt with high rents and evictions. One artist commune in San Francisco’s Mid-Market area was recently slapped with an eviction notice by its landlord Jennifer Chen. Like the Mission, Mid-Market is also heavily gentrifying. On top of that, several tech companies, such as Twitter and Spotify, have their offices there. In 2011, the City of San Francisco granted tech companies tax breaks in exchange for locating their offices in the city. This has accelerated gentrification and displacement of lower-income residents in the area.

As of March, median rent in San Francisco for a one-bedroom apartment is now $3,400 per month, slightly down from $3,460 in February. For two bedrooms, it’s $4,580 per month. San Francisco is still the most expensive US city to live in, especially for artists.

Rising rents and gentrification also bring in new, wealthier residents to areas that traditionally host live music. Oftentimes, these more well-to-do residents will file noise complaints with the city about the venues.

Jason Perkins, who owns Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco and the New Parish in Oakland, told SFGate, “We have had several people move in behind us and the next day they are calling the police.” He went on, “We have people moving in who look upon this as a bedroom community. They have to go to bed so they can get up in the morning and get to the Google bus.”

As people continue to be displaced from San Francisco, public resistance grows.

The Chapel, which is a combination of a bar, restaurant and music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District, has received several noise complaints from neighbors. What is also notable about the Chapel is that it’s located on Valencia Street, which is a particularly gentrified street in the Mission, with several cocktail bars and high-end restaurants flanking the area. The class divide is so palpable on Valencia that local online publication Uptown Almanac called it “San Francisco’s premier boulevard of bullshit.”

Sub Mission, on the other hand, has not been hit with noise complaints like other music venues. “We have pretty good relations with our neighbors,” Txutxo said. They also have decent soundproofing. The people who work at Sub Mission, including Txutxo, are all artists and know people in the area. So when complaints do arise, “we address them in the right way,” he said. But their situation is unique compared to other venues.

San Francisco’s arts and music scene is not the only one harmed by gentrification. Artists are being pushed out of other metropolitan areas, leading to significant cultural changes that many would argue are not for the better.

One example is Seattle, the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and ’90s grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Currently, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle, Washington, is $1,600 per month and $2,050 for two bedrooms, making it the 10th most expensive major city to live in. Like San Francisco, Seattle is also experiencing a tech boom. Its rising rents are also pushing artists out of the city. Seattle neighborhood Capitol Hill exemplifies this change. The former blue-collar neighborhood “became a home to artists and the gay community decades ago,” according toSeattle Times reporter Tricia Romano. However, “luxury apartment buildings such as the Sunset Electric on 11th and Pine, with one-bedrooms that rent for more than $4,500, seem to open weekly, filling up with more affluent residents, many of them tech workers. Once the province of the starving artist, a fifth of the neighborhood’s households now make more than $100,000 a year,” Romano reports.

Why It Matters

Making art does not always pay well or pay consistently. So to support their work, artists often take side jobs. Since cities have a higher concentration of jobs in one area, this makes it easier for artists to perfect their artistic craft and pay the bills.

However, big cities are not always necessary for musicians to do their work. For example, Palm Desert in Southern California is home to a hard rock scene known as desert rock. It was birthed by parties in remote desert areas in which bands used someone’s (typically the host’s) generator to power their instruments and amplifiers. Since there were no clubs, this was the way bands performed live and played for free. The Palm Desert scene birthed bands like Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age and Yawning Man. The scene is also showcased in Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways” series on HBO.

It’s not just that artists need cities to live and create – cities need art to add character.

However, as author James Lough points out in Art Pulse magazine, big cities provide “creative collisions, encouragement and support of like minds, and mentorship.” He writes, “The right city encourages free exchange of ideas, which relies on a city’s intellectual atmosphere, its open-mindedness and tolerance of difference. Often, institutions within the cities help provide this tolerance, institutions that appreciate, nurture and showcase artists and their work. Examples of such institutions are galleries, cafes with literary readings, performance venues like theaters, concert venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, and even living spaces like New York’s Chelsea Hotel.”

Musicians need live venues to not just perform, but also promote and sell their music, build a fan base, and even perfect their craft by analyzing what works with different audiences. For example, heavy metal band Pantera pioneered a unique style of groove metal – with heavy rhythmic riffs that influenced the new wave of American heavy metal from the 1990s to the early to mid-2000s – because of the many times they were able to play live. As Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo explained in a VH1 documentary, “The late ’80s, writing heavy metal songs, a lot of bands would save the money riff for the end or for the middle or whatever. But we saw that the money riff moved people. So it’s like, ‘Why not make the whole damn song the money riff?'” He added, “The proof’s in the pudding. We gigged so much that it was all about attitude and the bond with the audience, you know. And that’s what was special about us.”

Even before the advent of heavy metal, jazz musicians played at nightclubs in cities like New York City and San Francisco during jazz’s heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s. Musicians like jazz drummer Gene Krupa and saxophonist Charlie Parker displayed their chops at nightclubs, attracted fans and generated a vibrant urban nightlife that influenced modern American music.

African-Americans who lived in cities like New York City and Chicago, along with Blacks who migrated to the North from the South during the early 20th century, created and brought jazz into urban areas. Jazz became popular, particularly among middle-class Whites, during the Prohibition era (1920 to 1933) in which the ban on alcoholic drinks gave rise to underground speakeasies in numerous US cities. These speakeasies became live venues for jazz music and interracial mingling between Blacks and Whites – which was controversial during an era of racial segregation. New York City and Chicago were cultural centers for jazz – and crucial to its development – since they had large populations, a high concentration of African-Americans, and ample live venues to play the music and bring large numbers of people together.

Resistance to Gentrification

While arts and culture scenes continue to be hurt by gentrification, there has been some good news on the housing front. As reported by Truthout in March, Station 40, an activist housing collective in San Francisco’s Mission District, was facing eviction. Recently, the landlords of Station 40 – Ahuva, Emanuel and Barak Jolish – halted the eviction and agreed to start a fresh discussion with tenants on how to sell the building in a way that lets the tenants stay in their home. Station 40 residents say that, using a mediator, “We will also be working with the San Francisco Community Land Trust and Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) to craft a viable offer that they can present to our landlords, who are now willing to consider selling our building – 3030 16th at Mission Street – to the land trust, thereby ensuring that it remains qualitatively affordable forever. In the meantime, for the foreseeable future, we can continue renting.” The land trust will own the property the building sits on while residents get to stay by paying a long, lower-cost lease. This makes the building affordable for tenants.

For the time being, Station 40’s supporters are not planning any protests or other forms of public resistance. However, their fight is not over. They told Truthout:

Our work is far from done. “Resisting our eviction” was and always will be only one piece of the struggle. It is intimately connected to the struggle against Maximus, the “monster in the Mission” proposed for right across the street from us, on the hotly contested intersection of 16th and Mission Streets. As we all know, when one corner is transformed into a luxury development, such projects ripple out to steal and destroy whole blocks, whole communities. It is tied, too, to the struggle to stop police from “cleaning up” the neighborhood and especially killing more people, since we know that police go hand in hand with gentrification.

Recently, a Chinatown single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel was served an eviction notice by a real estate investment group. SROs typically house recent immigrants and low-wage or transient workers. They encompass three-quarters of Chinatown’s housing stock and have been largely immune to the displacement happening everywhere else in San Francisco. The reason for the eviction was residents hanging laundry outside their windows, which is a common practice in the neighborhood. After a protest in solidarity with the SRO residents being evicted, Mayor Ed Lee quickly intervened and halted the eviction.

As people continue to be displaced from San Francisco, public resistance grows. According to a recent poll, 65 percent of San Francisco voters said they would support a ballot measure that halts development projects in the Mission for a year – in other words, a moratorium – while a plan is created to help businesses and nonprofits avert displacement. Only 26 percent said they would oppose it.

Additionally, San Francisco Supervisor London Breed recently proposed legislation that would save the city’s music venues from noise complaints. The measure would, among other things, require developers to work with entertainment venues before beginning construction, ensure that potential residents near entertainment venues are informed of its activities before moving there and prevent venues from being deemed a “nuisance” if they are operating within their permit. So far, the measure is making headway and could be approved.

The community has also stepped up to support Sub Mission. Nearly $4,000 has been donated to its GoFundMe page and it’s still active.

Vibrant art and culture require supportive environments to thrive. If those environments are hit with rising rents, gentrification or excessive noise complaints, then that undermines the ability of artists to live and create – undermining the character of a city. It’s not just that artists need cities to live and create – cities need art to add character. Art and culture make cities more interesting places to live in. Moreover, they can also be the breeding grounds for art that people come to know and love. Hip-hop, for example, was an urban subculture started by Black and Latino youth in the Bronx before it became the global cultural phenomenon that it is today. By displacing artists and shutting down entertainment venues, gentrification not only hurts artists – it also hurts cities.

Full disclosure: The author’s band has a performance booked at Sub Mission.

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