Is DIY Business Still Gentrification?: Gay Shame and the Politics of Accountability

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, May 2006

It was Saturday night, and 14th Street was blowing up... The electroclash kids were streaming in and out... Skaters, bike messengers and indie rockers gathered under the neon sign of the evangelical church that declares, "God is not dead."It was just another Saturday night on 14th Street between Valencia and Guerrero, but it was also the beginning of something big.

San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 23rd, 2005

The above article, "Evolution on 14th Street,"appears in San Francisco's "progressive"weekly newspaper, and rhapsodizes over four trendy new businesses-a zine store, an art gallery, a record store, and a bike shop. The article continues, "Fourteenth Street is quickly emerging as the new epicenter of the Mission District arts and DIY scene, or a 'hipster mini-mall'... It looks like the old Mission might be back."The article praises the cooperative spirit of the new business owners, and states, "Gentrification certainly isn't news. But coming up with a successful formula to combat it, as has been established on this emerging block, is."

But gentrification is news, especially when discussing a "hipster mini-mall"emerging literally a few hundred feet from the former site of public housing. In November 2003, Valencia Gardens, one of the last remaining large-scale public housing projects in central San Francisco, was demolished to make way for a new, $66 million development that will allegedly house all the original residents, as well as higher-end "low-income"tenants who earn up to $95,000 year. In the meantime, former residents of Valencia Gardens, many who lived there for decades, received Section-8 housing vouchers just before federal funding for Section 8 was cut by $1.6 billion. Many have since become homeless or marginally housed.

Since the early 1990s, the Mission has been a central battleground in San Francisco's gentrification wars, especially during the mid-'90s dot-com boom when working class Latino families were made homeless daily and artists and activists were evicted to make way for luxury loft development (a pattern which continues in spite of the dot-com crash). When the Bay Guardian states, "It looks like the old Mission might be back,"they glorify the white hipster gentrification of the late 1980s and early 1990s that made the Mission safe for urban professionals on the down-low. The Bay Guardian neglects to mention the Latino families who have formed the backbone of the Mission for a generation, or the poor, mostly black residents of Valencia Gardens who formerly lived around the corner from 14th Street. Instead, the article promotes four new white indie stores as "a community of collaboration."

Gay Shame began as a radical alternative to the consumerism, blind patriotism, and assimilationist agenda of mainstream pride celebrations. Instead of target-marketing overpriced crap to gay consumers, we wanted to create a free space where queers could celebrate outsider identities, make culture on our own terms, and share skills and strategies for resistance. Gay Shame emerged in New York City in 1998, inspiring like-minded activists to create similar events, many of them calling themselves "Gay Shame,"across the US and around the world.

In San Francisco, Gay Shame has morphed from a once-a-year confrontation of Pride to a year-'round direct action extravaganza. We challenge not only the consumerism, complacency, and corporatization of gay people with power, but the ways in which a gay elite uses its newfound "success"to oppress less-privileged queers, homeless people, sex workers, people of color, and anyone else who might get in the way of gentrification. We consistently target pro-development, anti-poor San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, as well as endless US war and police brutality. We confront all hypocrites, not just yuppies in SUVs and politicians in pressed suits, but also those closer to our own social circles. We constantly wheatpaste flyers around the city, addressing issues as diverse as public sex (we love it), biotechnology (we hate it), urban "renewal"(it's a scam), and marriage ("Gay Shame Opposes Marriage in Any Form").

Lately, Gay Shame has focused on stenciling sidewalks across the city with radical queer slogans. Generally, we create simple messages to remind people of our core values, such as "End Marriage,""End Prisons,"and "All Property Is Valueless."Our latest stencil took a little bit of time to concoct, and so perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised when it ignited controversy.

Gay Shame believes that community building involves more than providing cool places to show art, buy records, and party. In fact, artsy "Do-It-Yourself"spaces draw white yuppies to edgy neighborhoods in the first place-a new luxury loft building recently appeared on the same block as the Fourteenth Street "hipster mini-mall."To address the often-unacknowledged partnership of hipsters and yuppies, we decided on a stencil saying, "DIY Business = DIY Gentrification."We wanted to keep the message succinct and legible, and we planned on using it in several relevant neighborhoods. At our next meeting, however, we became embroiled in a discussion of just what we meant by "DIY"and "gentrification,"why we were targeting DIY businesses in particular, and whether our message was too vague. We talked about the roles that many of us play in gentrification, and why it was important to critique those within our own circles. If we couldn't critique DIY business, then who would?

We amended the stencil to read, "DIY Business Is Still Gentrification,"and agreed to create a second stencil addressing larger issues of gentrification, so that we weren't only targeting DIY businesses. Since we couldn't immediately figure out a suitable slogan for the new stencil, we decided to start by stenciling the first message on 14th Street and along the Valencia Street corridor, where many of the hippest businesses in the Mission reside. Stenciling went mostly as planned, and soon the sidewalk outside many neighborhood businesses contained a new message in red spraypaint.

To the surprise of some of us in Gay Shame, our stencil appeared directly in front of the doorway to Modern Times Bookstore, a radical-leaning "collectively-owned and operated"store open since 1971. Though Modern Times may have played a role in the early years of Mission gentrification, the store constantly struggles to stay in business, and could become a gentrification casualty. Gay Shame also happens to meet every Saturday at Modern Times.

Gay Shame operates by consensus, and we generally address controversial ideas ahead of time. No one had suggested stenciling outside Modern Times at our Saturday meeting. Nevertheless, we did agree to stencil on Valencia, where Modern Times is located, and we did not specifically exempt Modern Times from the festivities. Gay Shame operates smoothly precisely because we try not to get caught up in endless processing. One of the perils of a swift consensus is that sometimes we neglect to address all sides of an issue, and the potential ramifications of our actions.

If some of us in Gay Shame were upset about the stencil outside Modern Times, some of the people who work at the store were livid. The reception we received upon arrival at our next meeting was dour, and one store worker, Amanda Davidson, informed us that she would like to attend our meeting to voice the concerns of Modern Times staff. Before the meeting began, we received another surprise attendee: Andrew Scott, co-owner of Needles and Pens, the zine store/art gallery credited in the Bay Guardian with starting the 14th Street DIY revolution.

Scott began by asking why we were attacking his store, why we hadn't approached him first, what we wanted the store to do about gentrification. It would be great if Gay Shame could conceive of a "solution"for gentrification, but we don't pretend to have the answers. In this case we were instigating a first step: challenging DIY business owners and patrons to acknowledge their role in gentrification.

Andrew continued, "Our store is the only store with DIY in the title, so obviously you were attacking us."Andrew's feelings of DIY ownership were somewhat surprising. Many of us are actually glad the store exists, but that doesn't prevent us from critiquing it. Andrew continued, "We exist primarily to create a community space for our friends, we both have other jobs to support ourselves and don't even make rent. Would you have done this to the Bearded Lady or Black and Blue Tattoo?"The Bearded Lady and Black and Blue Tattoo were queer-owned businesses that existed on the 14th Street strip before the current wave of "indie culture."Since Gay Shame emerged specifically to confront the hypocrisy of other queers, we would certainly not have shied away from holding queer-owned businesses accountable for gentrification.

Amanda pointed out that Modern Times also does not make rent, and has been around since 1971, before many Gay Shame organizers were born and decades before many of us arrived in San Francisco. She continued, "We are definitely committed to talking about issues of gentrification, and would be glad to figure out a suitable forum. We do provide Gay Shame with a free meeting space for a reason, but this particular method of dialogue could jeopardize that arrangement."Amanda encouraged us to attend the Modern Times staff meeting, since there were a variety of opinions among staff members.

The fact that Needles and Pens became so enraged by the Gay Shame stencil testifies to the stencil's effectiveness. Unfortunately, many DIY businesses and hipster consumers do not appreciate anything less than unquestioned loyalty. Gay Shame frequently encounters hostility for challenging inconsistencies; we consider this risk-taking a measure of our own integrity. Nevertheless, we do have a reputation for making rash decisions, and the stencil outside Modern Times did not improve our (usually undeserved) image. Nor did it help to articulate our politics-- we ended up removing the stencil from the sidewalk with a toxic can of chemicals. Some within the group believed that we were backing down from our politics, but most of us were glad to find a remedy to an uncomfortable situation.

Gay Shame is known for our biting satire, and one organizer suggested a solution for Needles and Pens: we could spraypaint the stencil on canvas, and sell it in the gallery.

A note from Paul Curran, MRR Zine Co-Coordinator:


Thanks, this is good... Personally, I would've liked to hear you go deeper into what the intent was in the stenciling. If your point was to start a dialog, I think that calling people out using stencils in their neighborhood is a pretty chickenshit way to go about it, if you don't mind my saying so. All of us leftists/anarchists/progressives have to live with the hypocrisy inherent in living in this capitalist society, but would you want someone calling bullshit on you for something like, I dunno...the fact that your books are made out of trees? That might be a topic that is worthy of debate, but what if it was just flyered all over your block: "Mattilda=deforestation"?

I know I sound like a "can't we all just get along?"-type ninny, but the opposite end of the spectrum seems pretty counter-productive to me. Most of the time anyway...

"The fact that Needles and Pens became so enraged by the Gay Shame stencil testifies to the stencil's effectiveness."Was enraging Needles and Pens the effect you were after?


Mattilda responds:

Hi Paul --

Our intent with the Gay Shame stencil was quite simple: accountability. Gentrification thrives specifically by remaining invisible or camouflaging itself as neighborhood "improvement." Though DIY businesses may provide necessary space for culture-making and community-building, they also serve as gentrification on the DL, and unless this role is acknowledged, challenged and transformed, gentrification will always appear "inevitable." I don't think gentrification is any more inevitable than other kinds of violence, though it is perhaps more sophisticated and systematic, and we must be equally relentless in our analysis and commitment to fighting it.

There is absolutely no reason why Needles and Pens could not welcome a sidewalk stencil saying, "DIY Business Is Still Gentrification"as a friendly improvement to the streetscape. Doesn't this stencil apply the tactics behind the products Needles and Pens sells inside?

In the early '90s, as the deal was sealed on the Mission's transformation from a low-rent Latino neighborhood to a high-stakes hipstravaganza, I lived on an alley less than five blocks from the current location of Needles and Pens. I do not delude myself for a moment that my presence, as an alienated and politicized yet white and privileged resident, did not contribute to the fact that on that same alley there are currently at least three new condominium developments (and probably close to 50 such developments within a five-block radius). A basic acknowledgment of the role of marginalized white people, artists, queers, activists, etc. as a force of gentrification should not be seen as a threat to counterculture, but rather a starting point for resistance.

As for my (acknowledged) role in deforestation, I must point out that the Gay Shame stencil does not make any grandiose declarations about specific individuals, and I would certainly not be disturbed by a stencil outside my door that declared, "Writing Books Is Still Deforestation." Rather, this seems a self-evident assumption to underlie any literary endeavor, just as the statement "DIY Business Is Still Gentrification"should undergird any DIY foray into the commercial world.

In the service of a complete response, I'm not personally concerned with whether a tactic is perceived as "chickenshit,"which I guess must be the opposite of "brave, strong, fight it out like a man,"or "talk things through and come to a compromise like a mature citizen." One of the strengths of Gay Shame is that we are not afraid of talking about issues that actually matter instead of bowing to the false unity so common in supposed cultures of resistance. As for me personally, I find nothing more horrifying, depressing, alienating or heartbreaking than seeing brilliant, creative and challenging people sucked into a zombified hipster mentality that sees a DIY aesthetic as the alternative to critical engagement.

Love --