San Francisco has long been thought of as the great exception, to use historian Carey McWilliams’ phrase. Located at the far western edge of America, it was also a cultural and political frontier, a very last urban refuge from the rest of the country. In “The Poetic City That Was,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled San Francisco, circa 1951, as “an island, which wasn’t necessarily part of the United States…like Athens at the height of Greek culture.” He woke up 50 years later to find his friends being evicted from their homes, himself priced out of his apartment and art studio. The poet lamented how “Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place … And I was on the street.” (This, it should be noted, written well over a decade ago.) To be on the street meant nothing less than to be a man without a country, to have no frontier to escape to, no New World. Thus Louis Simpson’s poem “Lines Written Near San Francisco” likewise concludes, “the banks thrive and the realtors/Rejoice—they have their America.” Many feel they have lost, or are fast losing, this little vestige of theirs, with evictions on the rise in San Francisco and the culture fundamentally changed.
That sense of loss, that erosion of what Ferlinghetti called a unique sense of place, is reflected in the title of Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade’s incisive new work Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco’s Mission District, which he completed while in residency there. Cidade specializes in conducting critical interventions in the urban environment; he feeds upon the structural logic of cities and cultivates the art of the accidental, particularly in his hometown of São Paulo, a megalopolis well-acquainted with grim social inequality and insufficient affordable housing (hence the disappointment with, and direct opposition to the World Cup and its huge price tag). Not surprisingly, Cidade’s street-level tactics have their origins in skateboarding and graffiti. From such vantage points, he was able to diagnose the social and structural problems confronting São Paulo; and now he has brought those same tactics to San Francisco.