Streetopia: San Francisco, Miami, and wherever the art world rolls into next
Erick Lyle will present Streetopia at the University of Miami’s College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) Gallery, 1210 Stanford Drive, Coral Gables at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 31. For event information call (305) 284 3161, or visit the FB event page.
“’Frisco, God’s doughty foeman,
Scorns and blasphemes him strong.
Tho’ he again should smite her
She would not slack her song.
Nay, she would shriek and rally—
‘Frisco would ten times rise!”
Vachel Lindsay from the “City that will not Repent” (37-42)
PART I: From Iggy Scam to Erick Lyle
“Am I respected now?” asks a bemused Erick Lyle. “I feel like my habit of trying to discuss politics in art contexts and vice versa, as well as my advocacy for homeless folks and the poor, haven’t always been so well-received. If the question you mean to ask is ‘Do you still tag?’—well, yeah, I carry a can with me when I go out late. Who doesn’t?”
Lyle, formerly known as “Iggy Scam,” is a writer, musician, activist, and zinester who was born in Orlando and grew up in South Florida. A restless soul, he’s long been associated with Miami’s punk rock scene, immortalized in the Crumbs’ 1996 song “Iggy Can ‘t Lose!!” as well as the long-running zine SCAM that has influenced a generation of DIY enthusiasts with its irreverent personal writings, interviews, and politics.
The Lyle many will remember was the skinny punker with the brown boots held by copious amounts of shoe glue who squatted buildings like the old shell of The Mutiny in Coconut Grove, hopped freight trains across the US, and who played guitar in Chickenhead, in which current Iron Forge honcho Chuck Loose sang and once famously flambéed himself onstage at Churchill’s. But that Lyle would go on to create a different persona, a respected one whether he admits it or not, is one of South Florida’s unsung underground success stories.
The University of Miami Libraries Special Collections owns and has displayed issues of SCAM. He has been a contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Raritan, numerous punk zines as well as assorted magazines and omnibuses. He has written and performed on several occasions for NPR’s This American Life. Lyle has evolved from his early punk rock leanings into an astute, warm, and infinitely empathetic observer of the modern American life.
“The point of SCAM was always to think about ways that one could reclaim their own time from soul-sucking jobs and obligations; how to create your own path for yourself that is more DIY,” he explains. “I have been able to stick with that more or less my whole life. Not that it has always been lucrative or easy, but finding ways to make my own hours has enabled me to develop my writing, music, and art. For someone who never went to school, this has been instrumental in any success I have had.”
After South Florida, Lyle relocated to San Francisco where he resided for the better part of 15 years. As observer and esprit de la justice humaine, he has extensively chronicled the city’s aggressive gentrification of the Tenderloin district through an art-savvy form of urban terrorism. Mayor Ed Lee announced an “ambitious and contentious” plan to redevelop the Mid-Market Street area into a “dot-com-like” alley in order to draw in eventual neighbors Twitter and Burning Man Inc. headquarters, and any and all big-deal tech companies that would bite the surreptitious appropriation of the “art scene.”
This announcement happened to occur in the middle of an idea that Lyle, Chris Johanson and Kal Spelletich, his co-curators, were developing for a small art festival celebrating the city’s illustrious past with radical art and activism. This would prove to be the tiny bomb detonating in the back of his activist mental reserves and the festival, once a cute and cool idea, grew into a five-week-long creature comprised of art from the city’s fringe and underground community.
“The title was suggested to me by a friend, San Francisco novelist, Peter Plate,” he explains of the portmanteau moniker. “It seemed to fit the show’s concerns with the vitality of street life and public space and the investigations into San Francisco’s utopian literary, political, and arts movements. The idea from the beginning was to bring theory form the academy together with the life of the street.”
An exhausting but ultimately satisfying task, Streetopia was San Francisco rising against ruthless land barons on the take; acting with the impunity of tax breaks and the promise of turning the unofficial “skid row” into a vibrant arts district. Which is fine, when you use an existing, indigenous art scene to create such an area—but when you roll in your corporate idea of art, that’s when the gloves come off.
The poem above might be Lindsay’s lyrical song to the city’s continued defiance of tectonic plates, but it fits perfectly with the spirit of the residents who love her. Resonant for Lyle too—Streetopia took over the Tenderloin for five weeks in 2012—Lyle had been evicted in 2009 from his domicile in the city and finding the rents beyond his grasp, and moved away, a logistical nightmare for an event organizer to no longer reside in the city.
Part II: Erick Lyle in Conversation
(Abel Folgar) You’ve always had a documentarian vibe, or rather, bent—at what point along the way did you forge an artistic persona outside of the music scene?
(Erik Lyle) “Well, I don’t see it so much as ‘forging a persona’ as just pursuing what I am actually really interested in and inspired by. Growing up working class and then living more or less on the streets in Miami, I never felt like art was something I was allowed to have access to. Like it was something for the wealthy. And of course this is one of the huge problems with Art Basel or development scams like the Wynwood Arts District—those places would have it that art really is something that is there to serve the wealthy, rather than the working class folks who have always lived in Wynwood.
I believe art is integral to life and culture and resistance, and that culture is made by everyone. I started to get really interested in art when I came back to Miami to cover Art Basel for a San Francisco newspaper in 2009. I saw up close the ways that art world development had been used to gentrify Miami’s poorest neighborhoods—even as the foreclosure crisis was still unfolding—and I felt disgusted at how Miami’s officials were telling people that art would help the economy, while in neighborhoods like Wynwood it was clearly causing displacement. But I also felt torn because I love art and am interested in how to make it outside the art world. Streetopia was in many ways a response to my time at Art Basel, an effort to see if it would be possible to make an art fair that was FOR AND BY the working class and poor neighborhoods where they take place.”
What challenges did you face when setting up the art fair?
“Ah, so many! Like, for one, how to organize such an involved project while no longer living full time in San Francisco. How to fund such an extravaganza? We got tons of volunteer help but were able to raise money for the fair by selling limited edition art books BEFORE the show, comprised of work from artists who would be in the show. Booklyn, an arts group from NYC, helped us make and bind 30 of these books that were sold to institutions like MOMA, The Getty, Yale Library, and Hammer Museum, which helped raise money to support the show and the printing of the new Streetopia trade paperback. It was important to me, too, that the art and programming for the show were sensitive to the true needs and community standards of the Tenderloin. Most folks involved had some connection to the neighborhood.”
Gentrification is almost unstoppable, how do you feel that your efforts in the Tenderloin were received and have continued to affect the process?
“Well, to say that gentrification is unstoppable is to say, really, that capitalism is unstoppable. I don’t believe that. But the gentrification is the leading arm of capitalism’s endless expansion, its need to keep expanding markets, or to keep finding new ways to monetize things (like, say, housing, which should be a human right). But Streetopia was very well-received in the Tenderloin, as it, of course, offered lots of participation to Tenderloin residents.
The Free Cafe was a very sweet and well-loved place that Tenderloin residents came together to operate every day. Streetopia created a climate of urgency that brought together a large cross-section of San Fran’s various communities face-to-face to discuss intolerable conditions and to strategize opposition. It was where people started talking about, for instance, the privatized Google buses that were just then beginning to take over the city’s streets.
Rebecca Solnit’s famous essays for London Review of Books and Granta about tech gentrification in San Francisco followed after this, as did a wave of highly organized protest against the Google buses. Today, activists in San Fran are still doing things every day like occupying Airbnb’s offices or providing human shields to homeless camp evictions. The fight is on the ground and real. Streetopia can’t take credit for that but it was a crucible where much discussion of those ideas and tactics first formed.”
How did it look once you were calling the shots?
“Not sure what you mean exactly, as the show was very much a product of MANY peoples’ work and vision. But I will say that even though it was an insane amount of work, living inside of Streetopia for five weeks was one of the most satisfying times of my life. Such a joy to see those visions realized! I slept very little but loved it all: I’d start the day with like 1000 phone calls and emails about details or unexpected crises in the show and then roll down to the Free Cafe to eat, check out the scene, wash dishes. Then every single night there was a great talk or performance to check out. Sure, I had to stay late and sweep up and put away the chairs and get the toilet paper and all that, every day for five weeks, but it was worth it. So nice to enter that gallery space and see what my friends had made and to be there with them every night!”
Now, you’ve been back to South Florida a couple of times and have witnessed the transformation of certain parts of the city that you were an early “modern” explorer of. How do you feel about our “arts districts,” the now-congested downtown sky line, and what you’ve seen elsewhere as it applies to here?
“Miami is and always has been the perfect storm of corruption, greed, apathy, vanity, and lowbrow art taste. So of course I find it so fitting that Pérez developed miles of empty condos and then ponied up to get the MAM named after him. The creation of new empty real estate is a total scam as Miami has become one of the top destinations (along with NYC and Vancouver) for offshore capital to launder its cash in real estate. In recent years, art-based development and the foreclosure crisis worked in sinister tandem to rob people of color and the working poor in Miami of their neighborhoods.
Wynwood is a case in point. The city government likes to say that arts development there will bring money into the neighborhood, ye olde ‘rising tide that will lift all boats.’ But instead we see that rents have become unaffordable for many longtime Wynwood residents. We see a once low-income but working class and proud neighborhood occupied by completely wasted, entitled people on regular arts walks. We see a whole host of new restaurants and cafes that are unaffordable for the people who actually live in the area. In Wynwood people have customarily gathered on lawns or in empty lots to play dominoes or hang out with neighbors in informal gatherings, but now we see this public space transformed into a kind of privatized or mall-like space as the very walls on the outside of buildings turned into a ‘street art museum.’ So it’s like a shopping destination now, but one that locals can’t afford even if they wanted it.
In many ways, Streetopia was a response for me to what I saw when I came to Miami in 2009 to report on Art Basel. I love art but hate the way art and artists can be used to fuel gentrification schemes. I wondered if it would be possible to have an art fair for the people that already lived in a poor neighborhood rather than one for some imagined group of future wealthier displacers.”
Part III: A Tale of Two Cities
Lyle got the boot in ’09. After living with a nice cheap rent for seven years, investors bought the building and “aggressively” cleared tenants in order to rebrand as a micro-hotel. Lyle fought—and fought hard—and got a settlement, but at the age of 36 then and with nowhere affordable to go, he packed it in and moved to NYC, which he was surprised to find not as expensive as San Francisco. “Oh yeah, I should add that the ‘micro hotel’ described above never happened. As far as I know, my old building is still empty,” he clarifies.
“He’s hoppin’ trains and stealin’ booze
‘cuz there’s no future and he’s born to lose!
He hitched to New Orleans just to spend the night
And he called from California to say he feels all right…”
The Crumbs, from “Iggy Can’t Lose!!”
Lyle has revisited the Magic City with a journalistic eye in two instances, during the 2003 Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) protests and the 2009 edition of Art Basel, finding reasons to be outraged in both. With art, he brings a different perspective to South Florida than he had for San Francisco, because for as much as he loved the city he relocated to, he will always be from Miami at heart. Put a can of Champion George Prince Soda in front of him—see if that doesn’t recall a story or two of Little Havana bodegas.
With art he names names and knows exactly what the future (well, at least the future before the eminent flood that will drown us all) brings. “Well, Craig Robins’ hustle was to take the real estate on the Beach to the next level, and it worked. Craig is a smart guy with good taste in art and I know many locals will point out that he gives away buildings and studio space, but I think it’s important to note that all Robins’ gifts have an eye to future profit.”
And here’s the drop: “I would challenge him here to give away a building, no strings attached to POWER UNIVERSITY, with which they could create a community center and arts space made by and for Overtown. Or something similar in Wynwood. It would be a gesture toward atonement for the displacement that all of his projects have engineered, starting in South Beach in the early 90s and moving out in concentric waves. It would be helpful of him to give it away before the people organize to take it away from him.”
For now, Lyle is out on the road, continuing the effects of Streetopia via a trade paperback, chronicling with visuals and texts the five-week communal fest celebrating the San Francisco that Mayor Lee tried to sweep away. It can be argued that the Mayor and the corporate giants won that bout.
The book goes beyond the festival proper and delves with depth and charismatic aplomb about San Francisco’s history with art and activism. Lyle does a good job of editorial balance and the book, built by essays that pass as contained vignettes, is a good read, somewhere between anarcho-punk musings and honest travel guide. It’s been almost four years since the Streetopia festival took place but the book energizes the memory and creates the kind of yearning that might just inspire others to do the same in their cities.
The book, which retails for $20, is a full color, 312-page ode to the power of art and activism and how closely related they are. Contributions range in content, but features many of the artists like Sarah Schulman, Chris Kraus, Rebecca Solnit, Daphne Gottlieb, Chris Johanson, Kal Spelletich, Sam Green, Ivy Jeanne McClelland, Sy Wagon, Marshall Weber, Veronica Majano, Isaac Jackson, James Tracey, Renny Pritikin, Roxy Monoxide, Mission Mini Comix, AC Thompson, and V. Vale, among others who gave the street festival its vibrancy.
This is in the end, not just a work of art and activism, it is a work of community and how the power of a unified community can withstand obstacles and fare relatively well in the face of unsurmountable odds. It is not a celebration of victories or a lament of what could’ve been; it’s about us and how we can make our ideas come to life.
“Be a producer of your own culture,” says Lyle. “Not a consumer of the spectacle of other peoples’ wealth.” Could this mentality work in present-day Miami? In the shadows of empty condos? With another “art fest” looming in the winter? Yes. Why shouldn’t it?
This post was contributed by Abel Folgar[.]