3.9 is no less a statistical reality than a transformative moment in American culture. Oft-reputed as a nascent destination for black folk fleeing the dregs of white, southern insanity and violence, San Francisco now bears witness to one of the more dramatic and debilitating forced migrations in contemporary life. And yet, the consensus seems to be that this disturbing trend merits neither murmur nor mediation. The collective spirit of enterprise and economic development seem to direct this ill-fated interplay of transferable wealth, privilege and the fantastical to its illogical conclusion – that somehow San Francisco can be San Francisco without black people. It’s rather anathema to suggest such a thing, but somehow hipsters to half-witted dilettantes have carried on as if Blacks in San Francisco have little or no vested role in the life of the City; that invisibility is somehow a mark of civil rights progress. How senseless is it to believe that there is a listenable popular music without the DNA of Louis Armstrong, or a sultry blues without Billie Holliday, or even a refined funk architecture without a Sly Stone, a transcendent homegrown talent, who, in today’s San Francisco, would be nothing more than a Powell Street piano tinkler humming spirituals for loose change. But the erosion of the black population in the City has been a long, steady decline that has altered the face of traditional black community enclaves. The Fillmore was once a cultural center of a vibrant neighborhood along the lines of New York’s Harlem or Chicago’s South Side, albeit smaller in number and stature. By 1950 there were 15,000 Blacks in the Western Addition, and nearly 50,000 total in San Francisco. After peaking at 100,000 in the early 1970s, the results of decades of corporate maneuvering, political camouflaging and urban re-development led to the demolition of hundreds of homes in the Western Addition, largely concentrated in black-occupied dwellings.
San Francisco Mayor George Christopher and the Redevelopment Agency’s Justin Herman, of course, spearheaded this real estate boondoggle that would be the blueprint for future gentrification and double-dealing with essential black life in San Francisco. And when one considers the rather spectacular way Blacks are leaving today, one wonders where the visual manifestations of the unwilling migrant are stationed. Who is collecting the stories, tracking their footprints out of the City? Who is remembering, memorializing? Have we really seen the faces of the departing families, the anguish and uncertainty in their countenance?
The 3.9 Art Collective emerges as a compelling experiment at a time when some have willingly muted their protestations. Termed “Still Here”, this exhibition of African American artists “have adopted this statistic (3.9) and forged a banner of support and resistance. Their work represents their creative contribution to the African American existence, enriching the greater San Francisco artistic community with their narratives and perspectives born from being members of a Diaspora community.” Moreover, they may be answering the clarion call of the time, doing what the blues most characteristically does so well – delve deeply into the ‘what is’ of human existence. In other words, “Still Here” could be a powerful reemergence of a visual vernacular about our time in San Francisco; or it can be the bitter swansong of a people merely seeking a place to call home without condition. This, of course, will be entirely up to those open to experiencing the immense talents of each artist. However, in the end, one must ask the question– Does San Francisco care if black people are here?
By Richard Kevin Cartwright