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Beginnings of a Transformation in Mid-Market

 
As arts organizations move in, a cultural flavor has begun to emanate from the neighborhood

Gray Area Foundation for the Arts

While Hal Fischer, interim director of S.F. Camerawork, pondered his organization’s move to the Mid-Market district, he conducted an experiment. About three months ago, he went to an 11 p.m. event at the nearby Luggage Store gallery and intentionally parked his car on Sixth and Market, a notoriously troubled block in the midst of one of the city’s most crime-ridden areas.

“It did not feel dangerous,” Fischer said. “It didn’t even feel unsavory. More than anything, it seemed eccentric. And I noticed a lot of tourists.”

And so S.F. Camerawork, a 37-year-old nonprofit fine arts photography gallery, has joined a growing list of arts organizations relocating to the Mid-Market area, roughly defined as Market Street from Civic Center to Powell Street. S.F. Camerawork has signed a long-term lease — Fischer did not disclose the exact length — and hopes to inhabit the 3,600-square-foot space in December.

“After a lot of false starts, we think that this is it,” Fischer said. “Mid-Market will really take off this time.”

While the long-awaited transformation of the area is far from complete, a distinct cultural flavor has begun to emanate from it. It is an experimental aesthetic, a style of creative risk that mirrors the pre-gentrified surroundings.

Other recent neighborhood newcomers include the Black Rock Arts Foundation (the nonprofit arm of Burning Man), Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (a digitally-minded arts space that moved from nearby Turk Street to a spot next to the Warfield Theater) and several coming retail ventures like Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers on the corner of Sixth Street, and a bike repair shop.

For more established organizations, like the American Conservatory Theater, Mid-Market provides an opportunity to test less-traditional programming. Next week it begins performances at a newly renovated space at the Costume Shop at Seventh and Market, in conjunction with the Central Market Arts Festival, which runs through Oct. 16.

A.C.T. will continue to operate its main theater on Geary Street.

“We hope to do a lot of really flexible, down-and-dirty-style guerrilla theater,” said Carey Perloff, artistic director of A.C.T., mentioning “free beer” and “cheap tickets” as incentives for visitors.

The Boxcar Theater company has two venues just off Market Street. “Our audience is absolutely affected by location,” said Nick A. Olivero, a co-founder of the company. “We would not produce ‘Guys and Dolls’ in our area. We just did ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and used the neighborhood to our advantage.”

But a total overhaul of the neighborhood, à la Times Square in New York, remains elusive. The Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development — working closely with the Northern California Community Loan Fund, Elvin Padilla Jr. of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, building owners and a variety of arts organizations — struggles to enliven the remnants of what was once called the Great White Way, a bustling, upscale theater district that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Deals have frequently fallen through or been stalled, crime is a grave concern and vacancy rates are still much higher than in surrounding neighborhoods.

ACT Costume Shop

Most notably, A.C.T.’s proposed $100 million multitheater complex at Turk and Market is in limbo after the property owner went into foreclosure. Padilla called the project crucial and “the looming game-changer.”

The significant parcel of land — almost a city block — was slated to hold both a 300-seat theater and a 100-seat one, rehearsal spaces, a restaurant and even housing for A.C.T. visiting performers.

“We had it all ready to go,” said Ellen Richard, A.C.T.’s executive director, before the news came in early summer that the hedge fund behind the property went bankrupt, and the land passed first to an Irish bank and then to a Texas investment firm. The theater company still wants to develop the space, she said.

Additionally, at least three other arts organizations that had publicly discussed moves to Mid-Market — Bay Area Video Coalition, the Pop Art Museum and the Museum of Craft and Design — failed to sign leases.

Public financing remains a sticking point in the growth of the arts. Last year, Gavin Newsom, the mayor at the time, announced the Cultural District Loan Program to much fanfare: so far, only one business, a restaurant, has taken advantage of the money.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s elimination of the state’s redevelopment agencies in February was a bigger blow to hopes for long-term change.

“I feel like we take two steps forward, and then one back,” said Kary Schulman, head of the Grants for the Arts.

But any step forward is enough for new Mid-Market occupants whose programming caters to younger audiences. A recent stroll down Market at dusk hinted at the area’s future: two glowing massive metal flower sculptures installed near Civic Center by Black Rock; a flickering yellow-hued video projected on the window of the second-floor Luggage Store gallery; curious tourists peering into the open doors of Gray Area Arts Foundation.

“The first time I raised this with some of our board, they looked at me like I was out of my mind,” Fischer said, speaking of his organization’s move. “But this is the story of San Francisco, in spades.”

Arts organizations in Mid-Market (click on a pin for details):

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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