Craig Oliver is the booker at the WhistleStop, the owner of Volar Records, as well as a writer and musician. Back in July, he wrote a Facebook post that inspired this interview. I sat down with Craig at his stomping ground of the Whistlestop to discuss his thoughts on his post and the issues at hand.
Craig Oliver: I wrote and performed a piece for VAMP, a local writer’s night, about how the gentrification of downtown, and now North Park, has made all the creative spaces vanish. This is something that I’ve been ranting about for years, you know, how much the city as a whole doesn’t seem to give a shit about the arts and how bad the crowds are here. It’s really frustrating. I performed at this event where a lot of the performances were about making sure that it doesn’t happen to Barrio Logan, that it doesn’t get gentrified in the same way. So, a lot of my rant on Facebook was a response to this kind of frustration. Like coming home half-drunk, 3 in the morning, and being like ‘ahhhh!!!’
T.Vivant: It was good because it was obvious that you have an invested interest in the creative scene. That is why a lot of people responded to your post. You have an embodied knowledge that came through in your rant. You had me with the part where you said FUCK YOU to downtown commerce that push out all this cool art shit.
C.Oliver: It’s hard too because that is happening to many big cities now. I have friends in many different big cities who are all saying it’s becoming harder and harder for creative people to get by, and it’s the same thing everywhere. It all comes down to property, it all comes down to space; the more I understand it, it all comes down to property. The joke about how the artists will move into the rough area because they’re fine with rough surroundings if it’s affordable and allows them to work on art.
T.Vivant: Yeah, for sure.
C.Oliver: We can look at Williamsburg as one of the most recent examples of a warehouse districts that was a pretty gnarly area with a lot of drugs and violence, and where venues like Death by Audio and Glasslands made an existence. A lot of these live-in-spaces in giant warehouses were taken-over by artists. They would have a show area for live performances and living spaces for the artists, and it was fucking rad. Williamsburg was suddenly on the map, and of course corporate interest came in to capitalize. But, once Williamsburg got too big, Vice bought out all the land. They bought out something like a mile and they budged out all the people they used to support, you know, and that became the model that took over. That became the model everywhere else. Here, in San Diego the model of the microbrewery took over. So, suddenly San Diego became the microbrew capital of the world, sparking the gentrification of North Park.’ Now, there’s a culture, even more than before, of people that don’t care about art and culture.
T.Vivant: Yeah, really?
C.Oliver: Yeah, it’s become a culture of ‘I just want this one thing’ and ‘let’s talk about IPA’s for two hours’ and that sort of shit. And that’s fine but then people do come out to shows and are really shitty sometimes. And the worst part is that they’ll stand up front and talk over the creative shit that’s happening.
T.Vivant: Do you think this kind of culture is getting worse?
C.Oliver: Umm, in some ways, yeah, it’s getting worse. But, at the same time it’s like it has always been. It’s funny that we’re here tonight at the Whistlestop for Kiss & Make Up,
a twee/C86/British indie-pop night, and the guys who are spinning records, Jon Blaj, the guy who was putting all the flowers on the tables and his buddy Kyle Baudour, they’re super active people who are making stuff.They are nostalgic for the times that folks before them have lived through—so they are putting on shows, and music, and movies, and art, and making books and zines. So, again we’re seeing a younger generation take up the responsibility of producing art. There’s a lot of mid-twenty somethings that are like ‘fuck that stuff, we’re the weird kids.’
T.Vivant: So, there’s a new batch of weird kids?
C.Oliver: Yeah! And they come out to shows and they’re rad! And they’re into stuff and they try. You know what I mean. They actively engage with something they don’t know anything about. And that’s fucking awesome. I think in that sense it’s getting a little bit better but in terms of the city as a whole, I don’t know. I remember going to a thing at the Downtown library where these two ladies who had been making zines since the early 80s about the SD punk scene. Everything having to do with music and politics and culture here in San Diego. In their presentation they talked about in the 90s when there was a window where there was a lot of rad shit going on. They talked about the Casbah that was one of the only places that catered or supported towards an arty crowd, and it was cool for 2 to 3 years, and there were other punk shows, but then the more dumb/macho OC bands and crowd, bands like Guttermouth, started coming around and bullying their way through everything, and they took over, and then that arty scene that was a safe space started dying back off.
T.Vivant: So, what’s the state of the art space now? Because you mention in the post about the fate of the Downtown galleries and the art houses in North Park, where do these spaces now exist?
C.Oliver: No, they don’t really anymore. In my youth, there were galleries in Downtown. I remember one really big, rad art space next to old Juke Joint that had art shows and bands. There was a gallery on 8th and G St. that was a underground vintage shop with records. At night they would throw these massive art shows with hundreds of people. They had art and bands and it was fucking amazing. But, then the ballpark was coming in so the cops were like ‘beat it.’ Everyone got pushed out.
T.Vivant: Yeah, but that does prove that if you build it they will come…
C.Oliver: Yeah, the people will come out…but so will the cops…
T.Vivant: Yeah, but people will show up. The big part of the problem is it all comes down to space.
C.Oliver: Yeah, but it’s just about doing it. Teros Gallery on Swift (in City Heights) is really cool and it’s really tiny. Alejandra Frank has a bunch of shows and it’s fucking awesome. The space is a quarter of the space of this front room at the Whistle Stop but she does a lot with the space. She works her ass off. And she works all the time outside of Teros Gallery to get by and that’s how it is to live in the city. That’s most cities now…
T.Vivant: Yeah. What do you speculate is going to happening with artists surviving in the city?
C.Oliver: People have to figure out where to go. San Diego, for example, I’m hearing murmurs of things happening in Sherman Heights, courtyard music get-togethers. They’ve been having these big shows on the weekend with experimental music. There’s another house in that area trying to figure something. It’s a house with a bunch of artists that are trying to figure out how to have more shows. They’re really young and they’re trying to figure out how to pull it off. I say ‘keep it quiet.’ Look at North Park ten years ago. That whole area started changing when the property values went up as a different crowd started coming in when the bars changed hands and started catering to a more downtown and beach crowd. Eventually, the cops were actively shutting down all the parties and things going on, these really supportive art and music showcases…
T.Vivant: That makes me wonder about how San Diego can mature as an art place?
C.Oliver: I don’t know if San Diego ever can or even cares too. I have friends that were in bands in the 90s, like John Riese from Rocket from the Crypt, who all say that it wasn’t any better then. They say that they had nothing until the Casbah opened up. It was fucking rough. That’s been a constant thing and it has always been that way. It’s just that the ratio is less in the favor of the artist right now.
There’s nowhere to go. People are moving to La Mesa but there’s nothing going on over there. And people are moving into Sherman Heights and Barrio Logan but it’s the same thing, kind of. There’s nothing too big going on.
T.Vivant: There needs to be infrastructure built if there’s going to be survival of any kind of vibrant scene.
C.Oliver: Yeah, I know. It’s hard because a lot of the art that gets supported is in a certain vain.
T.Vivant: In alternative art spaces, we kinda have a clue because they are covering whatever space at hand and utilizing it to produce, promote, and exhibit challenging art. Whatever it comes down to: if it’s film or performance or whatever.
C.Oliver: Yeah, I know people at CityBeat and other higher up people who talk about arts funding. And that’s a really big thing here because they don’t give up the grant money unless it fits a particular model, if it doesn’t fit a conservative view on art making. So, there’s no money. Even trying to get a space that serves a specific purpose like many alternative art spaces in other cities, they’re say ‘but it has to be like this particular idea. Nothing offensive, nothing challenging.’ So, the same thing keeps getting reproduced over and over.
T.Vivant: Yeah, so just in that kind of mentality of telling artists what kind of art they should be making by providing funding to conventional or conservative exhibition proposals. They should provided funding for exciting art projects that challenge audiences.
C.Oliver: Yeah, and that shouldn’t be the city’s job to tell artists what kind of work they should be producing, not at all.
T.Vivant: Yeah, a city’s art funding should just provide funding. That benefits everyone because that’s what makes a city attractive to its citizens and people looking to live somewhere.
C.Oliver: Well, Chula Vista actually did that. I haven’t been down there and I don’t know the name of the place, but the city bought property on 3rd ave where they have created a big center for music and art shows. It’s city-run and it’s employed with teens and young people; and most importantly, the city stays out of the way. So, that’s cool because it’s like the city is saying ‘here is this thing for you, and you’re in charge of it but don’t fuck it up and keep everything cool. And that’s rad. And I’m seeing a lot of the punk bands that we have been got playing here are all coming from Chula Vista. It’s like when Bernie Sanders opened the punk venue in City Hall in Vermont, giving the kids someplace to express themselves, and also inviting them to engage with City Council. It’s a similar model where the city acknowledges that creative people need a space because if there’s nothing for them then the city is going to lose those creative people because they’re going to move somewhere else.
T.Vivant: And that’s what’s going to happen over and over if a city doesn’t protect its cultural producers—they’re going to move somewhere else. And when it gets really bad, like in Boston where the police squash out all these art spaces, what’s going to happen? They’re all going to migrate to New York. Or the same thing here in San Diego— talented, creative people are going to leave to LA because they actually have art infrastructure.
C.Oliver: I’ve been thinking about that because I’m moving to LA. Part of what I like There vs. Here, and I know it’s not going to be long before it’s all fucked up, is East LA. It’s a neighborhood enclave where it’s still affordable but is already leading to some displacement. With corporate interest coming, it’s going to change the neighborhood and perpetuate this problem with affordable space. It’s not that fucked up yet…even Highland Park is gentrified but the main strip still isn’t that bad. It’s like two blocks of gentrified stuff, like North Park. There are two blocks that are nice. But, there’s this strong Latino culture that is ready to fight against it, so all those places are being defaced as they’re building up. It’s like they’re screaming— ‘You’re not serving our community!’ And basically, this is what all these places and their communities are saying. Boyle Heights is one of the biggest battles being fought in terms of anti-gentrification— and it’s a battle that comes down to property and space. Sure, a gallery is opening up in this once dangerous now-safe place and now you’re coming in and saying ‘but it’s art!’ Everyone likes art but gentrification is hiding behind that and it doesn’t represent either communities. Furthermore, there are buildings that are being valued for millions of dollars but right now they are being subsidized, and corporations are trying to sneak in through the back door with the ‘art gallery’ thing. That’s what they are doing. So, then in a few years these developers are going to say that the art gallery is worth this much more money and they push everyone out and everything changes.
In terms of how to make things better, or right, I have no idea what the solution can be. I do think that people are becoming more aware of it everyday. I wrote a piece about the confusion about being white and a working-class artist who is having to live in areas that are predominately not-white, and the anxiety of not wanting to displace anybody. Artists just need cheap rent so they can focus on their art and not have to work their asses off at some shit job. But, now there’s neighborhoods around the country that are flipping so fast, like Capitol Hill in Seattle that was artist-central and that’s all flipping. And whole cities are being flipped: Austin is flipping, Denver is flipping, and Portland is going. Places you never thought would be flipped. The techies bought out and displaced much of San Francisco, and it’s really disheartening.
T.Vivant: And these places are being flipped because artists and creative people are there making it attractive to be flipped in the first place.
C.Oliver: Exactly, and that is the model now. Any place where artists live, the developers come in pointing fingers and saying ‘look, it’s really cool to live here now. Everyone should move into these spaces.’
T.Vivant: Who would’ve imagined that Boyle Heights would’ve ever been gentrified. Now, that the artists are there, the rest of the process is to displace everyone else.
C.Oliver: Yeah, but in Boyle Heights they are fighting really hard against it. I don’t think it’s going to happen in a big way. Most of the national attention on this issue is focusing on Boyle Heights because the culture there goes back so far and is so entrenched.
Look at the fact that 20 years ago its was 97% Latino and it was a rough neighborhood because it was a very working-class neighborhood. You can look at the connections between class and race and how people struggle to survive—so it’s part of the speech of gentrification where people say that there’s drugs and violence because it’s a Mexican neighborhood. But, you have to look at institutionalized racism and how Mexican-American people are being kept at a certain strata below white people, so they have to fight harder for what they make and people are exhausted—you get all these problems out of that. So, there is this multifaceted thing to space and now I think we’re going to have to address it. And more and more people are starting to understand the complexity of the situation, because people are beginning to figure it out. But, there are a lot of confused artists, particular white artists, that don’t want to put anyone out, but they’re wondering about where they should go. I think there’s a lot of white artists that are saying that they don’t want to be a part of the BIG WHITE culture or the status quo. That’s what people are trying to resist.
T.Vivant: Yeah, this space issue comes down to the pressure point of class . I think about it in terms of myself being an artist who is from a Mexican-American background, and isn’t particularly poor. I’m under no illusion that if I move to a place like Sherman Heights, which sets off the gentrification process, it isn’t alright for me to do it and not alright for you. It doesn’t make a difference that the color of my skin matches that of the people who live there; it doesn’t equate to my right to being there. That your skin is white and that automatically makes you in the wrong is also a superficial approach that doesn’t help anyone with the issues facing us about the right to space and the right to citizenship. This issue is at the heart of the stupid game that we’re all stuck in. But, that’s part of the equation to figuring out what makes a city a viable place to live.
C.Oliver: Yeah, man. And it’s a hard process. We all know how capitalism works. When we get corporate interest and city bureaucratic interest that doesn’t really care about culture…
T.Vivant: But, they do care about culture when they want to capitalize on it…
C.Oliver: Yeah, when they want to capitalize on it…yes…
T.Vivant: They want to turn it into capital, so they do care about it. So, maybe part of the equation is to figure out more efficient ways to creatively work with their impulse to take advantage of OUR capital. We produce a critically important cultural capital that is worth something to cities.
C.Oliver: For me, the most obvious thing is to support local culture and not only support places like Snack Shack. It’s important to seek out cultural pockets of activity, like food, music, art, culture in general, and support it. I don’t want to go to the place that sells you something for 50 dollars, but instead I want to go to the little family-owned Indian food place. I don’t want the corporate shit that doesn’t reinvest in the city.
T.Vivant: You value culture. You value it when it comes to creating space for it to flourish, but you like culture in general. And I think people like culture in general. When people go out to a show, or whatever, they are seeking out culture. It’s an identity impulse thing that makes people seek out a good time, but it’s all based on a people’s relationship to culture and how it distinguish them from other people.
C.Oliver: Yeah, it comes down to a mixture of male-dominated corporate interest, white class working-class mentally, and entitlement goes back to Columbus and the impulse to go around saying ‘this is mine now. I’m going to take that and I’m going to take that too.’ It’s like the conquest. To me that’s the bigger, underlying issue to figuring out this particular societal challenge. At what point are we forced to say ‘No!’ and try to figure out ways to stop it. This is at the core of the issue at hand which is taking over our spaces.
Excerpt from Fuck You to San Diego: An Interview With Craig Oliver. For the full transcript, subscribe to the T.Vivant quarterly publication. Thank you for reading.