Media coverage of the recent victory of the Grant Building Tenants Association (GBTA) once again shows how the media can diminish the role of grassroots activism in shaping the world.
Located at the corner of Seventh and Market Streets in San Francisco, the Grant Building has long provided affordable office space to writers, artists, and a diversity of small businesses. This mix once typified the mid-Market area, but rising rents in recent years have forced many nonprofit and cultural groups to move to less costly neighborhoods. When the new owner of the Grant Building sought to impose steep rent increases last October, the tenants did more than just complain loudly in the media while quietly moving out: they stayed and resisted.
The battle was set. On one side was a band of feisty tenants–including writers who had chronicled the recent transformation and “hollowing out” of San Francisco–determined to preserve the central city’s last affordable office building. On the other side were the owners, Michigan-based banking interests with a record of questionable financial and personal dealings, whose leader lived and worked in San Francisco. The battle to save the Grant Building was the classic David and Goliath struggle whose outcome all too often runs counter to the myth.
The tenants launched a wide-ranging campaign of resistance, which included posting banners on the building, a City Hall press conference of community and labor leaders, a march down Market Street, the filing of 29 legal motions, and the revival of legislation to re-zone the mid-Market area exclusively for nonprofit and cultural use. The tenants’ “by all means necessary” approach ultimately prevailed. On March 14, the owners agreed to a three-year lease at rents the tenants could afford. The first ever commercial tenants association to actively resist eviction had proven that, even in today’s San Francisco, grassroots action can triumph over corporate power.
The media could have highlighted the GBTA’s resistance as a model for efforts to slow the city’s gentrification. But this was a message the Hearst Corporation was not eager to convey, in case it encouraged similar upheavals from other commercial tenants. Instead, San Francisco Chronicle reporter David Baker’s story of March 17, 2000 mentioned the tenants’ activism but attributed their victory to the big changes “in San Francisco’s economy and its politics” since the dispute began–alluding to the decline of the dot-coms and the increasing amount of vacant office spaces.
In truth, economic forces played virtually no role in the outcome of the dispute. This was apparent, even when I first began negotiating with the owners on behalf of the GBTA in January. In initiating court actions against the tenants toward the end of February, the owners continued to insist that they would rather have vacant units than accede to the tenants’ demands. I tried to convince Baker that the real story was that the displacement of artists and nonprofits from the mid-Market area was not inevitable but could (and should) be countered by grassroots pressure. None of my quotes were included in his story.
Unfortunately, the Chronicle was not alone in missing the true significance of the GBTA’s victory. A San Francisco-based reporter for the Associated Press also viewed the struggle as a sign of the dot-com malaise and rising commercial vacancies. It became clear during our discussion that she was going to focus on this angle (also featured on the front page of the New York Times, March 26, 2000) and was only interested in the Grant Building story to support her thesis.
Even the San Francisco Bay Guardian dropped the ball on reporting on the GBTA’s landmark victory. A Guardian editor told a GBTA leader that Baker’s Chronicle piece made the story “old news,” a troubling sentiment from a publication that usually is perceptively critical of the daily’s coverage of important issues. (The Chronicle’s extensive coverage of the utility crisis has not stopped the Guardian from doing its own coverage of the issue.) Activists have always depended on the Guardian to get the word out, and in bypassing the GBTA story, the paper missed an enormous opportunity to provide strategic guidance for a readership base severely impacted by rising rents and evictions. Let us hope that the Chronicle’s framing of a story does not preempt future analyses from the Guardian.
Some reporters did get the story right, however. Matt Isaacs of the San Francisco Examiner focused on the tenants’ actions. It’s a shame that his paper is still struggling to establish a readership. The best coverage came, not surprisingly, from KPFA. News Co-Director Aileen Alfandary coordinated a report on March 16 that put the spotlight squarely on the power of grassroots action to prevent displacement. The story is yet another reason why the battle to save Pacifica from corporate predators remains so vital for all social change activists.
Randy Shaw was the attorney for the GBTA and has analyzed the media in the newly updated The Activist’s Handbook: A Primer, and in Reclaiming America, both from the University of California Press.