Independent artist Chris Dumas moved to Alamo Square from the Midwest more than a decade ago to be a part of the San Francisco experience. But the thing he's looking for is no longer in a coastal destination, but back home.
Little Rock is "still regional, still vital and very local, and that's not true here anymore," he explained to us from the cramped apartment he's lived in for the past 12 years.
"There are always going to be artists in San Francisco, but the only ones who are going to be left are going to be the ones who sustain themselves with day jobs" and live in rent-controlled apartments "where it's hard to Ellis them out."
We interviewed Dumas at his place near Hayes and Fillmore, as work crews cleaned up after this year's Bay To Breakers on the street below.
He's starting to pack up for a one-way return to Little Rock this week – partly to help out his aging parents, and partly because his hometown is looking pretty appealing in general.
Since moving to the apartment in 2003, he's been active in various art projects and related jobs. He's written a book about director Brian De Palma and articles for Tablet Magazine, Cinema Journal, Camera Obscura and Critical Inquiry. He's on the Humanities faculty at Berkeley City College; full-time, he works as an administrator at UCSF Parnassus.
He also owns VETOXA Records, an Arkansas-oriented San Francisco indie label that releases music in sub-genres like horrorbilly – bands include The Pine Box Boys, The Zag Men, Bitter Fruit and Reagan's Polyp, of which he's a member.
He told us he originally decided to come to San Francisco after visiting to celebrate his birthday. He had been finishing up grad school in Indiana.
"My friends picked me up at the airport, and we got back to the apartment... walked up to Alamo Square, and I stood there and I just did a 360 and looked at the city and thought, like a lighting bolt, 'I will live here.'"
He has been struggling to make the living arrangement work lately. "This is a one-bedroom apartment that I've illegally turned into a two-bedroom apartment," he explained. His roommate has a bedroom with a closet, while he sleeps in what was originally a small living room, now packed with bookcases, boxes of VETOXA inventory, audio equipment and a few pieces of furniture. All told, he and his roommate share approximately 720 feet.
"I'm moving into a 1400 square foot, ranch style, three bedroom, two bath house with a screened-in back porch and a backyard. And a carport and a kitchen," he added. "Currently, my living room is my bedroom, is my storage unit – which is where I run my small business – is my office."
Dumas said he's purchasing the new home with his parents. Owning a home in San Francisco "never crossed my mind," he said, noting that he only knows one person in the city who's bought a house.
The median home price in San Francisco reached $1 million for the first time just this month, according to real estate data company Core Logic; in Little Rock, the median is $126,000. Similarly, median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,458, compared to Little Rock's $895. The city has a few tech firms, but government and health care are the area's largest area employers, and it's home to many large non-profits.
Dumas, who is gay, said his decision to return has been met with widespread confusion. "People in San Francisco are like, 'why would you move back there?' and people in Little Rock are like, 'why would you move back here?'"
But artists, musicians and other creative types on a budget have been returning to cities like Little Rock more and more lately.
Despite stereotypes people here may have, "The Rock" offers a local scene that includes a lot of what you get here – food trucks and brewpubs, popular gay bars and lots of live music. The phrase "farm to table" even appears frequently on restaurant menus, for what it's worth.
Unlike San Francisco's 2am closing time, many bars and nightclubs are open until 5am. And $3,000 per month is enough to rent, say, a McMansion type of house with a pool, wet bar and jacuzzi.
He tells us many artist and musician friends have already left for more affordable places or were forced out by San Francisco's white-hot real estate market.
The "old, weird San Francisco" was already fading by the time he moved here, he believes, but its decline was hastened by tech booms and young people with money. "San Francisco and LA were kind of epicenters of performance art and experimental music," he said, citing places like The San Francisco Tape Music Center, "but now that's gone."
"It's not that I'm being displaced," said Dumas. "I'm in my mid-forties. I have a PhD and an MFA, so I'm overqualified for certain kinds of jobs and too old and too tech-challenged for other kinds of jobs."
Because his apartment overlooks the race's route, the event has become one of Dumas' favorite San Francisco traditions and a cultural barometer. "I looked forward to the day when every year, the naked people, the flood of partiers, comes roaring up the street for hours and hours on end," he said.
"It's like you get this one day of anarchy and it's kind of peaceful and beautiful and great," said Dumas. "Now, it's fully corporate."
Dumas may feel like an era is ending here, but he will be near the front of the cultural parade as it comes through Little Rock.
This article is based on an interview conducted for "Golden City," a documentary about how technology is transforming housing and transportation in San Francisco. For more information, visit Golden City's Facebook page or follow @GoldenCityFilm on Twitter.
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