Jimmie Fails is defined by many things — an actor, filmmaker, friend and most definitely a fighter.
In elementary school, Fails’ family was evicted from their home in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. His grandfather died, and the family fell into a financial crisis that led to foreclosure and eventually a life in low-income housing.
Family members then spread out over the country, some he wouldn’t see for years at a time. Life-altering events led Fails to reevaluate what would become the narrative of his life: Trying times wouldn’t change his aspirations to be an artist.
“I’m just a guy from the city that grew up in low-income housing and followed my dreams,” Fails said. “I’m still making it happen and working my way up.”
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By the age of 24, he debuted in his first major film in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a 2019 Sundance Film Festival-winning entry that also serves as a semi-autobiographical portraiture of his life.
Directed by Joe Talbot, his longtime best friend and a fifth-generation San Franciscan, Fails dubbed the movie a “love-hate” letter to his city by the bay.
The movie strived to capture the pain of Fails’ family eviction out of the Fillmore District, and that story line is present throughout the plot. In fact, critics lauded the piece that commented on family, the city’s gentrification, displacement of natives, a shifting culture and feelings of loss.
Today, Fails, 27, marches on toward his dream. He stars in a new indie film called “Borderline,” shot in Vancouver. Details about the unreleased film cannot be disclosed yet.
Although he still calls San Francisco home, Fails said the city he fondly recalls is virtually gone now — and he almost feared seeing his now-unrecognizable San Francisco when he returned from his latest film project in July.
Three years after the release of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Bay City News checked in with Fails about the city that inspired his work and the “love-hate” letter he honored it with.
Love came first
If Fails’ life was a letter, the portion about love was inspired by his childhood.
When he was 10, life in San Francisco’s Fillmore District — which was then a middle-class neighborhood populated by many Black families — was happy.
Fails lived in a grand three-story Victorian-style home with extended family members. He was raised on stories about his legendary grandfather, who was the preacher of a Baptist church. It was often said that his grandfather lifted a car, and even built the family house with his bare hands in the 1940s when he first moved to the “Harlem of the West” Fillmore (as the film references it).
The park across the street was filled with sights of dice games and sounds of crowding conversations and boomboxes.
Fails became connected to the sounds of four rubber wheels on pavement as he skateboarded across the Mission District and around the city. Roaming around these streets brought him to the bonds of friendships — like when he met Talbot at Precita Park near the base of Bernal Heights. Here, the two found more buddies — white, Black, Samoan, Latino and Asian — as they rode trash cans down the sloping streets and brawled in rock fights.
In 2014, Fails, who quit college shortly beforehand, moved in with Talbot, a high school dropout. The duo lived in Talbot’s parents’ home, located midway up a street in Bernal Heights. Together they began making short films.
“We just got to be boys — to be kids,” Fails said. “That’s part of being a San Franciscan, knowing about all these different cultures, and I don’t see any of that anymore. It’s just mostly white people and then dogs at the park. I mean, there’s more dogs than I feel like I see teenagers.”
That’s where the hate part of the letter begins and doesn’t end.
The ‘starving’ artists
The San Francisco he longs for was once filled with mom-and-pop shops, small laundromats and corner stores. Today, yoga studios and tech startups have become more prevalent. Skyscrapers and tech companies blanket the eastern part of the city, yet in some pockets, blocks flourish with museums, galleries and historic theaters.
Some side alleys in the Mission District are still lit up with colorful murals that tell stories of history or personal lives.
But the people who have called San Francisco home for generations say that old murals are fading, and artists are vanishing in parallel.
Many of Fails’ artist friends — from filmmakers to painters — are fleeing to other cities due to increasingly exorbitant rents in San Francisco.
“I loved that it was so unique and diverse growing up, and I don’t like that we’ve lost that,” Fails said. “I think that’s the main thing because it’s not just about race — artists can’t afford to live there. So then, there are less artists, too.”
In the Mission District is 34-year-old Mexican American muralist Lucia Gonzalez Ippolito, whose murals focus on cultural and political themes. While working as an artist, teacher and activist, Ippolito also recently had a child.
Since the 1950s, the Mission has been San Francisco’s Latino enclave, but Ippolito says the neighborhood is changing drastically.
“I know a lot of people that have had to move to the East Bay or just really far like Antioch or like Burlingame,” Ippolito said. “I know a lot of artists who just can’t do their art. They just have to make other forms of income. It’s really hard to make it as an artist in San Francisco. A lot of people either give up on their art, or they have to move and they have to commute here to do murals or anything.”
The first solo mural Ippolito designed is titled the “Mission Makeover Mural.” The piece is 25 feet long covering two garage doors in a tourist-attracting alley called Balmy Alley, which highlights issues related to wealth, police brutality, technological takeover and gentrification in the Mission neighborhood.
“The two doors were my perspective of growing up in the Mission and then the other side was a revised version of the Mission,” Ippolito said.
The mural shows police officers harassing and arresting Latino boys; in another part, a family is being evicted from their home. Also, there are local landmarks that have stood for generations, such as the Discolandia record store painted in reddish oranges. The beloved store shuttered in 2011, but lives forever in Ippolito’s art.
The other section of the mural, which Ippolito calls “the revised version,” shows the same street remodeled. A white family moves into their new home, which ostensibly belonged to a native resident who was priced out. In another part, a police officer befriends a wealthy woman.
There’s even a section depicting Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden. A sign reads “foreclosure.”
It can be difficult for artists to get by with earnings from their art alone. Many artists, especially those of color, have picked up one or two “9-to-5” jobs for additional sources of income. Even with artist residencies, the cost of living is far too expensive to support a life with food on the table and a roof over one’s head, Ippolito said.
Many artists don’t have the funds to invest in rentable studios, Ippolito said, so their apartments or homes become workspaces. In some cases, an artist will share their home studios with other artists who are even worse off.
However, Ippolito said that she got lucky. She now lives in a Mission District apartment that her mother purchased in the 1980s. That investment is the key reason Ippolito is able to continue living in the city. Ippolito believes she’s the last person in her age group that was born and raised in the same five-block radius where she still resides.
Before becoming a mother, Ippolito taught preschoolers for six years. She recently applied to be a preschool art teacher to earn extra cash.
The average San Francisco apartment rent is $3,230 as of this February, according to data from Yardi Matrix, a national real estate research group. This is almost two and a half times the national average of $1,463. Only Manhattan is more expensive, with average rents of $4,210. More affordable neighborhoods, where median rent for a one-bedroom is under $3,000, can be found on the southern and western edges of the city.
Although fine artist Michael Kershnar is not a native, he experienced a completely opposite fate and was pushed out of San Francisco — not once, but twice.
Kershnar, 42, specializes in painting, illustrations, film photography, murals, zines and writing and focuses on California wildlife. He earns a living from his art and creates pieces for exhibitions, murals, skate decks, art galleries and brands. He’s currently an artist in residency at the Montecito Sequoia Lodge in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Kershnar, originally from Irvine in Southern California, first moved to San Francisco in 2009 and stayed until 2012. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Sunset District and paid $1,500 monthly. The landlord gave him a $200 discount once because he knew Kershnar was a struggling artist, but one with good credit.
To maximize his living space, Kershnar worked at a drafting table in his studio and on an easel on his rooftop. When preparing for a solo show at skate and surfing clothing brand RVCA, another artist friend allowed him studio space to work on large pieces in their basement.
Eventually, he could no longer afford San Francisco.
“I was not making enough money to not fall into debt covering the month-to-month cost of living in the city,” Kershnar said. “Though I had a lot of fun and success in creating murals around the city, participated in group shows, attended SF art functions, both high- and low-brow, and even had a solo show at RVCA SF, yet failed to attract or network with the correct curators, patrons and collectors to sell enough art. Though I had heard there was lots of tech money in the city, I didn’t personally know anyone working in that industry.”
Kershnar then left the city for the Montecito Sequoia Lodge. Along with Jean Chadbourne, a former San Francisco high school teacher and educator, Kershnar helped start The Growlery, now an Oakland-based artist residency, which originally launched in SF’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
Kershnar returned to San Francisco in 2016 and worked as The Growlery house manager for two years and received free housing and a $1,000 salary per month. He also worked with Element Skateboards, which added about another $1,000 monthly.
But history repeated itself, and Kershnar was forced to leave a year later.
“I had hoped all the work I had just done in San Francisco would parlay into an arts-related job in the city somewhere at a museum, gallery or skate culture brand,” Kershnar said. “However that was not the case, and the cost of rent was too much for me as a full-time artist, so I headed towards calmer and more mellow financial waters.
The median household income from 2016 to 2020 was $119,136, according to the U.S Census Bureau. Kershnar said the yearly income he received for his artistry was approximately $20,000 to $40,000, sometimes more and sometimes less — but nowhere near enough money to afford life in San Francisco.
Still, Kerhsnar refers to San Francisco as a “global hub that is truly magical.”
‘The neighborhood isn’t the neighborhood anymore’
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” focuses on the theme of gentrifications and its impacts on locals in neighborhoods, especially in the Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point.
One scene in the film portrays tourists rolling through the Fillmore on a Segway-riding tour, passing by Fails’ family home. In the scene, the tour guide described the neighborhood’s history, in which Jimmie interjects and counters with his own side of the story. The confused tour guide shrugs his shoulders at Jimmie’s speech as the group moves on to the next attraction.
“When people come in and they don’t have any respect for the history or the people that were there before them, and they’re not even curious to learn and they just bring their own small-town values and just disregard the people that were there before them — it’s blatant disrespect,” Fails said.
Alongside Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, San Francisco is one of the fastest and most intensely gentrifying cities in the U.S., according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, made up of grassroots member organizations that work with community leaders, policymakers and financial institutions to “champion fairness and end discrimination in lending, housing and business.”
NCRC findings reveal that “opportunity zones” can indicate that a neighborhood is experiencing high levels of income inequality and distress and is prone to gentrification. The IRS defines opportunity zones as “economically distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment in lending, housing and business.”
Erin McElroy, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder and director of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, agrees that it’s difficult to support one’s art practice while working other jobs around the clock “just to pay unaffordable rents.”
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is a Bay Area digital mapping and storytelling collective that charts the effects of gentrification and displacement. It launched in 2013. Its work has led to community and regional engagement to support tenants who were organizing direct actions and mutual aid networks to stay in their homes amid a rise of evictions correlative to the Bay Area tech boom.
McElroy firmly believes that artists are fleeing the Bay Area, even in a COVID-19 world.
“I think the important thing to note is that it’s predominantly poor and working-class artists, many of whom are people of color, who are forced to flee,” McElroy said. “This is much less the case for designers in the tech industry. San Francisco is still very unaffordable for artists, particularly those who have lived in the city and are engaged in cultural and political work, for instance, many Mission muralists and musicians.”
McElroy blames landlords and corporate investors as a major cause of increasing rents and artist spaces, who “understand that property speculation is a lucrative venture.”
Third-generation San Franciscan Ahmad Walker refers to himself as a “creator.” Like Fails, an old friend from his teenage years, Walker was born and raised in the Fillmore District.
The 30-year-old painter and stop-motion animator is a current artist-in-residence at Hunters Point Shipyard Artists. Established in 1983, it’s the largest artist community in the U.S, according to the website. Like Kershnar, Walker’s studio space is offered cost-free.
Walker is also concerned about how accommodating San Francisco is to emerging artists.
The city was working “perfectly fine,” until the dotcom boom from 1997-2001 brought in waves of techies, or “shareholders,” Walker says. “They can dictate how the roads change or how the lay of the land will work to better benefit their needs,” he said.
Although Walker lives in another part of the city, his mother’s side of the family resides in Hunters Point, where he works.
By the 1960s, Hunters Point was a predominantly Black neighborhood, one that is also referenced in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
A historical Black center of culture and experience, Hunters Point now only houses 11% Black residents, according to the 2020 Census Reporter, which pulls data from the American Community Survey, a demographics survey program conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
San Francisco put forth the Bayview-Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan in 1997, in hopes of revitalizing the neighborhood with affordable housing, public oversight and economic development.
However, the city’s decision to turn over redevelopment efforts to for-profit contractors put residents in danger of being displaced from longtime homes. Then in 1999, private development firm Lennar Corporation won the bid to redevelop the area. All the while, housing values skyrocketed starting in 2000, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
Many residents were driven out of the community as a result. Walker described these revitalization projects as the Black community “signing their rights away in a political land-grabbing game for millionaires.”
“I would think that the houses and stories aren’t predominantly African American anymore,” Walker said. “Just because you still see a lot of African people out, that doesn’t mean that we’re reaping the benefits of being there commercially.”
While Fails and Talbot filmed “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a neighborhood development project called the India Basin began to take root. Constructed by Build SF, India Basin is a mixed-use village with retail shops, apartments and townhomes connected to a 6-acre park along San Francisco’s eastern shoreline.
Walker added, “One culture is leaving, and another culture is coming in. So in the next like 10-15 years, if the original Bay Areans are all gone, then the actual essence of Bay Area culture will be remnants.”
While the pressures to leave San Francisco weigh heavily on struggling artists, many of them hold a deep love for the city and will do whatever they can to stay.
In one scene of “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Fails rode a Muni bus, where his character, Jimmie, overhears a conversation between two women who scornfully complained about living in San Francisco. They even joked about moving to East LA.
“This city blows. Big time,” one woman says in the scene.
The other responds: “I mean, whatever, I’m not above living in a former crack house, you know?”
Fails’ character intervenes dramatically by saying, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
Fails, Ippolito and Walker all love to share this quote from the film. Each used the line during their interviews for this story.