While doomsayers predict an economic downturn for San Francisco, Kasey Rios remains a believer in vitality and sustainability, generating and implementing ideas for a healthy city, one neighborhood at a time.
“I don’t care what the right wing or media says,” said Rios. “San Francisco will be a great place to live and that will be the reality of it: It takes an investment in resilience, an ecosystem approach.”
As an artist, musician and longtime advocate for green living, Rios is the founder of Demonstration Gardens, training people of all ages and abilities to engage with the physical and natural world, particularly in the Tenderloin and South of Market.
“The geography of every place has wonderful things to offer,” said Rios, originally from Austin, Texas and now living part-time in Detroit. But for over four decades, Rios has developed deep ties to San Francisco—the arts and its people —and remains committed to not only growing trees and plants, but conceiving programs to reboot the city’s infrastructure and job training future generations of cultural workers.
“A city that doesn’t want to pay fairly leads to an underclass of people who can’t afford to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world,” explained Rios. “But we built it.”
It’s a story Rios and their partner know well: They raised five children here while the dot coms boomed, then busted, and projects like the mid-Market development failed to deliver.
“A short-sighted development pattern is being enacted in San Francisco,” said Rios. As the coronavirus pandemic persisted, tax incentives offered to big tech backfired as corporations left the city, taking their riches and workers with them.
“When you hear an idea like, ‘The Tenderloin doesn’t know what it’s doing, it can’t be organized, can’t manage its own affairs,’ that’s an excuse to put more police and less cultural workers in the space. It’s coercive, it never works and always leads to more malaise,” said Rios.
With Demonstration Gardens, and other projects initiated in the TL under the umbrella of the Hyde Street Community Music Program, Rios has aligned with artists, musicians, the local indigenous Association of Ramaytush/Ohlone and the Independent Musicians Alliance to pilot solutions that lead to environmental justice, the right to work and fair wages for all: A long-term commitment that stems the tide of artist and worker displacement from an unaffordable city and keeps the talent homegrown.
“For example, if we want live music in San Francisco, we’re going to have to make sure musicians get paid fairly for their time,” said Rios.
Rios’ people-powered resilience work and its connection to environmental justice started by accident after reviving a rooftop garden at the Golden Gate Avenue Central YMCA.
“It didn’t occur to me that I would be a public gardener,” said Rios. “I didn’t go to school or prepare for it, but everything added up to it.”
In 2008, as the Y was undergoing renovations, the rooftop garden was set to be demolished, when Rios and a team of volunteers stepped in and relocated it to nearby University of California College of the Law, San Francisco (formerly UC Hastings).
“We moved a dozen mature trees down 10 flights of stairs because they wouldn’t fit in the elevator,” said Rios. A decade later, the garden was uprooted again and moved to McCoppin Hub Plaza.
“We were invited to be there by the Department of Public Works,” explained Rios. “During Covid, we couldn’t do public programming. Unhoused people moved in, neighbors complained, and we had no means to do anything about it.”
That’s when the garden was swept, along with people and their belongings.
“Our legacy sites, given to us by the city, were suddenly not ours anymore. I would’ve moved the collection a third time,” said Rios, had notice been given.
Yet even violent destruction of plant and public life hasn’t dimmed Rios’ hope for future projects.
“There’s the argument that resilience work supports gentrification, because the artists come first and the gentry likes to live in places that are kind of fashionable,” noted Rios. Yet that cycle doesn’t necessarily have to play out: When people are paid for public work, neighborhoods stay intact, people stay in place and future generations are allowed to thrive.
Rios cites Mexico City, Paris and Seattle as places that are attempting to keep pace with affordability and sustainability in the face of over-development.
“I am looking at [Austin, Detroit and San Francisco] as arbiters of our time. How do these big migrations work and who is figuring it out for working people. We have to be very creative. And big profit/power is vested in locking us out.”
Further outgrowths of Rios’ work with Hyde Street Community Music Program include the Bright Sounds Apprenticeship Program, training future sound and recording engineers at Hyde Street Studios; and the annual Grace Notes Community Festival activating venues, artists and workers from the neighborhood from July through October.
“Our goal has been to build out a green mosaic downtown,” said Rios. “A network that includes the Golden Gate Greenway (the block between Leavenworth and Jones), The People’s Garden, on Larkin and McAllister by the Asian Art Museum—and not just green space. It has to be people. You have to make a big investment, not just in infrastructure and hardscape but in people.”
“As workers, we have the expertise to manage our own affairs. As residents and citizens, we have the expertise to manage our own communities. It’s an interesting moment,” said Rios. “On the federal scale there is a recognition and language spoken about environmental justice and tribal sovereignty.”
The newly remodeled Federal Building Plaza is an example of dedicated office space for environmental justice work and the embodiment of an inclusive collaborative space for art, performance and gathering, built and maintained sustainably, by its tenants and neighboring community. Rios cites the plaza and other successfully completed efforts like the Black Hawk mural project on Turk and Hyde streets (commemorating the days of live jazz on the corner) as successful demonstrations of collaboration and community engagement in the TL.
“It’s putting things on the proper footing I like to think. Flipping the pyramid,” said Rios. “People have to be able to see people at work in the arts and think, I can do that!”
Meanwhile, civic pipe dreams like the idea of a designated “Arts and Culture Entertainment Zone” are doomed if development and retail considerations trump the needs of people: Public access, working conditions and wages are human rights issues.
“Sure, venues should receive support from the city, but not for the venue alone. They should make sure the support goes to the musicians. We’re not just trying to support real estate. We’re trying to support musicians and live music engineers,” said Rios.
“I have never received city money for this work. And that’s OK. We’re doing our part. But the city isn’t seeing us and has been disruptive to our work,” said Rios.
“It’s ironic; city government has never been bigger, but what we need is accountability to the public, not just city workers doing what the mayor tells them to do.”
Rios keeps spirits up while grounded in the fight for fairness by relying on a metaphor offered by a friend.
“There are moon spaces and sun spaces. The sun spaces are where the people are, that’s where the power, the light is. The moon spaces are reflected light, the moon spaces are City Hall, the courts, dealing with authority. They all get their power from the original place, the people’s place,” said Rios. “As long as I’m turned toward the sun spaces, I’m on the right track.”