About Jason Luger

I am an urban theorist, practitioner, researcher, and lecturer. All opinions are my own.

Lees on Gentrification: ‘It’s Displacement’.

Professor Loretta Lees appeared on talk show ‘Renegade, Inc.’ to discuss the impacts of gentrification – which she defines as resulting in displacement against one’s will. And critiques the more recent turn toward ‘regeneration’ as a more palatable form of social cleansing. https://www.rt.com/shows/renegade-inc/387555-gentrification-alternative-socially-cleansed/



Boston Neorealism: Beantown in Film

I had the pleasure of visiting Boston for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (April 4-8) and found myself enchanted with ‘Beantown’s’ cultural milieu and contradictions. The juxtaposition of high-cultured ‘Brahmin’ Boston with an underlying soul of a working-class fishing town presents a deeply layered, contradictory tapestry: Harvard intellectualism alongside rabid sports fans; Cape Verdean immigrants alongside MIT engineers; buttoned-up Beacon Hill a few miles from rowdy, Irish-Catholic South Boston. With a (European) history nearly 400 years old, perhaps no other major American city features such an entrenched sense of local identity and a particular way of doing things (ok, a fair argument could be made for New Orleans).


Films are often how we come to understand a place, through stories and themes represented in a certain way. There are many American cities that are brought to life by films that, in some way, bring out their character, their quirks, their beauty, their darkness, their madness. New York has been the stage for countless love stories; dramas; comedies; disasters. San Francisco has been torn apart by Godzilla; ripped apart by earthquakes; and burned to the ground in a ‘Towering Inferno’. Los Angeles has been conjured into a dream and nightmare; Seattle has been ‘Sleepless’, and ‘Fargo’ has been the stage for a great, gothic story of murder and deception. New Orleans seems to lend itself to ‘Vampires’ and ghosts; Washington DC, unsurprisingly, to tales of political intrigue, corruption, and the art of the deal.

I realized that I know Boston more from the way it has been represented through film than I do as a visitor, having spent limited time on brief visits to friends and family over the years. The stories that emerge on the silver screen about Boston seem to coalesce around particularly dark, and indeed, real themes: Boston is rarely the stage for comedies, love stories or frivolous disaster flicks. When the aliens descend on ‘Independence Day’, the death-beam destruction of Boston was not included in the plot.

Rather, Boston as a setting and muse for films has given rise to its own micro-genre, which I am calling Boston Neorealism, in the tradition of ‘Cinema Veritas’, or the cinema of truth. Boston films do not ‘filter’ its often-gray skies; they play up, rather than down, its inherent grittiness; class tensions and social ruptures are brought to the surface, not buried; and human suffering and the oppressive nature of the everyday are brought into sharp focus. Boston films are where dirty laundry is aired, where skeletons in the closet are found.

I think of the great era of neorealist films, in the years and decades after World War Two: Italian Neorealism perhaps being the best example, with its no-holds barred focus on poverty, suffering and misfortune in films like ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and  ‘Rome, Open City’. Through these narratives, the story does not necessarily end with a happy twist; lives are not spared; bruises are not covered. In Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, humor and love are woven together through visceral scenes of life under fascism. Scenes of laughter-filled feasts stick with me, as does the scene of one of Mussolini’s agents pouring hot oil down the throat of a suspected enemy of the state.

On the airplane back to the West Coast from Boston I watched ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016), and the themes and motifs of Boston neorealism emerged that seem to punctuate so many of the films set in, or around Boston. Gray skies and the relentless cold of New England winter, for one. In a gothic twist, the ground is too frozen to bury the dead – and the character Patrick must wait until Spring to bury his father, who spends the winter in a refrigerator. As if William Faulkner himself emerged to write this part of the script.

hero_Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016Fishing boats. Fishing boats seem to always feature in Boston stories, and a boat is one of the main characters in ‘Manchester’. In ‘The Perfect Storm’, a boat disappears in a great Atlantic storm, killing all aboard.

Irish Catholicism: no Boston film is without it, in varying shades. (In ‘Manchester’, Irish Catholicism was not a major plot feature, but still permeated the story).  However, in ‘Mystic River’ and more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse are portrayed as anchors of Boston’s fabric. Working-class Irish-Catholic culture also plays a central role in ‘The Departed’, Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mobster / gangster culture in South Boston. South-Boston Irish identity also forms an important core of the character development in ‘Good Will Hunting’, a story about a boy from ‘Southie’ with serious math skills. In one of the most poignant scenes from the film, class struggle is on display when Will (Matt Damon) accepts a challenge from a braggart Harvard student at a bar in Cambridge – and ends up the intellectual winner. ‘How bout them Apples?’ (says Will), remains one of the most memorable lines from the film, and a metaphor for a smack in the face to Boston’s intellectual snobbery. These themes (as well as a winter backdrop) also appear in ‘With Honors’, where a homeless man engages with, and bemuses, a group of competitive Harvard students.

apples_featurePuritanism, morality, and discipline. In contrast to Irish-Catholic culture, Boston’s puritan heritage and its associated set of strict morals have given rise to a sub-genre of films which look at both history and the present day. ‘The Witch’ (2016) was a terrifying peek into the torment of a Puritan settler family in the New England woods (not far from present-day Boston) and the tension between religion, morality, and the temptation of evil. Salem (now a suburb of Boston) is the setting for ‘The Crucible’, based on the Arthur Miller play about paranoia in politics which was as relevant during the McCarthy hearings (around when it was released) as it is now. Ok, and ‘Hocus Pocus’, the witch-themed Halloween comedy. The straightlaced world of the New England boarding school have set the stage in ‘A Separate Peace’; in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and others – often featuring tortured adolescent men grappling with big questions of expectations, morals, personal autonomy, discipline, punishment, and resistance.

I look forward to the next Boston story, no doubt featuring winter, fishing boats, the Irish, and the tension between intellectualism / snobbery and working-class pragmatism. Neorealism – and truth in film – are powerful reflections of turbulent times, and at a time such as this, all catharsis is welcome. *

“It takes the hood to save the hood”: Art and culture against gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area faces perhaps the most severe housing shortage in America, putting tremendous strain on low income neighborhoods, many of which are home to longstanding communities of color, of immigrants, and refugees. Two neighborhoods – the SoMa area of San Francisco and the San Antonio area of East Oakland – face different waves of the gentrification process. Tax breaks and high-rise construction have transformed SoMA (South of Market) into the city’s tech-hub, home to Twitter and many smaller companies. East Oakland, meanwhile, is seeing the slow encroachment of more affluent residents who are looking for affordability, and an upcoming BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line (in addition to the existing BART line) will likely intensify this process.

SoMa has traditionally been home to a large homeless community, many of whom live in the SRO’s (single-room-occupancy [cheap] hotels) in the area and are drawn to the public services located nearby. There is also an older, working-class Latino community, especially closer to the Mission and Potrero areas. San Antonio, Oakland, is home to a diverse potpourri of African American, Latino and Asian residents, including many immigrants and refugees from areas like Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

These two communities are home to unique organizations that are using art and culture to build community, to maintain local identity, and to combat market forces and mediate – if not stop – the gentrification process.

The University of San Francisco, as part of “Urban Studies Week” (sponsored by Urban Studies and Urban and Public Affairs)  hosted two leaders from these non-profit organizations: Misha Olivas from “United Playaz” in San Francisco, and Prishni Murillo from Oakland’s “Eastside Art Alliance”. In a forum entitled ‘Art and Culture Against Gentrification’ (moderated by Professor Diane Negrin), Misha and Prishni discussed their approach to community building.


Too often, art and culture are seen (at least in urban theory) as harbingers of the gentrification process: artistic pioneers colonize under-valued urban space, sometimes de-populated former industrial zones, sometimes home to extant low income communities; followed by galleries and trendy parties; followed by cafes and shops and then by mainstream, more affluent residents and destination restaurants – ultimately resulting in the ironic displacement of the artists. At least, so goes the usual story (Zukin, 2011 for example).

Misha and Prishni presented a slightly different – and intriguing – twist to how art and culture can be utilized in a community as deliberate mediators within / against the gentrification process, rather than as facilitators of upscale neighborhood change and displacement.

In SoMa, United Playaz owns and operates a “clubhouse”, which serves as an anchoring point not only for neighborhood-based art groups,  but also an important home base for one of the poorest communities in the city. In a city where land and building ownership is elusive for so many, the leveraging of city resources to buy property – and become a permanent neighborhood fixture – sends a powerful message.


United Playaz Clubhouse, SoMA, San Francisco (From UnitedPlayaz.com)

Meanwhile, in East Oakland, the Eastside Arts Alliance is helping to curate a strong, intersectional neighborhood identity and a sense of permanence amidst the forces of change. Their mission statement encapsulates Oakland’s long history of activism, empowerment and liberation: “We are an organization of Third World artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color committed to working in the San Antonio and other Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.”

In addition to providing a physical space for the grassroots arts, Eastside Alliance also helps bind disparate and sometimes awkwardly-juxtaposed groups into a sense of shared belonging: one anecdote given was the example of an event, where a “Cambodian youth with gold teeth” mixed with “community elders in a traditional dance.” On March 11, the Alliance hosted a “Feast of Inter-generational Resistance”, featuring an open mic night and curated events relevant to the Vietnamese-American community, both young and old. But topics also included discussions on anti-Black racism, LGBTQIA themes, tools for grassroots activism and the experience of immigrants, among others.  By providing a platform for such intra-generational and intersectional experiences – as well as intersections for various racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural histories to intermingle and co-exist – the Arts Alliance helps cement Oakland’s unique diversity and identity within the broader constellation of a fast – changing Bay Area.

There are practical applications within the City Planning sphere as well – the Arts Alliance, which has a presence at Oakland’s government’s table – has been pushing for “cultural plazas” as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route through the neighborhood. These will serve as neighborhood markers, but also, as educational tools for newer residents to say “we are here, this is our history”.

Murals curated by the Eastside Arts Alliance, Oakland

The pressures of the Bay Area economy and the shortage of housing and community space will continue, and the waves of change will reshape Oakland and San Francisco. But within these processes, groups like United Playaz and Eastside Arts Alliance are demonstrating the possibilities for alternative, and emancipatory, conversations and productions of urban space and self. As Prishni Murillo said in her closing remarks, people “cannot live their essence” under the oppression of (market forces, authoritarian government, racism, classism, any ism). Therefore, the arts provide an avenue for liberation; art-produced urban space is thus liberating urban space. In Murillo’s words, “as power pushes one way – it is our obligation to push back”.


Beneath the pavement, the (Fascist) beach.

In May, 1968, Central Paris was occupied by students protesting capitalism and the Gaullist ruling government, later joined by millions around France, bringing the economy (briefly) to a halt. A slogan painted across Parisian walls was Sous les pavés, la plage!, loosely translated to ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’. The beach: literally, the sand upon which Paris’s cobblestones rest; but figuratively, the opportunity to remake a different city, a city not bound by the same rules, institutions, or repressive structures. A city of dreams; of liberation.

From a cafe in San Francisco now, once known as the ‘Paris of the West’ – like Paris, a traditional bastion of left-leaning philosophy, culture, and urban experiments, I watch the rain falling through a cafe window as a particularly menacing Pacific storm rolls through the Golden Gate. Across the cafe sits the City Supervisor from this neighborhood, openly gay and a proud father, the first such official with HIV. This is a city of mercy; these streets wrap the marginalized like blankets.

Beneath the pavement, the beach. On these streets have marched social justice warriors; they rise. They rose. On these streets at night dance the ‘Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence’, a queer nun troupe, ‘promulgating universal joy since 1978’ (in their words), spreading a gospel of human rights. Of dignity. Beneath these streets, the ghosts of Harvey Milk, shot dead (in 1978); of the flower children (some still dancing); of those urban souls led to their doom in Guyana by the mad pied piper, Jim Jones (in 1978). Of the generation lost to AIDS. The dead ‘cling like chewing gum to the heels of the living’, as that Parisian Walter Benjamin (1935) wrote, the flaneur lost in the city’s spectral magic. Soon, lost forever, as darkness approached. 1940, at the age of 48.

Beneath the pavement, something darker. An undercurrent more malevolent, more ominous. A beach littered with warning signs, eroding away into the anything-but Pacific. How can we – as urban theorists, as urban dwellers, as cultural scientists, see past the everyday city to the rising threat we now face? City streets have always been patchworks of the beacons of light and the shadowy corners of the human condition. But something new is stirring. In 2017.

Two brief anecdotes. At a flea market in nearby Oakland some months ago, I was browsing at a particularly quirky assortment of knick knacks. Old family photos; an old license plate. Some pewter. A portrait of former president HW Bush. A political comment made – admittedly, a snide one about the Bushes. The proprietor of the stall – veteran, based on the clothes and symbols; began a loud rant against liberals – eventually chasing us away from his stall. A violent instant, raised tension. A tear in Elijah Andersons’ (2012) ‘Cosmopolitan Canopy’. And this, in Oakland – ostensibly the most liberal major city in America.

An Uber ride. San Francisco, rainy day. Quiet conversation with driver. Subtle political comment made, complete silence. Probably not sharing my opinion of the new president. Who is the Uber driver? Who is the knick-knack antique hawker? Who are the more than 10 percent of San Francisco voters – this city of Love, of comforting fog, of St. Francis – who voted for Donald Trump? Neighbors.

On the news today, rumors (fake? real?) of the militarization of the national guard to round up undocumented immigrants, no doubt working in the kitchen of this cafe, in countless kitchens, in homes. Neighbors.

Beneath the pavement, the beach. The 1968 Paris uprisings, for a moment, turned France upside down, and a space of hope glimmered like a match before burning out. I fear that the urban revolution lurking underneath America’s streets will not be as hopeful. We must face what lies beneath, as theorists, as citizens. Lest it consumes and drowns us.*

Hello in the New Year

My name is Jason Luger and I am a human geographer and lecturer in urban studies at the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley. My research and academic interests lie at the intersection of urban space, politics and policy; specifically, I have been exploring the linkage between art, activism, politics, and the city.

San Francisco, my adopted hometown, has always been a place with an intimate relationship between art and urban space, from the art/music/activism of the 1960s to the political street art that now adorns the walls of the Mission district, telling stories of gentrification, police violence, inequality and injustice (see below). In a city where economic divides increasingly define the everyday experience, where homeless encampments drape the sidewalks beneath exclusive towers, and where digital data pulses through the city’s arteries and veins just like the precious drinking water, art remains a crucial medium through which to consider identity, power, justice, and truth.

I am happy to join Urban Cultural Studies as assistant editor for 2017-2018, and hope that I can help stimulate conversations and debates about the difficult, complex, and uncharted waters that cities now find themselves in, as socio-cultural and political hurricanes ravage – and challenge – the status quo around the world. This represents a crucial opening for provocative, enriching, diverse and intersectional conversations about urban culture – and I eagerly invite such conversations.


Street Art in the Mission neighborhood, San Francisco, 2016 (Author’s Photo)