SAN FRANCISCO—A few months ago, Jimmie Fails, a 20-year-old black native San Franciscan, was coming back to his apartment when he noticed a white guy ahead of him. As they passed a park, the guy glanced back at Jimmie then crossed the street, seemingly to avoid him. Jimmie yelled over that he didn’t want any trouble, but the man ran away through an active sprinkler system in the park, soaking himself to escape Jimmie.
“It hurt my feelings, but in some ways I understood where he was coming from,” Jimmie said. “People are always looking at me weird now. People are looking at all black people weird, because there’s no black people left in this city.”
Jimmie’s entire life seems to have turned into a parable of a San Francisco changed by the influx of Silicon Valley workers and their money—so much so that he and a close childhood friend are shooting a feature-length film based on their experiences. The friend, Joe Talbot, is a white 25-year-old native San Franciscan who, since growing up here in the pre-tech boom 90s, says he has witnessed the city transform from a haven for the working class, hippies, artists and literati (his father and mother fit into those last two categories) to a place that feels far less diverse and increasingly uninhabitable for anyone but six-figure tech employees.
Jimmie and Joe met about 10 years ago, at a time when Jimmie was bouncing around the city from home to home, neighborhood to neighborhood, but mostly hanging around near the Talbots’ house in Bernal Heights near the Mission — the area perhaps most synonymous with the city’s gentrification. One night Joe got into a fight with some kid (Joe remembers the fight vaguely being about Eminem), and Jimmie was the only one to take his side.
They’re still friends. Now, they’re also willing symbols of a bygone era; of a time when the neighborhood park they met in was filled with unsupervised kids, not techies with Bugaboo strollers; when San Francisco was a city diverse and chaotic enough that a lower-income black kid and a upper-middle-class white kid becoming friends didn’t seem such an anomaly; an era when there was still a tangible black community in San Francisco.
The movie Joe is now filming and Jimmie is starring in is a homage to that pre-hyper-gentrified San Francisco. The way it is being shot — partially on film, hand-colored, scored with music reminiscent of romance movies from the 1940s — makes it clear the city in which they are shooting, while still physically resembling San Francisco, is no longer the same place. Cookie-cutter glass condos have replaced taquerias, tech offices have replaced artist studios, McMansions have replaced multi-family buildings, and much of the city’s street life has been replaced by a seemingly never-ending stream of men dressed in button-downs staring at nothing but their phones.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is an elegy for the city and for the people who no longer seem welcome here.
“It's about being an outsider and feeling like, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’” Jimmie said. “I can’t identify with the dudes in the hood anymore, but I can’t identify with all these nerdy-ass people either. Your identity gets all wrapped up in what’s happening to the city.”
“The Last Black Man” is obviously an exaggeration but not a big one. There was a 35.7% decrease in the city’s black population between 1990 and 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By 2014, the city’s black population was down to 5.8%, from 13.4% in 1970. Sometimes, Jimmie said, he really does feel like the only black guy left.
“I definitely try to keep in contact with all the black friends I have in San Francisco because most of them are gone,” he said. They’ve moved to the far-off and cheaper suburbs of Antioch, Concord, Pittsburg, or out of the Bay Area completely, most of them chased away by unaffordable housing costs. Unless you make well into six-figures in San Francisco, or happen to inherit a rent-controlled apartment, the cost of putting a roof over your head can be prohibitively expensive. The median rent in the city is $3,380. It’s not only the poor, but teachers, doctors, and engineers who are struggling to stay.
“Last Black Man” will follow Jimmie and his friend Prentice, another black San Franciscan, as they skate through the city and figure out ways to buy back the house Jimmie lived in for the first few years of his life with his parents, his aunt, uncle, their kids, and a few others. The two-story, aqua green Victorian was lost to foreclosure when his parents fell into trouble, and Jimmie spent the next years of his childhood living in different housing projects throughout the city. Sometimes, he was homeless.
It’s hard to tell where Jimmie’s real life ends and its fictionalized account begins. Jimmie really does want to get his childhood home back. But the house featured in “The Last Black Man" will be a more grandly proportioned stand-in. In the movie, the main characters think they actually have a shot at getting back the house. In real life, Jimmie, Prentice and Joe know there’s no chance they could afford its million-dollar-plus price tag. Jimmie, besides the movie work, is currently unemployed. Joe is living off his art. They can’t afford any property in a city with a median home value of over $1 million. They can’t even afford their own apartment: They live together in a unit in Joe’s parents house.
That conundrum — wanting to stay in a place but not being able afford it, and feeling like everyone who can afford it is changing it in some irreparable way — was more universal than Joe and Jimmie realized when they began planning “The Last Black Man.”
When the concept trailer for the film leaked online last year, it quickly gained tens of thousands of views. The movie’s Kickstarter raised $27,000 above its $50,000 goal. Hundreds emailed in, from L.A., New York, London, and other cities in the midst of their own gentrification crises, saying the film resonated. The pre-production crew is mostly made up of 20-somethings from the Bay Area and L.A. being paid very little to help turn it into a reality. Gentrification, it turned out, was something people wanted represented in art.
On a recent Saturday the crew was up at dawn, trying to break into an abandoned navy yard at the edge of the city to shoot some stills. When that was a bust (there were too many security guards), they headed to Golden Gate Park. There, they convinced five women in the middle of a yoga class to hold their poses while Prentice and Jimmie were photographed looking skeptical in front of them. Those stills will end up in a lookbook to be distributed to potential investors who they hope will fund the rest of the production process.
Then the production crew (which was just six people, including Joe’s younger brother) headed to an alley downtown, a block away from Twitter’s new headquarters. Twitter’s relocation has become one of the the most well-known symbols of gentrification in the city. The company received a $56 million tax break to stay put, part of Mayor Ed Lee’s effort to revitalize an area best known for the number of homeless people who sleep on its streets.
But the alley Joe decided to film in that day was decidedly un-gentrified: it smelled like piss, there were a couple of syringes on the ground. A homeless man named Louis Charles Brown chatted up Joe and insisted he be included in the shoot.
The crew needed a shot of Jimmie skateboarding. Photographer Laila Bahman, 28, used a producer’s car as a dolley, lying flat with her feet squeezed between a gap in the back seat and her head and arms hanging out of the sedan’s open trunk as Jimmie and Prentice slowly skated the alley’s couple-hundred feet over and over again.
About an hour into the shoot, a window on the third floor of a brick building on one side of the alley opened and a guy’s head popped out. He asked the crew if they were shooting “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” This kind of thing, Joe said, occurs on every shoot. It’s happened 15 or 20 times since they started pre-production a few months ago. The guys are becoming mini-celebrities.
The crew was invited upstairs by artists Erlin Geffrard and Tim Aristil. In their massive studio, filled with empty beer cans and art, Geffrard and Aristil explained that they and the other dozen or so artists who shared the space were being evicted to make room for tech offices that could command higher rent. When that happens in a few weeks, Aristil will probably move to L.A. Geffrard will to try to find another studio somewhere else in the Bay area, likely not in San Francisco.
The group — Jimmie, Prentice, their crew, and the artists — commiserated about the state of their city and pondered a future in which none of them could afford to live in it. They were all quick to agree that they didn’t care so much about the new wealth, or even about the tech workers flooding the city. What everyone in the studio most cared about was who they would become if they were no longer part of San Francisco.
“It’s always this anxiety that hangs over you,” Joe said. “It’s the one feeling that’s constant. It’s not about property or anything monetary. It’s just about not having a place to fit in. That’s a big part of the film. It’s about identity crisis.”
If “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is financially successful, Jimmie and Joe will be able to remain in San Francisco. If it doesn’t make money, both said they’d probably leave. They can’t live in Joe’s parents’ house forever. And if they have to go, they said, they at least want to go out on a high note.
“I don’t even know where the hell I’m gonna be at in the next few years,” Jimmie said. “That’s why hopefully we can say something with this movie, so we can have people to relate to it, and especially have people in the city relate to it. I’m trying to make a classic movie for them. I want them to feel like at least there's one movie that got San Francisco right.”
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He's writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.