In a small room, inside a former sewing machine factory in the mid-Market district of San Francisco, Mitsuru Muraki is jamming on some unconventional percussion instruments: two round glass vases and a couple of pencils. He and another musician named Gabe Stern are writing a song together. As Muraki moves on to drumming on a metal bucket, a tall, dreadlocked young man pokes his head in the door.
“You guys recording in here?” he asks.
“Yeah, we sure are,” says Stern. “You make music?”
And just like that, another collaborator, Kris Luster, is added to the mix. Muraki and Stern themselves just met about a half-hour ago. But this kind of thing is exactly what is supposed to be happening here. This 14,000-square-foot building is the home of a temporary experiment in “civic hacking”. It’s called [freespace].
The words “hacker” or “hacking” have made their way further into mainstream usage over the past decade-- mostly in relation to things like credit card fraud, or national security secrets. But Mike Zuckerman, a self-described “culture hacker”, says the term is actually more about creative innovation. “At a base level,” he says, “hacking is taking something apart and putting it back together in a new way.” The idea behind civic hacking is to bring people together to find new solutions to urban problems.
The seed idea for [freespace] came from a 48-hour hackathon called the National Day of Civic Hacking. A hackathon is when people get together for a set period of time, around a particular challenge. They work like crazy, a lot of times without sleeping, and then present their ideas at the end. The 10-plus organizers of [freespace] wanted to find a way to go deeper.
“What we really wanted to show is that yes, that’s a great format: to state a problem set, to form teams around it, come up with solutions, and present them. And we just really wanted to extend that over a longer period of time,” Zuckerman says.
The project drew inspiration from sources as varied as the Commonwealth Club, Fela Kuti’s Shrine, Burning Man, and the Diggers – the legendary theater and activist group that brought the ethos of “free” to San Francisco in the late 60s. Zuckerman says Ray Oldenberg’s concept of the “third space”, which is neither home nor work, was also an influence.
So through a creative broker, a friendly landlord, and some crucial support from the Mayor’s Office, they secured a one-month lease on an empty building in the City’s mid-Market district, all for the princely sum of one dollar.
[freespace] is Born
On June 1 they opened their doors. They didn’t have much of a plan, other than to offer the three floors of space to people with ideas for improving the city. Almost immediately, [freespace] started to take shape.
Donated furniture and equipment started showing up, then activities started to happen: yoga and dance classes, a bike sharing program, a giant slide for children -- and adults. There were flower giveaways, clothing swaps, modular gardening, and tons of art projects.
Shuai Chen is executive director of SCRAP, a San Francisco creative re-use center that’s been around since the 70s. She created a site-specific installation in the narrow stairway up to the second floor. It’s a sun, rainstorm, tree and rope swing all made out of scotch-tape, paint chips, microfiche, and magazine cutouts.
Chen says the communal spirit at [freespace] has made her art project easier, and more fun. Multiple people have stopped by to pitch in along the way. “This is exactly what [freespace] is about – it’s sharing what you have with someone who needs it,” she says.
There’s a kitchen on the second floor where people can cook, and then share food and conversation around a big wooden table. The third floor has high ceilings and wooden floors, and it’s mostly open space. This is where F.J. Alton has set up his studio. He recently completed a replica of a cathedral, made completely from his heroin paraphernalia.
When asked to describe himself, Alton says, “Well I’m a street artist, and by street artist I mean I’m homeless and I‘m an artist. I sell my art to survive.”
He says a stranger on the street told him about [freespace] last month, and since then he’s been spending pretty much every day here. He says in the past, it had been difficult for him to get his hands on art supplies, but in the last month it’s been amazing to have access to lots of free materials for his artwork. Now he’s taking shifts welcoming visitors at the front desk. He says [freespace] already feels like one big family.
“I’ve learned a lot about community,” he says. “My artwork has actually gotten different, and better, since being around these people.”
Fueling creativity with diversity
Zuckerman says one of the things the organizers are most proud of is the diversity of people that come together at [freespace]. When it comes to solving our city’s problems, they want to show that this kind of diversity is just as important as technology. “It’s not just getting together Stanford PhDs in a room,” Zuckerman says. “It’s really getting a cross-section of society.”
[freespace] is already inspiring the creation of other projects as well, like the Learning Shelter – a 90-day housing/job training program for homeless people that would be run out of a shipping container.
On a recent night, there’s a kind of hack-within-a-hack, or a day-and-a-half hackathon at [freespace], to help the Learning Shelter project come to life.
The Learning Shelter
About 35 people sit on donated couches and chairs as Marc Roth, the man spearheading the project, explains how the hackathon will go. Roth himself was formerly homeless, but in 2011 was able to leverage a one-month membership to the high-tech “hackerspace” TechShop into a pathway out of homelessness.
The Learning Shelter is already well on its way – five donated shipping containers sit outside next to the garden, and tonight a diverse crowd of people are here to make a logo and website, figure out curriculum, and work on outreach. Zuckerman says this cross-pollination of ideas and thinkers is one of the greatest strengths of [freespace].
“We think it’s important for the intellectuals to be inspired by the artists, and the technologists to have a chance to talk with people who are going through the food stamps and government assistance programs, to have a better understanding,” says Zuckerman. “Because it’s really hard in regular society for those people to sit down and converse with each other.”
Making a [freespace] in San Francisco’s shifting Mid-Market
So it makes sense for [freespace] to be located in the mid-Market area. It’s generally a low-income neighborhood, but tech companies like Twitter have recently been moving in as part of an intense urban revitalization plan. It’s a shift that some decry as gentrification.
Morgan Fitzgibbons, another [freespace] organizer, says he doesn’t know if any of the tech companies have taken notice of this experiment in their midst, “but for us to just be here and say this is not only important, but it’s really cool, and fun, and something that you should probably be engaged in-- is sort of a shot across the bow... to just let people know: it’s okay to make a lot of money, but it’s what you do with that money that’s really the important thing.”
And it seems that a lot of people agree. Through an online campaign, [freespace] raised $25,000 to pay rent on their building for one more month. That’s one more month of workshops, lectures, conversations, murals, and songs – like the one Mitsuru Muraki and Gabe Stern started, which ended up gathering ten more musicians before it was done.
The project has been so successful, its organizers were recently invited to the White House’s “Champions of Change” program. And while the physical space that houses [freespace] will be no more by the end of July, its organizers and participants hope the effects of the project will be felt for much longer.