As with most interesting things, it originated from the acute mixture of boredom and personal ambition. In 2011, M. Kitchell, the publisher and co-editor (with Cassandra Troyan) of Solar Luxuriance Press, was newly arrived in San Francisco and wanted somewhere to read his work. The poet Janey Smith, who adopted his nom de guerre after the protagonist of Kathy Acker’s book Blood and Guts in High School (1984), mentioned that he possessed keys to an abandoned apartment in the Lower Haight.
Following that conversation, Smith spent almost two years hosting irregularly scheduled, and utterly illegal, literary readings at 851 Haight Street. Located on the third floor of an ordinary build-ing, the apartment was surrounded by occupied units. Inside its confines lay a series of filthy rooms with their walls ripped open and floorboards exposed. A bathtub sat in one room, used only as an ashtray. Unhinged doors and rubbish were scattered throughout. There was no electricity. For some time, the apartment’s mascot was the calcified corpse of a rat, but after several months this disappeared.
Events occured after dark, illuminated by candlelight, featuring between four and six readers who performed while standing on a thick pile of dirt and sawdust. Early happenings attracted small crowds of no more than 15, but word spread, and by the time of its demise the space could pull upwards of 100. The combination of overcrowding and open flames offered something that American literature had lacked since the Vietnam War proved the inefficaciousness of the written word: the genuine threat of death.
It’s hard to conceive of any apartment in San Francisco’s overheated rental market sitting empty for a few weeks, let alone years, and it’s even harder to believe that such a space could be dedicated to the arts. Over the last two decades, the city has evolved from an American afterthought with a bohemian overlay into a playground of nouveau riche grotesqueries. Although this process arguably began sometime during the middle of the last century, the single major factor has been the city’s relative proximity to the explosive wealth of Silicon Valley and its corporations. The results have been predictable: the working class chased out and entire neighbourhoods dominated by ultra-expensive restaurants and extraordinarily clean straight couples pushing strollers packed with fertility drug-induced multiple births. Young artists and writers, the evergreen shock corps of gentrification, find themselves incapable of maintaining financial parity with engineers from Google and Apple and have moved on to cheaper locales.
The most blatant symbol of this metamorphosis is The Bay Lights, an enormous installation by Leo Villareal that runs along the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge, which was launched in March and will run until 2015. The brain-child of Ben Davis, a marketing consultant, the project is public art designed to make local politicians salivate and is cloaked with pandering banalities about the intersection of technology and art. The press release and website offer so much crowing about the quantity of leds used that an unaware soul might believe herself subject to the next-door neighbour’s monologue about his Christmas display. The project’s expected full cost, still apparently unachieved, is us$ 8 million. This is the state of art in San Francisco circa 2013, pre-designed for its inevitable appearance on Facebook and Instagram.
‘We were all too drunk or too crazy to plan anything,’ says Smith, ‘But 851 became a place where you could reconnect with the San Francisco that existed before technology people screwed everything up.’
Surviving members of the New Narrative movement of the 1980s and early ’90s, arguably the last full flowering of California writing, were well represented at the squat. Performances by Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück and Kevin Killian were received with rapture as they read before audiences with a median age well below 30. For all of the handwringing about the alienation of youth from literature, and for all of the emphasis that the so-called Alt Lit movement has put on the connection of backwards depressives and their Internet addictions, the attendees appeared dedicated to the newly radical ideas of both print publishing and going out.
Smith documented the 851 experience on a now-defunct Tumblr, which could be read as an instruction manual of how small happenings metastasize. Most of the voices that Smith has highlighted and fostered the growth of have been young writers and performers from the Bay Area, such as Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Ben Mirov, Monica Mody and Dorothy Tunnell. Photographs of early readings look like mementos from summer camp. One year on, and all the people resemble, by the dubious standards of the Bay Area, glamourous models.
I gave a reading very early on in the squat’s history and attended almost every subsequent event. The personal high point of these experiences was an event in September 2012 where I performed alongside Kitchell and several others. The first telltale sign of how the night would unfold came when I encountered a young junkie nodding out in the destroyed space known as ‘the kitchen’, but not even this could prepare anyone for the possibility that Kitchell’s love poem about his boyfriend, the artist Dean Smith, would so arouse two women that they ran off to have sex in the battered hallway. Ill-considered promiscuity and drugs are, of course, as old hat as the arguments of medieval Scholastics, but one must never forget that, typically, book people are so very boring. As a lifelong devotee of the literary event, I’ve suffered enough tedium to make, with justification, the claim that 851 Haight was, during its brief bloom, the most interesting thing happening in American letters.
The details are murky, but it appears that the apartment’s lack of occupancy in a rental market with only one percent vacancy was the result of a lengthy civil lawsuit involving the building’s owner. The litigation came to an end in early June, leaving the landlord owing more than us$ 1 million. The writing literally appeared on the wall when notices of collection were posted throughout the building, including on 851’s front door. Smith subsequently started calling every event ‘The Last 851’.
On 28 July, as readers prepared for an event, members of the San Francisco Police Department stationed themselves outside of the building. Inside, the building’s owner and several police officers staged their own occupation of the apartment, waiting to arrest attendees as trespassers. Text messaging prevented any incarceration and the final reading occured in another, undisclosed location: 851 was over.
Perhaps taking inspiration from the marketing-obsessed cor-porations that infest the city, Smith has begun 851’s transformation into a brand. Having been established by the squat as a fixture of the Bay Area’s literary establishment, he is routinely programming events beyond Haight Street. The most high-profile of these was co-hosted in February with City Lights Bookstore and Penny-Ante Editions, held in the fraternal weirdness of the Odd Fellows Hall, and featured myself, the Los Angeles writer John Tottenham (‘Echo Park’s Very Own Sweetheart at the Rodeo’) and the British bon vivant Stewart Home. An 851 reading is scheduled to occur in Jack Kerouac Alley for City Lights Bookstore’s 60th Anniversary. There seems no limit of possibility for 851 now that it has been forced to move beyond its physical space.
There are moments when the stars align and something turns out to be as interesting as its hype. An indefinable quality died out when the apartment was reclaimed by its rightful owners. If the global push to transform every major American and European city into a single conceptual and visual zone has demonstrated anything, it’s this: prospective buyers love hearing about the past squalor of a property. 851 Haight may have come to the end of its time as a literary space, but it awaits the sound of its final performance: the squeals and grunts of arm-waving real estate agents.