In high-priced San Francisco, artist and housing activist Fernando Martí still believes in a communitarian city

By Ana Lucia Ralda. June 14, 2022. Published in the SF Examiner

Fernando Martí standing next to one of the murals in the iconic Balmy Alley in the Mission. Photo by Bruno Bolla.

There are certain people whose life’s work is to cultivate community and preserve cultural heritage. In the Bay Area, Fernando Martí is one of these people.

Martí, age 55, is a community architect, housing activist, printmaker, writer and poet who has spent his career demonstrating that affordable housing and integrated city planning are essential elements for keeping our cultures and communities alive.

This past April, Martí stepped down from his position as co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of 21 community-based housing developers and tenant advocates, known as CCHO, that he has helped run since 2011.

He is a firm believer in the interrelation of art, politics, identity and place, and of the transformative potential of this exploration. His poetry, prints and altares (altars) highlight the inherent tensions of these connections.

An immigrant from rural Ecuador, Martí grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California and arrived at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1990 as an undergraduate architecture student. The Bay has been his home ever since.

At first, architecture came as a compromise between his artistic dreams and his mother’s wish that he become an engineer. But it wasn’t long before he realized that architecture was more than just designing photogenic buildings.

“It is about the small decisions,” says Martí. “It is the process in which societies create spaces that reflect who they are, how they live and how they change. It’s about how we move and use space. It’s about the ways we are human.”

Fernando Martí, age 2, holding a handsaw in his parents farm near Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photograph by his mother, Nellie Palacios.

Until he was five years old, and summers after that, Martí lived on a farm on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador with his parents. Neither of them were farmers; they taught themselves everything they knew about horticulture, construction and even veterinary medicine.

Fernando Martí, age 2, holding a handsaw in his parents farm near Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photograph by his mother, Nellie Palacios.

From a young age, he had to help his parents around the farm: cleaning the barn or feeding the animals. He says this experience contributed to his do-it-yourself mentality.

Moving yearly between California and Ecuador, he felt like he inhabited two worlds and was always aware of the ways in which a place is grounded in its history and those who inhabit it. Yet for most of his life, articulating this wasn’t easy.

It was until he was introduced to books like “Loving in the War Years” by Cherrie Moraga and the comic series “Love and Rockets” by the Hernandez brothers that Martí found like-minded voices and Latin stories that portrayed characters with complex personal identities. These stories spoke of the hardships that come with having a mixed identity as well as of the attendant resilience and pride. It was one of the first times he felt represented in literature.

When Martí arrived in Berkeley in the early 90s, he became fascinated with places like People’s Park — community run spaces that reflect the people who use them. People’s Park started as a neighborhood project and quickly became home to the Free Speech Movement of the late 60s. Today it continues to serve as a historical sanctuary for some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Martí understood that protecting community-run public spaces like People’s Park went hand in hand with protecting communities themselves.

He studied how the People’s Park Movement inspired other neighborhood parks in California in the 70s, such as Raza Park, now called Potrero del Sol, located at the end of 24 Street in the Mission, and Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego. All three parks were the result of nonviolent land takeover by the people, and have served as centers for community organizing and advocacy since their creation.

“This way of thinking about architecture and urban planning is built upon the idea of intersectionality,” says Martí, “upon integrating who we are and our history into what we make. For me, this is about philosophy, but it’s also about politics. It’s about protecting the agency of people.”

In the years between 1995 and 1999, the Bay Area experienced exceptional demographic change and economic growth due to the dot-com boom. Venture capital rushed into tech start-ups, flooding money into the region like it hadn’t seen since the Gold Rush.

This investment, although primarily centered around Silicon Valley, transformed the San Francisco housing market, making it one of the most expensive in the world due to the influx of high paid tech workers and real estate developers. Many residents were displaced from their neighborhoods and The City failed to build enough affordable housing and to overcome state prohibitions to protect long-term residents.

“Living in the Bay Area in the 90s,” says Martí, “between the anti-war protests against the Iraq War, the mobilizations to protect People’s Park and the violent response of the state — then moving to San Francisco during the dot-com boom and being witness to the rapid displacement of entire neighborhoods — it was a process of understanding how power operated and how decisions were made.”

Martí knew that in order to influence the way neighborhoods develop, new policies needed to be advanced. So he went back to UC Berkeley, where he earned a joint master’s degree in architecture and city & regional planning. Since then, he has been working on advancing policies and organizations that protect long-term residents, low-income families and cultural neighborhood institutions in San Francisco.

Back in the city, he helped found the San Francisco Community Land Trust — a nonprofit that creates permanently affordable housing in the city through community ownership of land.

Around the same time, Martí began to experiment more with poetry and printmaking. He started frequenting the poetry open-mic nights at Alley Cat Books on 24 Street — now called Medicine for Nightmares — where the Latin poetry community still meets today. He also joined the San Francisco Print Collective, where he learned to do screen prints that he uses to explore the clash between inhabiting a place and reclaiming one’s culture.

Through his art, Martí imagines a world where people work together to build the future we want to see. “That Green New Deal of the future must include transportation and energy, but it must also include housing,” he says. “Otherwise, housing inside our major cities will be accessible only to the rich.”

Martí recalls San Francisco, 30 years ago, when Valencia Street was affordable and full of Latino cultural spaces, and Hayes Valley was a Black neighborhood. He explains that in order to reclaim the land and create a new vision for the future of our communities, we need protective legislation, collaborative organizations and united neighborhoods.

One of his proudest achievements at CCHO has been COPA, the Common Opportunity Purchase Act. Passed in 2019, this piece of legislation gives qualified nonprofit organizations first right to purchase residential buildings for sale in San Francisco. For Martí, these are examples of how housing policy, even in a capitalist economy, can enable shared land, urban farms and community gardens — in essence, integrated family housing and cultural spaces.

“We must invest public funds into creating affordable and integrated housing plans for the future,” he says. “The resources exist; what we need is the political will to do it. As a country, if we put the money that we give to the military, police and prisons into helping people in need, everyone could have a safe place to live.”

After spending the last two decades fighting for other people’s housing rights, Martí and his family are in a three-year process of facing their own eviction. He and his wife Michelle have lived in their Noe Valley apartment since 1998. Now they also have a 13-year-old son, Carmelo.

Part of the negotiation process with their landlord has been to get time to find another place. So far, they haven’t been able to find anything they can afford in San Francisco. They have until next August to figure something out.

In the meantime, Martí continues to do political art and poetry and works with the next generation of San Franciscans, including his son, to build the community of the future.

“People ask me why I do so many different things. To me, it is beautiful to see how all the different aspects of someone’s identity reflect on what they do. My political work around housing, my work as an architect, my poetry, my art, they all inform one another. In fact, I think this actually makes the work more impactful.”

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