The horror stories recounted in the San Francisco-set documentary Boom: The Sound of Eviction have played out (and still do) in any number of NYC neighborhoods, from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg. But the specific location and period—the Mission District at the height of dotcom hysteria—add an alarming time-lapse effect to this scrappy chronicle. Gentrification may be a fact of modern American urban life, but as Boom makes clear, the strain that spread through the Bay Area in the late 1990s was unprecedented in its inexorable swiftness. What happened was more than a housing crisis; this was a class war in an acceleration chamber.
Produced by the grassroots SF video collective Whispered Media (which had a hand in the WTO-demo doc Showdown in Seattle), Boom begins with footage of a public housing block being demolished, and goes on to catalog the New Economy developments and displacements that rocked the Mission, a largely working-class and Latino neighborhood with a sizable community of artists and nonprofit groups. As the bubble inflates, capital floods the area. Internet start-ups move in, buildings are razed and renovated, rents soar, eviction papers are served. A family is given three days to get out when a new neighbor complains about noise. A dance studio holds its final class. An octogenarian tenant dies while battling landlords who plan a condo conversion, and becomes a charged symbol in the anti-gentrification struggle. Things are hardly better across the bay, where a no-cause eviction notice leaves an Oakland mother of five camping out with her brood in a friend’s cramped apartment. Mayor Willie Brown, real estate developers, and dotcom CEOs dutifully spout the rhetoric of revitalization and renewal, but juxtaposed against the evictees’ worsening situations, each utterance seems increasingly callous and disingenuous.
Effective as Boom is as a consciousness-raising showcase of activist anger and frustration, a level-headed journalistic approach would have helped. The repetitive interviews meander into amorphous sentiment, which the filmmakers often favor over cold hard specifics. Boom also tends to reduce the complex process of gentrification to the borderline-strident refrain of “community good/dotcom bad.” There are only glancing looks at the big picture—the history of the phenomenon, and the race and class divisions among the displaced (given that the mainly white artists, now being evicted along with families of color, were the original gentrifiers). Opening on venture-cap vainglory, the documentary sticks around for the pink-slip soirees. Boom: The Sound of Eviction ends with the deathly hush of the bust. Some buildings whose residents were uprooted are still unoccupied. The film unfolds as if in fast-forward; the rewind button, for many of those affected, remains out of reach.