A few months ago, Paul Madonna published a surreal take on San Francisco’s eviction wave in his popular Chronicle graphic series, “All Over Coffee.”
The text described a café scene with an angry older woman calling a pair of young guys in hoodies and flip-flops “usurpers.” The image showed a dilapidated house on stilts, flanked by palm trees and a chain-link fence. The panel ran in the newspaper while Madonna was in Asia for another project.
“I started getting all these emails about that piece, how it was just the perfect portrait of San Francisco right now,” he says.
Back home, in a cruel twist of life imitating art, Madonna was facing eviction himself. His landlord was forcing him and his wife, Joen, out of the Mission District apartment they’d rented for 10 years. They had 60 days to leave.
San Francisco: A Wave of Evictions
Engulfed in a tech boom, San Francisco has become a place where shopping for a home means confronting all-cash offers and bids that range hundreds of thousands of dollars above asking price. Developers are swooping in, and owners are cashing out.
Madonna’s eviction piece conveyed a tension he says is palpable in San Francisco—the feeling of being in an anxiety dream where you’re always running, always behind.
He built a career as an artist over 22 years in the city. His wife was an independent creative agent before becoming executive director of a nonprofit arts organization. They consider themselves self-made people who make things happen and solve their own problems. But the housing market forced them to confront a situation that determination alone wouldn’t solve.
“The issue was not so much being evicted,” Madonna says, and more about the lack of affordable housing throughout the city. “It really felt like we might not be able to stay here, simply because rents were so outrageous.”
The couple did find a place, just in time: space in an old corner store just a few miles away in the Excelsior neighborhood. The owners, friends of theirs, dropped the price, though the rent was still double what they were paying in the Mission.
Madonna says it was “life-affirming” to find a solution through a network of relationships built over the years, as opposed to hitting the pavement. “It was one of those phenomenal community stories,” he says.
Hitting Too Close to Home
Facing his own ordeal with the market, he decided to continue writing about the housing situation, calling it the Eviction Series. The images are desolate, and the text is drawn from Madonna’s actual experience, peppered with absurd fictional details that seem a little too close to reality: a man at an open house pushing a baby stroller full of cash; a flag with an emblem that’s unreadable until you agree to the terms and conditions; a man splashing someone nearby as he pees on urine-repellent paint.
Madonna never wanted his work to be topical, even though it ran in the Chronicle. He figured it was the paper’s job to do the timely stories, while he would cover the rest—the day-to-day life part. He also didn’t want to get autobiographical. In some ways, he’s strayed from these precepts with the eviction pieces, so they bring up mixed feelings.
Things change, whether you like it or not. And they change you as well.
“I’m simultaneously enjoying them, and really needing to write them for myself,” he says. But at the same time he feels “this isn’t the type of work I want to make.”
That’s partly why, after more than a decade, Madonna ended “All Over Coffee." The last strip appeared in the Chronicle at the end of 2015, with a batch of eviction-themed stories that were both scathing and reflective.
He’s created arch, unflattering portraits of the tech industry, but the series is not a picket sign, Madonna says. In his final pieces, argues for seeing things as they are, not how they should be.
“You have to make a decision about your own personal approach,” he says. “Are you going to be angry every day, or are you going to try to make a change?”
The change, he believes, has to involve stepping back from the negative and emotional: “We have the capability of being intellectual and deciding, what’s the big picture here? How do I do the best I can? How can I be the person that I’d want to meet in this situation?”
Though sad to end the strip, Madonna feels it’s time.
“I've been having a love affair with San Francisco in my work for 12 years now,” he says. “I want to leave [the series] having loved it.”
The whole ordeal of getting evicted has accelerated an evolution of sorts for Madonna, who is 43. It will free him to do other projects, including one set in Asia for next year and another San Francisco-based work set for 2017.
San Francisco evolves, too, as a city that’s always been a boomtown, spanning from gold to gigabytes. To complain about the shifts, Madonna says, is “a little like going to a rock concert and complaining because it’s loud.”
He knows this even as he grapples with a bittersweet goodbye to two homes, one literal and one artistic.
“Things change, whether you like it or not,” he says, “and they change you as well.”