Welcome to SF's freespace: Where the upper-crust meets the crust

By Dan Raile , written on April 4, 2014

From The News Desk

Just beyond the daunting loom of Pando Media’s Global HQ in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district a revolutionary incubator project is taking shape.

Launched last year as the result of an idea spawned around the National Day of Civic Hacking, freespace is an experiment in community engagement that is putting paid to many of the frothy ideas about coworking, synergy and incubation that currently grip the city by its pocketbook.

The current freespace location at 6th and Market Streets occupies what would otherwise be one of many vacant storefronts in the area, which is slowly becoming more palatable to developers in the wake of successful Mid-Market rehabs. It’s a simple, two-story space with places to sit, free wi-fi, bookshelves, and a street-facing, mostly-in-tune piano (middle F# is a jolting microtonal blitz that sounds like a dying car-horn.)

Freespace doesn’t have to manufacture its funkiness.

“Our ‘hack’ is to find a building and give it to people, to encourage people to take ownership of the space, come in, meet other people, collaborate and just hang out or come up with new ideas,” says Ilana Lipsett, one of the organizations 9 co-founders.

Lipsett is a far cry from the sort of crusty one might expect to have given birth to such a project. An SF native, she worked for years in Washington, DC as a community organizer before returning home to get an MBA in community management.

Freespace has a grant from the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and Lipsett herself formerly interned in that city department. The organization also works closely with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and represents just one example of San Francisco’s efforts to incorporate the collective wisdom of the tech world’s innovations and successes toward an increase in the public weal.

The EWD grant allows freespace to offer classes and activities for low-income individuals, at no cost. In fact, cash transactions of any kind are prohibited within the walls of the space, one of a only a handful of hardline rules.

Landlords of shuttered businesses sign on because the interim use freespace provides lets potential tenants see it in action rather than tour the sarcophagus of a dead business.

Lipsett says that freespace is a “physical representation of the digital, a physical API.” It’s the locus of interactions between San Francisco's varied residents that, if they happen at all, are too often plagued by misunderstanding and disconnect. Freespace is a direct manifestation of a solution to those problems, as tech workers and low-income adults alike join free yoga classes, paella instructionals, silent disco parties, jazz classes, hackathons and anything else ‘users’ dream up.

Earlier this week, I was abusing freespace’s piano when I met FJ Alton, who is helping run the space. Alton is developing a program that will teach low-income adults how to build bicycles. His goal is to build 30 bikes in 30 days using donated spare parts and donate them to nearby charity organizations. He was inspired by his work with Yellow Bike, who he credits with helping him to come up with the idea.

Once participants have helped build those first 30 bikes, Alton will help them find the parts to build bikes for themselves. The forthcoming grant proposal for the project, called [Freewheel] Challenge, articulates that the program is addressed at sustainable transport, economic independence, health, and crime issues.

Alton is a veteran of the freespace community, having stumbled upon their former location at 7th and Mission Streets last year.

He didn’t come to it easily.

A Seattle native, he was a hard-drug user from an early age. At 23, motivated by the birth of his daughter, he cleaned up, enrolled in art school and found work. Two and a half years later, he had a BA, custody of his daughter, and a job at Amazon.

He worked at the ecommerce giant as a designer for 6 years until his daughter passed away at age 7 of leukemia. At that point, Alton relapsed, sold everything he owned, and set off on his skateboard toward the East Coast. He bounced around until he was hit by a bus in New Orleans and nearly died, suffering half-a-dozen broken bones and bleeding in his brain. His parents were called from Seattle because the doctors expected him to die.

While recovering in the hospital, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. His tumor removed, he took to his skateboard and headed back to the Left Coast. He says that he did two-thirds of the trip by skateboard, and his cement-hard, monkey-skull-sized calves support the claim.

He spent some time in LA before heading back north to Seattle and home. It was during that trip that he happened into freespace.

“At that point in my life, I just didn’t care about anybody in this world, including myself,” he says, “but freespace welcomed me with open arms. I got clean because of freespace. It gave me a reason to do something with myself.”

When we talk, Alton willingly gives away cigarettes to the many passersby who approach him.

“Freespace changed my life,” he says. A fairly clean-cut guy in a hacker T-shirt and green thick-rim glasses agrees, saying it changed his too. Alton counters gracefully, “No, I mean it really changed my life.”

Recently Alton was told that his thyroid cancer had returned and spread. His lip is swollen from a nocturnal spider bite, and he fusses with it as we speak. But his energy is calm and focused on getting the [Freewheel] Challenge off the ground, keeping freespace running smoothly and quixotically, and making sure everyone knows they’re welcome.

 [image via]