F*ck A Pop-Up

What is a pop-up?

If you live in San Jose, you likely have passed by a pop-up. A pop-up is a shop, event space, gallery, or immersive experience set up in an empty, “underutilized,” or otherwise in between area. Some local settings include alleys, parking lots, vacant buildings and storefronts, or parks in gentrifying neighborhoods. Pop-ups transform these spaces into playgrounds for residents and visitors with high disposable incomes. They displace any “undesirable” populations who frequent an area, such as people perceived as criminals or loiterers in Fountain Alley, or those experiencing houselessness in St. James Park.  They alienate and ostracize residents who lack the cultural, social, or political capital to take part. Despite this, developers and investors refer to their pop-up projects as DIY urbanism aimed at beautification, reclaiming space, and activating place to make cities better places to live.

St. James Park, 8 June 2019

Pop-ups disguise blight and fuel gentrification 

Although the concept dates back to the 19thcentury, today’s pop-ups evolved in response to high vacancy rates and business closures after the 2008 economic crisis.  Pop-ups allowed cities to cheaply and quickly fix the “blight” of empty properties. As such, local governments, start-ups, and nonprofits mobilize pop-ups in their efforts to attract new wallets to a region. In San Jose, they have served to fill gaps between development cycles and mask emptiness. They have flooded neighborhood parks with yarn bombing, night markets, craft beer gardens, cinemas under the stars, yoga tents, and food trucks (to name a few). In creating a flurry of activity, pop-ups make otherwise undesirable spaces more palatable to potential investors, developers, tourists, and new residents. 

San Jose’s first pop-ups cropped up around the holiday season. In 2010, Adam Mayberry of the Die Hard Company sold sports apparel in a vacant restaurant. Building on this success, he  forged a partnership with the City of San Jose to transform shipping containers into retail spaces that were then plopped down in a high traffic walkway. This led to the San Jose Pop Up Project–a joint initiative from the city’s Office of Economic Development and the San Jose Downtown Association. The leaders of these groups have dollar signs in their eyes. 

The OED, for example, says their mission is to be a catalyst. They aim to create jobs, foster private investment, generate revenue, and attract talent and developers. SJDA is a nonprofit comprised of local property and business owners who care about (you guessed it!) business and property. Among their stated goals: to improve downtown’s cleanliness, security, and aesthetics; to advocate on behalf of property and business owners; to enhance downtown’s image and attract new visitors; and to facilitate new development. 

In 2014, these groups hosted winter-time pop-ups in the lobbies of two shuttered theaters: Camera 12 and the Hammer. Any out-of-towners passing through downtown for Christmas in the Park (perhaps a pop-up in its own right) would no longer see a sad city in disrepair. Instead they’d see potential. That is, they’d spot happy consumers wending through holiday bazaars en route to drink snowman hot chocolate near the ice rink.

In this way, pop-ups allow potential investors, developers, tourists, and residents to reimagine an area. They can serve as prototypes, advertising how profitable a neighborhood could become.

Pop-ups attract members of the creative class and shove out existing residents in the process

Pop-ups function as a way to attract the “creative class.”  The creative class includes people employed in science, engineering, higher education, computer programming, and research jobs. Arts, design, media, and creative content production workers form a smaller subset.  Members of the creative class have reshaped many work and lifestyle norms; for example, they’ve done away with formal business wear, cubicles, and 9-5 hours. They tend to have higher rates of disposable income, degrees, and leisure time. For this reason, members of the creative class have influence when it comes to recreation, communities, cities, and work. This is evident in the Knight Foundation’s “people-first San Jose” funding strategy.  A blog post on their website positions their efforts as a way to prepare for the estimated 23% population growth that the city will experience by 2040. In partnership with the San Jose Downtown Association, the Knight Foundation has funneled money into pop-ups as a way to make San Jose a “creative city.” Their goal: to appeal to the influx of tech transplants who will arrive thanks to transit-oriented development in the city.

In past decades, candidates would follow industries to get a job or continue working.  For example, if you wanted to work in the automotive industry in 1950, you moved to Detroit.  If you wanted to work in the movie business, you moved to Los Angeles. Now, companies follow people.  As such, members of the creative class see selecting where to live as a lifestyle choice. To attract these folks, and the companies that will emerge once they resettle, cities have to concentrate on becoming “creative cities.” Creative cities feature an abundance of tech-infused artistic and cultural activities. They are globally oriented, with high rates of residents with graduate degrees. They have enough unconventional subcultures to make city life interesting and unique, but not so many that it becomes scary, unapproachable, or unconsumable. 

A screen shot from Garden at the Flea's website shows a past event for Kamay y Manos Kamayan Dinner on April 18th at 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm for $60.  The left side of the image is a large, rectangular photo of the dinner itself, while the event details sit inside a grey box on the right.

Take, for example, the pop-up fine dining experiences held at Garden at the Flea. Though these events highlight cuisines from local communities, they are prohibitively expensive to much of the San Jose Flea Market’s vendors and clientele. The exclusionary price tag, and the promise of an “elevated” evening, however, are attractive to outsiders from the creative class. Tickets to a five-course meal on April 18, 2019 cost $60 a head, with an optional beer pairing for an additional $20. Garden at the Flea promises to be an amazing “everything space” with something for everyone, reads text on the invitation for a $35 per person four-course mole night dinner. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that GATF promises to be an amazing space for everyone with $35 to $80 to spare for a rarified fine dining experience.  

Sign at Garden at the Flea welcoming newcomers to San Jose, 2019

It is telling that copy on the event page positions Garden at the Flea as existing “between” the San Jose Flea Market and the forthcoming BART Station. When it opens this winter, BART will be a literal vehicle bringing wealthy newcomers into the Berryessa neighborhood. Though many locals see Berryessa as part of the East Side, realtors have relabeled it recently as the North Side. This distances the region from the East Side’s reputation as “unsafe.” These newcomers will populate fashionable developments like Market Park San Jose, a prestigious, 120-acre mixed-use space featuring townhomes and luxury apartments.  Garden at the Flea helps potential residents to associate the neighborhood with such amenities as craft beer gardens and bazaars featuring local makers.

Pop-ups require funding, and tech start-ups and global businesses are now taking part 

These short-lived experiences do not materialize out of the ether as the name might imply. Instead, pop-ups require business backing, often from one or a combination of the following: start ups, the city or county, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, wealthy donors, or local groups or associations. Because the post-2008 crisis has ended, pop-ups now serve an additional function. Tech start-ups and global brands and businesses now use them as a marketing tool. 

A photo of Backyard, a pop-up in downtown San Jose's Fountain Alley that took place late summer/early fall of 2019.  The image shows a blue sky in the background, with some large trees on the lefthand side.  A wall-less structure stands at the center of rows of cardboard cylinders.  On the structure is a red sign that reads "Backyard".  Some of the cylinders have black chalkboard paint on them, and folks have written messages across most of them.  A set of string lights hover above a ping pong table on the right, and a security guard leans on some fencing on the left.
Photo of BackYard, August 2019.

A recent local example of this is Backyard, a three-month-long outdoor event space in the parking lot that adjoins Fountain Alley in Downtown San Jose. Funded by WeWork and endorsed by a host of local partners, the space has thus far featured food trucks, an espresso bar, a cinema under the stars, and a succulent-planting party. WeWork has been transparent about their aims to displace undesirable residents. Josette Melchor, the Head of Cultural Programming at WeWork, lauded her team’s efforts to transform a crime-ridden area in the heart of Downtown into a beautiful space. 

The Southwest Airlines “Countdown to Hawaii” Pop Up event in St. James Park featured a  giant countdown board, Hawaiian performances, photo ops, and giveaways for six days straight in spring 2019.

Perhaps the funders with the most influence in the downtown pop-up scene are the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA) and the Knight Foundation. This duo is responsible for two high-profile DTSJ pop-up ventures: Local Color and MOMENT at San Pedro Square. Local Color is a project that aims to “reactivate” out-of-use buildings to provide shared studio space, creative workshops, and pop-up bazaars. So far they have reactivated a gutted Ross Dress for Less and a shuttered Title Company. Of being in cahoots with developers, the executive director of Local Color says we think that the intentional and proactive integration of arts into development cycles is what’s going to maintain our culture and our creatives here in San Jose. 

MOMENT is a project that transformed twelve parking spaces in the San Pedro Square Garage into four micro-retail spaces. In collaboration with San Jose Made, MOMENT’s pop ups have included such chic concepts as a zero-waste soap refill boutique, a macrame plant hanger workshop, and an heirloom-quality haberdashery.

Pop-ups are often immersive

Pop-ups often allow participants to enter a space that seems completely different from the world outside. Some events incorporate elements of fiction or fantasy, others offer chances for creative expression. Events like these crop up in spaces that city leaders mislabel as underutilized. More aptly, they’re utilized by residents who gentrifiers deem as undesirable.  

Take, for example, the Cats-In-Space-themed LED lightsaber battle that repopulated St. James Park in April 2016. Videos of the event reveal hordes of humans whooping as they spar on the darkening lawn. Though this impulse to “take over” the park may seem wholesome at first blush, it comes at an unfortunate cost. Activating the park will make it an integral part of people’s lives, said the executive director of the San Jose Parks Foundation in a 2014 article. This will drive out undesirable elements and make the park safer. The “undesirable elements” he’s referencing? People experiencing houselessness who have congregated in the park for more than 100 years. To add to a trend: the San Jose Parks Foundation is among the Knight Foundation’s local grantees.

Who profits from pop-ups?

A short brown cylinder at the exit of Backyard.  It has two dark green signs on it.  In pink writing one says, "Attention - this event is being photographed and filmed.  All guests irrevocably consent to being photographed and filmed by entering the event.  If you do not wish to be photographed or filmed do not enter the event. @backyardSJ."  The second sign has a drawing of a camera with the words "Recording on site" underneath.  A wildflower pokes into the right side of the image.

In San Jose, tech companies.  When something tech-related is free, its because YOU are for sale.  They are collecting your data and selling it whether we know it or not. Reminiscent of software language—the advertisement that literally pops up when you’re online—pop-ups offer tech companies a chance to both attract your attention and money, as well as mine the shit out of your data. Many tech companies use the data collected via social media to shift their design and think about how they can develop the pop-up space to better lure those with the leisure time and disposable income to attend their events.  Even if you don’t check-in or geotag your location in an Instagram post, sometimes just your attendance is enough for the pop-up to “rebrand” the space.

Also, and probably most obviously, landlords, developers, and business owners. These events increase land values as well as attract both new consumers and potential long-term investment.  Take Gary Dillabough, the developer and realty investor who has spent more than $300 million dollars snapping up properties throughout downtown. As of May 2019, he owned 21 parcels. These include pop-up locations galore: the Fountain Alley parking lot where Backyard currently is, an office across from St. James Park, and the Valley Title Building that houses Local Color.  Since 2017, Dillabough has been an arts event and public art enthusiast.

“Dillabough says his gestures are as strategic as benevolent,” writes one Mercury News journalist. “[ . . . ] spending extra for beautiful, sustainable buildings and supporting culturally vibrant events might draw more high-profile tenants to the city willing to pay more.” Of the Local Color pop-up specifically Dillabough says, “We thought having the artists in there would create more vibrancy and a better atmosphere. That building has been a magnet for homeless people.”

Who is harmed by a pop-up?

While pop-ups usually say that all or everyone are welcome, this is often not the case.  

First and foremost, folks with low or no income who live, work, or socialize in the space where a pop-up is located.  Pop-up organizers often alienate, displace, or somehow dispose of these folks so a pop-up can take place and be deemed “successful.” 

Pop-ups also harm local arts communities. While pop-ups might include some local art, get local artists to do some of their marketing, or provide artists low-wage and temporary work, most pop-ups hide and erase the long-term work of existing local arts communities, which, in San Jose, receive very little support, funding, or opportunities. A recent analysis revealed that between 1988 and 2017, the City of San Jose contracted with San Jose artists only 15% of the time. Of the 150 pieces listed on the Office of Cultural Affairs website, 127 were made by artists outside of the city. Related, downtown San Jose has featured several pop-up art installations by burning man artists with no apparent ties to San Jose. Burning man is a festival that attracts members of the creative class, including some of the biggest names in the tech industry.

The temporary nature of a pop-up normalizes the idea that the artistic and cultural use of space should be provisional and impermanent, undermining the need for long term resources.  Pop-ups hide the fact that there is a serious lack of infrastructural support for art, they make it seem like arts and cultural work are valued (and invested in) in the area when they are not. 


(2018) Placing People at the Center of San Jose by Daniel Harris via The Knight Foundation

(2019) San Jose Downtown Association Facebook Page

(2019) Garden at the Flea Eventbrite retrieved from https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mole-night-dinner-by-chef-gabriel-guizar-tickets-68657032031

(2019) Shifting Colors: As Murals and Public Art Spread Throughout San Jose, Gentrification Displaces the Local Artists Who Helped Make the Area Attractive by Nick Veronin and Mike Huguenor

(2019) This Man Is Spending as Much as Google on Downtown San Jose. San Jose Mercury News.

(2019) Artists fashion spaces in downtown San Jose office building. San Jose Mercury News.

(2015) Navigating Pop-Up Geographies: Urban Space-Times of Flexibility, Interstitiality and Immersion by Ella Harris 

(2008) Sketchbook of a City to Come: The Pop-Up as Research and Design by Dan Hill 

(2019) For three decades, city-funded artwork has largely excluded San Jose’s homegrown talent by Mike Huguenor

(2018) Pop-up Landscapes: a new trigger to push up land value? By Susanna Schaller and Sandra Guin

(2018) Living Labs and Vacancy in the Neoliberal City by Paolo Cardullo, Rob Kitchin, and Cesare Di Feliciantonio

(2014) City Funding Shipping Containers Are Helping Local Bands Thrive (Storefront Magazine)

(2017) Pop-Up Justice? Reflecting on Relationships in the Temporary City by John Hennebury, published in Transience and Permanence in Urban Development

(2013) Space and Exclusion from Fair Play – Art, Performance, and Neoliberalism by Jen Harvie

(2014) How to ‘Activate’ St. James Park by James P. Reber (San Jose Inside)

(2014) Pizarro: Temporary Retail Stores Pop Up in Downtown San Jose

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