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, 55, is an 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 cultures and communities alive. In April, he stepped down 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.
Martí 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 (altar art) 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.”
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. 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 inhabited two worlds and became 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 wasn’t 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. He said it was one of the first times he felt represented in literature.
When Martí arrived in Berkeley, he became fascinated with places like People’s Park — community-run spaces that reflect the people who use them. People’s Park came into being in 1969 when Berkeley activists planted the first tree on a UC-owned, abandoned city block on Telegraph Avenue and helped make it into a cultural and political meeting place. 
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 at the end of 24 Street in the Mission, now called Potrero del Sol, 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.”
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 startups, 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 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 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 and 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. “The Green New Deal of the future must include transportation and energy, but it must also include housing,” he says, referring to the ambitious plan to wean the United States from fossil fuels and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. “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 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, the 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 additional time to find another place. So far, they haven’t found anything they can afford in San Francisco. They have until August 2023 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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