The Tenderloin & San Francisco: A (Photographic) Tale of Two Cities

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San Francisco may be one of America’s most iconic cities that draws thousands of tourists and transplants every year, but there’s one neighborhood in town that virtually everyone prefers to avoid: the Tenderloin. As a freelance writer concerned about this country’s growing socio-economic inequality, however, I decided to head into an area VICE has described as “the most hellish neighborhood in San Francisco” to see what I could learn for myself. The New York Times, for what its worth, refers to the Tenderloin as “ragged, druggy and determinedly dingy.” As I approached the Tenderloin, I asked a man familiar with the area how to reach the neighborhood’s most infamous corner—Turk & Taylor—and he looked at me like I had three heads. “What business you got on Turk & Taylor?,” the man asked, taken aback that a young white man carrying a $2,000 camera would be interested in going there in the first place.

“Photography,” I responded.

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As you can see from some of my images, much of what I observed in the Tenderloin is consistent with what you may have heard. First and foremost is the widespread, heart-breaking poverty. Spend just a few minutes in the Tenderloin and you will see people rummaging through trashcans looking for a meal, sleeping on sidewalks hoping for a dream, and smoking from pipes reaching for an escape. There are people with bloodstained jeans milling about, aimlessly mumbling to themselves that they “cannot deal with these fucking extraterrestrials today.” The police questioned a man right in front of me as I walked around; the man sat cross-kneed on the ground handcuffed, and down his chin ran a small trail of blood. At one point, just a few feet from me, I saw for the first time in my life that most devastating of drugs: heroin. The man holding it tied a belt around his arm, quickly scanned his surroundings, and pressed the syringe deep into his vein.

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On the other side of all this, however, is a part of the Tenderloin that is bursting with color, life, and hope. Few people seem to talk about this part of the Tenderloin. You’ll see from the images below that the Tenderloin is home to a wide array of intricate graffiti and street art, each more impressive than the next. Nearly every block had a detailed piece to observe, and the artwork covered a wide range of themes, from idealized versions of the neighborhood to devastating portrayals of a life beset by poverty.

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I encourage readers to visit the Tenderloin the next time you find yourself in San Francisco. While the neighborhood does have a high crime rate and one should exercise caution, I had absolutely no issues roaming the neighborhood alone for hours—while carrying my camera, iPhone, and computer—during the day. Those seeking to learn more about the Tenderloin should read this article from KQED. I hope you enjoy my photographs, and thank you for reading.

Find me on Twitter @4thEstateWatch.

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The Tech Industry & Housing Market Realities: On the Changing Soul of San Francisco

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“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.”—Plato, c. 380 BC

There’s no doubt that technology has impacted our world dramatically, but perhaps nowhere are the changes more visible than in San Francisco. And I’m not talking about the city’s free Wi-Fi. Specifically, I want to address how the influx of wealth to the city from the tech industry has started to change its soul from counter-culture to computer-culture. Whether this change is viewed as a net benefit or loss is almost beside the point, as there’s little to indicate we can stop it. Market realities are altering this city one way and another, and two recent articles published in New York demonstrate that San Francisco’s housing market is one of the primary factors driving this change.

Kevin Roose called San Francisco “the new American capital of real-estate kvetching,” with “supra-Manhattan rents and gentrification at a pace that would make Bushwick blush.” He’s not exaggerating. The New York Times reported late last year that “San Francisco has the least affordable housing in the nation” and that “[t]he median rent is also the highest in the country[.]” Under circumstances like these, the market reality is that many lower-income individuals eventually find themselves priced out. And when they leave, their historical memory of the city—its traditions, trials, and triumphs—leave with them. The Mission District, which used to be heavily influenced by Latino culture, has morphed into a brave new world. Anyone who’s recently walked from Mission St. to Valencia St. can attest to that. The former dotted with small bodegas and pawn shops, the latter bedecked with “[u]pscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals … [with] everything from the $4 artisanal toast … to the underground supper clubs serving kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.” Few people can afford such luxuries, and Valencia no longer exhibits a strong affiliation with any culture outside that of high-end consumerism. The end result is that newly-arrived twenty-somethings, often from out-of-state but with money and a college education, dominate one of the Mission’s most famous streets. The primary method of communication has changed from Spanish to smartphone.

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And these relatively wealthy twenty-somethings are not only taking over the streets, they are pushing San Francisco’s housing market to stratospheric levels. Daniel Alarcón’s piece—entitled “The Mission: Creative Destruction in Eleven Parts”—offers a stark example of this phenomenon. Alarcón recounts that “Facebook founder [Mark Zuckerburg, age 29] bought his San Francisco home for $9,999,000. It had last switched hands for less than one-seventh that price” (emphasis mine). Can the average prospective homeowner compete with such increases? Another individual in Alarcón’s article pondered: “Can you be an artist if you have to pay $3,000 a month?” Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no. In fact, it’s not just artists who can’t pay rent. All sorts of other professions have been priced out of San Francisco, as the NYT has reported there’s “not a single home now on the market is within the reach of the average public-school teacher.” “Five years ago,” by contrast, “police officers and teachers could have afforded 36 percent of the homes on the market[.]” With no evidence to suggest these trends will change anytime soon, San Francisco appears set to experience a significant cultural and socioeconomic shift.

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Real estate realities will dictate demographic changes. Lower-income individuals who have lived in the city for years will increasingly be unable to afford rent, and the person likely to replace them will be a higher-income individual who has been in the city two weeks. There’s no predicting how these changes will affect the city that was so important to the counter-culture and protest movements of the 1960s-’70s, but the San Francisco as it exists in cultural memory will soon be a relic of a distant past. And indeed, that may already be the case today. “More wealth is concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area,” the NYT reports, “than just about any other place in the nation.” I’m not surprised. The city that once spoke the language of rebellion and revolution now talks of robots and riches. Knowledge of counter-culture activism has been replaced with a concern for M&As and IPOs. San Francisco’s character will be shaped by those who live there, but what happens when those who can afford to live there increasingly view the world from expensive apartments and through Google Glass? We’re about to find out.

Note: the images included in this piece were all taken by me in San Francisco’s Mission District. Those interested in finding me on Twitter can do so @4thEstateWatch or @DmitriLs.

If Money Talks, We Don’t Speak its Language: Reflections on the Media & The Economy

FourthEstateWatch

“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.”
—Voltaire

Newspapers from Sydney to Sao Paulo often report on the economy in a way that has no relation to how most people actually experience it. The Economist, for instance, recently published an article on the global economic outlook for the year that appears drafted of, by, and for the people in the corner office. The first sentence wastes no time in identifying their sole concern: “the world’s big stockmarkets[.]” Percentages and profits are tracked with the acuity of a hawk—a “worryingly low 0.8%” here, “market gyrations” there—but the rest blends in with the background and is rendered invisible. Words like people, person, human, worker, labor, staff, and employee never appear. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we write about the economy with Sophocles’ observation front and center: “Without labor, nothing prospers.”

The world as envisioned by The Economist is a world few visit. The Atlantic tells us that “the top 1% of the country controls between 40 and 50 percent of the total wealth from stocks and bonds,” suggesting stock ownership is a club with limited entry. Combine that information with this chart that indicates 90% of Americans own less than 10% of all stocks & bonds, and you realize you’re not the person in the corner office whose outlook on the economy matters to the major media. For those 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, how must it feel to hear a prominent publication proclaim: “America’s economy was roaring along at a 3.2% pace at the end of 2013”? (emphasis ours). For the approximately 1.5 million Americans who lost their long-term unemployment benefits, the concepts in The Economist sound alien and irrelevant: “[i]nvestors should recover their nerve as they realise that the bottom is not falling out of the world economy.”

What should be read as a dark joke—“the bottom is not falling out of the world economy”—comes packaged as sage advice from esteemed journalists. The reality is that for many workers worldwide, the bottom fell out long ago. As Harold Meyerson explains in his exhaustive study of American workers over the last 40 years, “[worker] [p]roductivity has increased by 80 percent, but median compensation (that’s wages plus benefits) has risen by just 11 percent during that time.” Management may try to characterize that as increased “efficiency,” but workers know that translates into much more work for roughly the same pay. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates 10.4 million Americans are currently unemployed and the labor force participation rate is at its lowest point since 1978. Challenges facing the unemployed are manifold and multiplying.

Instead of reporting on the economy as most people experience it—a brutal job market, crushing student loan debt, rapidly disappearing benefits, etc—The Economist genuflects in “worship of the ancient golden calf,” to quote Pope Francis. Money, from their perspective, is all that really matters. This unrelenting focus on the numbers behind profits and growth, however, has resulted in an income inequality so extreme that Oxfam reports that “[t]he wealth of the world is divided in two: almost half going to the richest one percent; the other half to the remaining 99 percent” (emphasis ours). Think about that. Present reality strikes us as both unsustainable and inequitable. “Inequality is the root of social ills,” Pope Francis tells us, and until media outlets understand that and change the focus in reporting on the economy accordingly, there is little reason to hope for change anytime soon. Engrossed by the allure of rising stocks and better rates of return, the view from the corner office obscures the tired, poor, and huddled masses struggling down below. The end result of such a perspective, to quote President Obama’s State of the Union address, is that “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.”