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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Photography of Downtown San Francisco

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Continuing our photojournalism covering San Francisco, today we bring you an additional photo essay of this special city. Our previous report focused on the underbelly of this city beset by income inequality, but today’s images focus on drawing attention to the city’s sights unseen.

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Profit & Poverty: A Socio-Economic Analysis of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation

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“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, 1937

Regardless of whether one believes in one, twelve, or no God(s), the recent apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis—entitled Evangelii Gaudium—feels a bit like divine intervention. In a time where we’re attuned to hearing many media outlets report on the economy almost exclusively in terms of numbers—jobs created, jobs lost, stock prices, consumer spending, etc.—Pope Francis tosses a lighting bolt into an otherwise moribund discussion. Boldly declaring that we should not worship “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose,” the Pope’s exhortation sounds like it was distributed on Soviet leaflets rather than Vatican parchment. Ultimately, Pope Francis’ exhortation upends the conventional discussion of the economy from products to people and from dollars to dignity.

And when one focuses on souls instead of stocks, one cannot help but notice that our world is rife with extreme income inequality and widespread poverty. In fact, the Pontiff spends many paragraphs arguing that the global economy has produced such extreme income inequality precisely because we’re not focusing on people. The plight of the poor “fail[s] to move us,” Pope Francis exclaims, in part because of “our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (emphasis ours). Consider the attention and sheer number of articles that are devoted to the sale of consumer goods, whether it be the latest smartphone or television. Rarely does the media consider who made the goods, and rarer still do they ask under what conditions does that person work and live.

Pope Francis takes us where others won’t: he urges us to think about people not products. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he says, to the point where “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” The notion helps explain how Oxfam can publish a report, to no tangible effect, indicating that the wealthiest 85 individuals in the world have as many assets as the 3,500,000,000 poorest.* Oxfam’s report made headlines worldwide, but those living in poverty witnessed no change in their quality of life from one day to the next.

Aware that reports such as those published by Oxfam perennially fail to alleviate the world’s ever-increasing income inequality, Pope Francis calls for a “vigorous change of approach” in our thinking about the global economy. The Pope’s exhortation is unwavering in its commitment to remedying income inequality: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation … no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills” (emphasis ours). By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address said nothing about socio-economic inequality except to note that “[i]nequality has deepened,” which isn’t so much thoughtful analysis as regurgitation of obvious fact. President Obama never bothers to ask why income inequality has expanded in recent years, instead preferring to speak about the economy as if what truly powered it was “a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than [a] body of fellow citizens,” to paraphrase Lewis Lapham.

Pope Francis turns Obama’s SOTU on its head. Whereas Obama’s SOTU doesn’t mention “the poor” once, the Pontiff keeps the focus on the poor throughout—mentioning them in his exhortation over sixty times. In short, a close read of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium suggests a message that echoes what Occupy protesters spoke of in Zuccotti Park: people before profits. Don’t take our word for it—we’ll leave the last words to the Pope himself. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” Pope Francis declares. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

*That’s 3.5 billion people, or approximately half of the world’s population.