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.

The RightsCon Big Picture: Has the Battle for Privacy Rights Online Already Been Lost?

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San Francisco, CA—At the risk of committing a thoughtcrime, it’s hard to walk away from RightsCon day two without thinking that the battle for our privacy rights online has already been lost. While I would undoubtedly prefer to believe the opposite were true, that seems unlikely given present reality. Many people at RightsCon appear optimistic about the likelihood that one day we will be able to enjoy the Internet with our privacy rights intact, but the facts suggest that conclusion is unwarranted. Those who work and think about this issue should make no mistake about it: securing our privacy online will be a Herculean task.

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As a starting point, the ongoing NSA revelations make absolutely clear that the United States is actively and aggressively involved in surveillance activities that infringe on your privacy rights online. The United States is not alone in digital surveillance, either, as it is joined by its Five Eyes partners (including the UK and Canada) as well as Russia and China, among others. But governments are not the only players in the game. As many people at RightsCon pointed out, private (and public) companies are collecting mind-boggling amounts of data from our Internet-based activity every day. Information about our activity online is being plucked by private and public hands from the moment we log in until the moment we shut down. Viewed from a distance, the end result is clear. The fight to secure online privacy begins from a near-impossible-to-overcome starting point: there’s essentially no privacy on the Internet as it currently exists.

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And the people at RightsCon know this. That’s why you can easily find someone here who uses VPN, PGP, and/or Tor—they know that not doing so will mean exploring the Internet as it exists for everyone else, and that Internet is a place where you have no privacy. But the bad news doesn’t stop there. Outside of RightsCon and back in the real world, most people have no clue what VPN or PGP are, let alone how to use them competently and effectively. By comparison, just yesterday the Los Angeles Times published an article indicating that 11% of Americans think HTML is a sexually-transmitted disease. Here again the picture comes into focus when assessed from afar. On one hand, the people at RightsCon understand that the Internet offers no guarantees whatsoever regarding privacy and that the only way to protect oneself online is through an array of computer programs, and on the other hand you have the reality that most people can barely manage email and online shopping. Privacy online can be secured, it seems, but only through technological means that are as understandable to most people as Egyptian hieroglyphics. What are the odds the situation can be reversed?

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Numbers may help provide a sense of scale to the gargantuan hurdle facing digital privacy-rights advocates. The U.S. census indicates that the U.S. population last year was approximately 316,000,000. According to Tor’s own numbers, for reference, approximately 370,000 people use the software every day. Notwithstanding the millions of Americans who don’t use the Internet at all, you don’t need to be a mathematician to see that the number of people using Tor is greatly outstripped by the number of people using the Internet in general. And Tor is just one method of protecting your online privacy out of many. Most of us, in other words, experience the Internet in precisely the way that the people at RightsCon know leaves you exposed with zero privacy. Shockingly, Americans appear unconcerned, as 45% of them “say the government should be able to go further than it is” in its online surveillance, according to a Washington Post-Pew Center poll regarding the NSA last June.

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On our current trajectory, there seems to be little reason to think that we will be able to secure privacy online in any meaningful sense anytime soon. How to believe otherwise? Both governments and private entities are extracting, aggregating, and analyzing data from our online activity everyday. The majority of Internet users have only the slightest idea of how the Internet actually works, let alone Internet security or encryption. Worst of all, most people just don’t seem to care. Does our right to privacy end where the Internet begins? I hope not, but the weight of the evidence tips the scales (heavily) towards yes.

This piece is not written to denigrate those who work towards securing our privacy rights online. I support that goal and that fight is important. At the same time, however, it is critical to understand the scale of the journey ahead. Only then can we begin to identify a way forward. Indeed, one of the panelists today—Richard Stallman (pictured below)—offered what might be the best advice regarding online security I heard all day: pay cash, get rid of your cellphone, and do less online.

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Where Human Rights Meet the Internet: RightsCon Day One

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San Francisco, CA—technologists, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and others have gathered here in San Francisco to brainstorm solutions to the myriad human rights challenges that face the world in the digital age. I’m reporting live from RightsCon, a human rights conference hosted by Access, “an international human rights organization premised on the belief that political participation and the realization of human rights in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on access to the internet and other forms of technology.” While there’s no question that RightsCon represents a step in the right direction in terms of thinking about the intersection between human rights and Internet-based technologies, the journey has yet to come full circle. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch, I want to close the gap between a few things that others at the conference may have missed.

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– What I first noticed upon entering RightsCon was that event sponsors include various companies mentioned in the NSA’s PRISM slides: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. These are also the companies that voluntarily dismissed their pending case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in exchange for the ability to publish (allegedly)  more robust corporate “transparency reports,” a move that even the Washington Post has described as “mostly a PR stunt.” Despite the NSA and FISC controversies, however, I later discovered that a panelist for “transparency reporting for beginners” was a Policy Communications Manager at Google.

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– During the event’s opening remarks, Nnenna Nwakanma reminded attendees that “more than half of the world’s population still does not have Internet access.” This is a critical point that I feel does not deserve enough attention. As I have previously reported, there is a gross disparity in Internet accessibility between people (and countries) of varying wealth, and the rule of thumb is that greater wealth equals greater Internet access. It is important for those thinking about human rights, then, to keep in mind that vast swaths of (largely indigent) humanity do not yet use the Internet. Internet-based approaches to human rights tend to downplay the reality that many victims of human rights violations simply do not have Internet access, rendering them out of sight, out of mind, and out of the conversation.

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– Lastly, I want to note that while everyone at RightsCon seems to be talking about the Internet, no one seems to be talking about the environmental costs of the Internet. The question has critical implications. The New York Times has reported that “[m]ost data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner … [o]nline companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid” (emphasis ours). All of the Internet-based solutions to human rights, then, will require more and more data servers on which to store all of  that Internet-generated data. But yet, as seen above, data centers can waste “90 percent or more” of the electricity they pull. Human rights activists who champion Internet-based approaches to human rights problems must find a way to square the ever-increasing energy consumption of the Internet and the ever-decreasing natural resources of our planet. Failure to do so could be catastrophic.

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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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Poverty & Surveillance in San Francisco: A Photo Essay

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Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we’ve written about both income inequality and state surveillance at length. Today, however, we want to explore those topics not with the keyboard but with the camera. Presented here are images of a San Francisco that is mired in poverty, beset by barriers, and ruled by surveillance.

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