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.


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


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

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.”