Project History

Поцесс осваивания художником действительности—тяжелый процесс. Жизнь, оплодотворяя его опытом—не церемонится, не щадит его души, но ведь только эго ее безжалостное своекорыстие и насыщает художника волей к творчеству.

The assimilation of reality by an artist is a difficult process. Life, using experience to make him fruitful, does not stand on ceremony nor does it spare his soul, but only life’s merciless selfishness fills the artist with the will to create.

–Maxim Gorky
from a letter to Fedin, 1926

In the midst of San Francisco is a dense concentration of buildings known as SROs—single room occupancy residential hotels—which for many years were the primary housing for San Francisco’s workforce. As a result of drastic changes in the economy and the machinations of a ruthless redevelopment agency and downtown developers, SROs are now the final remaining stronghold of affordable housing for City residents living on a low or fixed income, including the working class, seniors, persons with disabilities, and the mentally ill. Sorely in need of upgrades and repairs, some of them standing in areas long ago deemed blighted, these SROs are considered eyesores by many, when in fact most of them are beautiful examples of an urban style of architecture that gives the central city its own unique ambiance. Built mainly in the two-and-a-half decades following the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco’s residential hotels embodied the concepts of the City Beautiful Movement to create a modern downtown for a city whose population consisted mainly of hotel dwellers.

A few of the hotels have been restored and are now maintained as low-income housing by nonprofit housing corporations. Through the efforts of tenant activists, living conditions have been improved in some of the profit-driven hotels. For the most part, however, SROs are neglected and ill-used; decaying, often squalid housing for society’s forgotten—the poor, the outcast—scapegoats for our cultural dysfunction. For a century, the residential hotels of San Francisco’s inner city have been saturated with the sigh and tumult of human affairs. The constant flux of humanity and the countless stories unfolded within their often stained and dingy walls have bestowed upon them a fugitive beauty, a patina of human existence.

Since 1968 I had witnessed the demolition of many San Francisco neighborhoods and the resultant destruction of communities, culture, and architecture that had once helped make this city so wonderful and unique. Although I didn’t realize it when I moved into the Shree Ganeshai Hotel in 2001, circumstances would soon engage me in efforts to improve and preserve the neighborhoods of the central city. Living conditions were deplorable in most SROs. Years of neglect by property owners and an uncaring city government had taken their toll, and my hotel was no exception. By the time I began my fifth month of residency at the Shree Ganeshai, I had filed three complaints with the Department of Building Inspection and applied for a hearing with the Rent Board. Then I was invited to join the Central City SRO Collaborative, a small, newly formed organization of tenant activists dedicated to improving the quality of life in residential hotels. Before my first visit to their office was over, I had become a member of the collaborative and the tenant representative for my hotel.

The first year of my work with the collaborative was a heady time. Our numbers swelled as we honed our organizing skills and thus, too, grew our power to effect real and lasting improvements in SROs. Among our more outstanding achievements were the passage of the Sprinkler Ordinance, a law requiring all SRO hotels to install sprinklers in every room, and the Uniform Visitor Policy which protects SRO tenants from being charged additional fees for visitors and overnight guests. Unfortunately, the momentum generated by early triumphs lasted only a short time. Sacrificing independence for funding, the Central City SRO Collaborative had joined up with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Subject not only to that entity’s rules and regulations, but also to the political agenda of its director, the collaborative subsequently lost its way and its principle mission was subverted. Nearly all the original members, including me, long ago parted company with it.

I began photographing central city SROs in 2002 with a one-megapixel digital camera that I rescued from the trash. That camera’s poor resolution and my complete lack of experience with photo processing software and file formatting, combined with personal vanity and a lifelong, hard-headed insistence on learning everything the hard way, guaranteed that much of my early photography would never see the light of day. Several years have elapsed since I began this project and in that time I have gradually acquired better equipment and enhanced my knowledge and experience. Far more important than the details of my learning curve is the reason for my somewhat single-minded devotion to photographing the central city. Beginning as a desire to capture the decaying beauty of its architecture and to make an historical record, over time it also became a tool to both publicize the plight of SRO residents and promote the architectural preservation of central city neighborhoods. In 2004 I began compiling my photos and research as The Hotel Project, which in 2008 became Up From The Deep, a work in three volumes: Sixth Street, Mid-Market, and The Tenderloin. Containing architectural data for many of the buildings I photographed and historical background for each of the districts that comprise the central city, it also documents my perceptions during the time I resided in a Sixth Street hotel and is my attempt to expand, if only in a small way, the boundaries of what is perceived as beautiful.

Copyright © 2008, Mark Ellinger

Except where otherwise indicated, text and photos on this site are copyright © 2004-2014, Mark Ellinger. Any use and/or duplication of this material without prior written permission from the author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Ellinger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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