“The New Downtown” (2006)
Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class.
Historically, San Francisco has never tried to keep existing populations in place. Over the past fifty years, redevelopment and gentrification of the Western Addition, Fillmore, Mission and SoMa have not only destroyed communities, culture and architecture, but have also made the central city the final remaining stronghold of affordable housing for many thousands of low-income residents. (For historical background, I have appended excerpts from my essay Sixth Street, which have been updated and edited for context.)
Re-purposing of the mid-Market corridor has begun in earnest and construction of expensive highrise condos is booming. The problem is that virtually all of San Francisco’s limited land mass is already developed; there is no “free” or unoccupied land. Development of new housing and commercial projects designed for new markets perforce means the demolition of existent architecture and the displacement of established businesses and communities. The redevelopment agency and nonprofit housing developers have added several thousand new low-income housing units to the market with thousands more either planned or in the works, but the total falls far short of replacing all the units that have been lost.
“Dana” (2012) A twenty-year resident of Sixth Street ponders the future.
With the central city in the throes of “revitalization” (agitprop for gentrification), the gentry can no longer avoid Sixth Street and thus broad-based coalitions like WalkSF have turned their attention towards improving the neighborhood’s safety and appearance. While clearly motivated by their own self-interest, they nevertheless invite everyone in the neighborhood to participate in so-called community improvement workshops, but as representatives of the gentry and commerce, the organizers hold all the cards. Soon enough they will start wondering what to do with all those awful old hotels. History says they will have them demolished, but maybe this time, against all odds, the powers that be will place the welfare of poor and disenfranchised fellow humans above the interests of capital. Otherwise, the future of Sixth Street seems unbearably sad. For many of its current residents, there will be no other place to go but out of town.
Sixth and Minna, 18 April 1906.
After the earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco’s Sixth Street was rebuilt with rooming houses and residential hotels—also known as SROs, or single room occupancy hotels—that for many decades housed the working class. These days, Sixth Street is where the poor are warehoused and the neighborhood’s working class origins are largely forgotten. As poverty is for many people an uncomfortable truth to be avoided, there are prejudicial blind spots in the general consensus regarding Sixth Street. In fact, most people wish Sixth Street would just go away.
When I immigrated to San Francisco in 1968, the South of Market area was a working-class neighborhood largely populated by laborers, off-season migrant workers, merchant marines, and retirees eking out their golden years on meager pensions; men whose sweat and toil helped make San Francisco a thriving, prosperous, world-renowned city. I soon discovered that most people believed these men were all bums and winos, characterizations that had been cultivated since the mid-50s by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and downtown developers, instigated by hotelier and real estate mogul Ben Swig and promulgated by the San Francisco Chronicle and News Call-Bulletin, two of the City’s daily newspapers.
Newscopy: “Alcoholics on Skid Road.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956.)
Following World War Two, the densest concentration of South of Market SROs was in the area known as Yerba Buena, just across Market Street from San Francisco’s business and shopping district. To Ben Swig, Yerba Buena was prime real estate for the expansion of commercial and civic functions, and because the most expeditious way of clearing the area would be to have it declared blighted, he donated money to the redevelopment agency in 1954 for the preparation of a study. Even though the money was returned by agency director and future mayor Joseph Alioto, the plan moved forward.
Newscopy: “Men gathered on Skid Road.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956.) Look closely at the faces and attire of the men in this photograph and you will see that these same gentlemen were also posed in the next photo.
In a campaign to discredit the neighborhood’s residents, the newspapers published articles that depicted South of Market SROs as flophouses inhabited by alcoholics and lowlifes, embellishing the stories by posing unwitting hotel residents in photos that purported to show them getting drunk on the sidewalks.
Newscopy: “SKID ROAD, SAN FRANCISCO–‘No one along Skid Road is likely to shop carefully.'” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956.)
Little mention was made of the workers and retirees who were by far the majority of SRO residents. The intention was to mitigate concern for the thousands of people who were to be displaced by the razing of every SRO from Third Street to Fifth Street, thus allowing the City to save millions of dollars by sidestepping the issue of relocation. Who would care about the evictions of bums and ne’er-do-wells?
Newscopy: “SKID ROAD–This is a hotel in the wino district. It has 200 rooms renting from 50 to 75¢ a night, chiefly to old-age pensioners.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1954.)
In 1969, many of those who would be affected joined together to form Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR), which took the City to court. After a grim and protracted battle during which people were killed, buildings burned, and political organizations suppressed, the City was forced to provide a modicum of relocation support and to build a couple of residential facilities for seniors before the area was completely gutted. Be that as it may, the cynical manipulation of public opinion successfully engendered a prejudice against hotel life that to this day shapes the common perception of Sixth Street.
Newscopy: “Slum area hotel at 259 Sixth St., owned by William H. H. Davis, president of the City Board of Permit Appeals.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo by Sid Tate, 1961.)
In recent years a sympathetic district supervisor helped to implement some needed improvements for the SROs that remain, but otherwise the policies of city government and law enforcement have created more problems than they have solved. As if filthy sidewalks and poorly maintained hotels with greedy owners and abusive managers were not bad enough, residents must also live with the constant threats of robbery and violence, because the police for years have used Sixth Street as a containment zone for crime. The corralling of criminal activity by the San Francisco Police Department and irregular, substandard maintenance by the Department of Public Works are underlying reasons why attempts to improve the appearance of the neighborhood never seem to make any lasting difference.
“Winter Evening – Sixth Street” (2004)
Vantage point: Shree Ganeshai Hotel. 68 Sixth Street.
Hotels that have been bought and refurbished by nonprofit housing corporations now have modern, better-maintained accommodations, a major improvement to be sure; but a system of tiered management tends to circumvent meaningful dialog with tenants who have valid complaints, and so-called supportive housing too often fails the very tenants who are least able to care for themselves. Ideally, supportive housing helps people with disabilities live independently by providing individualized services, including medical and psychiatric care, medication and appointment reminders, in-home healthcare assistance, addiction treatment, housekeeping, meal programs, and life coaching. In reality, what some nonprofits call supportive housing is little more than an administrative hierarchy of case managers who refer tenants to outside government and nonprofit service providers. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers and often lacking professional training and experience, such case managers have little time to spend with individual clients. Without on-site personal assistance and followup, some disabled tenants fall through the cracks. Unable to navigate their problems by themselves, they wind up in institutions or on the streets again.
“Upper Sixth” (2008)
Then there are the City’s master lease hotels, where crimes committed by staff and management—including embezzlement, drug dealing, property theft, pandering, rape and other forms of violent assault—are disturbingly pervasive yet receive little public attention, largely because victims are often persuaded to settle out of court. Prominent among master lease hotels is the Seneca on Sixth Street, notorious for violence and open drug activity in the hallways.
Grady’s and Club Charleston, 1995. (Photo by Virginia Allyn.)
For many decades, Grady’s was a neighborhood bar that opened into the lobby of the Seneca Hotel. While its run-down appearance in more recent years may have qualified it as a dive, it was in fact an important social hub for the neighborhood’s older residents, serving as living room and even dining room for people whose homes consisted of a single small room. After the Seneca became a master lease hotel and management was taken over by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Grady’s was served with a three-day eviction notice. It closed its doors for the last time on St. Patrick’s Day 2002, leaving many of the community’s seniors without a place where they could meet and socialize. Since then, nothing has been done to address that need. Their social lives erased, it is as if these people never existed. They are rarely, if ever, seen anymore. All that is left for them is the solitude of their lonely rooms.
The Arrow. 18 Sixth Street.
Less than a year before I captured this image, the Charleston was a neighborhood gathering spot, a place to socialize for people who live in the area’s hotels. Near the end of 2002 the proprietors sold their liquor license to some young entrepreneurs, and the Charleston became the Arrow, which became the Matador in 2007 and is now in 2013 the Show Place. Within a year of the Charleston’s closing, every other bar on Sixth Street had closed to be later reopened with new names, catering to a very different clientele.
Sixth and Stevenson, 1995. (Photo by Virginia Allyn.)
The redevelopment agency’s Sixth Street Beautification Program widened the sidewalks, installed new street lights, planted ten-thousand-dollar palm trees around the Sixth Street intersections of Mission and Howard, and hung banners from the new street lights that proclaimed Sixth Street was being beautified.
“Sixth and Stevenson” (2008)
While the appearance of the neighborhood has slightly improved, Sixth Street remains a containment zone for crime and thus little else has changed. Neighborhood problems continue unabated and the voices and needs of its residents — young and old alike — are still ignored. Whatever you think or would like to believe, there is in fact but one reason for this: they are poor.
Hugo Hotel. 200 Sixth Street.
“Defenestration” has endured for some fifteen years, although most of the original sideshow-themed paintings have disappeared beneath eye-popping murals of polychrome street art. As a work of conceptual art, the Hugo Hotel is universally appealing—everyone likes it—and I’ve become more attached to it with each passing year. Yet few people know the hotel remained empty for over twenty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They refused to repair and maintain the building as low income housing, but were unable to sell it because their asking price vastly exceeded the building’s actual market value. Their outspoken contempt* for those less fortunate reflects an attitude that for years has been tacitly encouraged by the policies of local government. After years of haggling with the owners, in January 2008 the redevelopment agency announced it was seizing the Hugo by eminent domain, foredooming the controversial landmark to demolition.
*“They can put the low-income people somewhere else… you can be homeless somewhere in Idaho.” –Varsha Patel (former owner, Hugo Hotel)
“Daybreak – Hugo Hotel” (2006)
Hugo Hotel. 200 Sixth Street.
As embodied by the new Yerba Buena pavillions, galleries, malls and tourist hotels, and a widespread proliferation of drab and overbearing condominiums, modern urbanism has been steadily overtaking the South of Market landscape for several decades. The old “South of the Slot” district is no more and Sixth Street for years has been slowly dying by attrition. Inasmuch as the Hugo Hotel has helped prevent the total dissolution of the old neighborhood by holding off encroaching urbanization and gentrification, the transformation of Sixth Street will no doubt proceed with vigor once the hotel is razed. Despite its longtime closure in the face of a housing shortage, the Hugo has also served as a signpost: a reminder of the past and a symbol of the present that will soon be just a memory.
“Twilight Skyline – Sixth and Bryant” (2008)
The Manhattanization of downtown San Francisco has almost entirely obscured the beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture that once defined its skyline. Soon; very soon, the ground swell of urbanization will wash over Sixth Street and expunge a small and long-overlooked yet nonetheless significant part of San Francisco. For several years now, the transformation of the central city has been marked by an influx of wealthy young software firms and the so-called creative class of makers and entrepreneurs, a corresponding boom in the development of expensive, high-density highrise housing, Ellis Act evictions, skyrocketing rental prices, and an overall decrease in available low-income housing. Young and affluent neighborhood newcomers are setting their own agenda for change and Sixth Street is now clearly in their sights. It may not happen tomorrow or even next year, but eventually after all is said and done, the existing community will be uprooted and dispersed simply because whoever has the gold, makes the rules.