Category Archives: Sixth Street

Whither Sixth Street?

The New Downtown

“The New Downtown” (2006)

Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class.

–David Harvey

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.

6th & Minna_06
Source: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

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.


“Reliable” (2012)

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.

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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.

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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.

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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?

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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.

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

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

“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 & Club Charleston, 1995

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.


“Arrow” (2004)

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.

6th & Stevenson_1995

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.


“Defenestration” (2005)

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.


Filed under Sixth Street

Christmas Sale

All prints 50% off.

Help keep an aging, ailing artist off the streets! Visit my PRINTS page for details.

Fallen From Grace

“Fallen from Grace” (2009)

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Filed under Events, Messages, Mid-Market, Sixth Street, Tenderloin

Sai Hotel


“Sai” (2003)

Sai Hotel. 964 Howard Street.

Near the middle of February 2001 — one week out of the hospital and just beginning to recover from a six year nightmare of homelessness and heroin addiction — I rented lodgings at the Sai Hotel for 400 dollars a month.* As this was well below what other SROs were charging, it seemed like a bargain until I actually saw what I had rented. On the top floor at the back of the building, an undersized door opened inward on a room so absurdly small, it barely qualified as a crib. The bit of floorspace unoccupied by a single-width bed was a narrow strip along the length of the room, but this was mostly taken up by a small sink and a nightstand. All that remained empty was clearance for the door. To open or close the door from inside the room, I had no choice but to stand on the bed. Every time I shaved or washed my face, I risked electrocution by the ungrounded electrical outlet in an open utility box over the sink. For all practical purposes inaccessible, the lead-colored walls were entirely bare. A diminutive window above the nightstand provided meager illumination that barely dispelled the gloom. Suspended by a length of ancient cloth-insulated wire, a naked sixty-watt light bulb offered more light, but I rarely used it as the glare was intolerable. Every aspect of the room was uncomfortable and oppressive. It felt like a broom closet, in fact I think it had been one, but it was the first place I could call home after nearly six years on the streets.

*cf. Personal History.


Filed under Sixth Street

This is San Francisco, Too

The people of Sixth Street have been in the forefront of my thoughts lately, so I’ve decided to republish my story — one of my favorites — about two remarkable people I encountered on the street in 2007.

Still Bill

The sun had disappeared behind a shroud of fog that scudded by in great swirling drifts, like the sails of a phantom armada. What had been a warm day was quickly becoming cold. Sixth Street between Market and Howard was all noise and hubbub. The roar of sirens and rush-hour traffic assaulted my ears. Not to be outdone, the Hydra’s voice of inner-city street life roared even louder. Shouts, cries and raucous laughter punctuated a thousand simultaneous conversations. I was glad to finally reach Howard Street, for there the chaos subsided and the sidewalks were empty. As I walked past the rotting hulk of the Hugo Hotel, I overtook a lone pedestrian, a man with a cane, burdened by a backpack and a duffel bag. Moments later, from behind me he cried out, “Hello? Hello?”

Daybreak- Hugo-Hotel

The man sounded desperate, so I retraced my steps to see if I could help. Even from a distance I could see he was troubled. I saw it in the lines of his dark-brown face and in his eyes, but when I stood before him, he seemed hesitant. He tested the water by asking me how I was feeling. Then, encouraged by my friendly response, he said, “I’m still Bill.”

Whether that meant his name was Still Bill or that he remained Bill, I couldn’t tell, so I just asked, “Still Bill?”

Bill’s response left me speechless. As he spoke, I memorized his words. (Bill pronounced “Lucille” and “Mobile” with the same soft “i” as “Bill.”)

“I’m still Bill, always was, always will.
“Had a wife named Lucille,
“Had a home down in Mobile.
“Come the war in Vietnam,
“They sent me off and made me kill.
“Come back a broke-up man,
“Weren’t no more home, no more Lucille.
“She’d gone and left me, but I’m still Bill.”

What could I say to that? I told Bill his poetry, though sad, was beautiful, much like the Blues. Also, standing there in shirtsleeves in the damp wind was giving me a chill. How could I help him? It turned out Bill had become lost trying to find a nearby shelter someone had told him about. I said I would show him the way, offering to carry his bag as we walked.

Once in motion, Bill lurched and wobbled, forcing us to stop several times as I helped him regain his balance. The poisonous fumes of cheap, fortified wine hung in the air around him. Fearing he would stumble into the path of a speeding car, I put his arm through mine when we crossed the street. I had to fight back tears when Bill expressed gratitude, he deserved so much more than I could give him. As we drew near the entrance at the back of the municipal shelter, an old industrial building at Fifth and Bryant, I asked Bill if I could photograph him. The only other person in sight was a Native American woman walking toward us along Fifth Street. Though a stranger to both Bill and me, she soon blithely joined us.

A private moment was instantly broken, but strangely I felt no remorse or resentment. Just to behold this woman was to like her. The light of kindness shined in her eyes. Her smiling countenance was open and serene. She was thickset and earthy, yet her hands were slender and sensitive and she moved with the suppleness and grace of a dancer. Seeing that she was curious, I explained I was photographing Bill to commemorate our encounter. When I suggested that I could also photograph her, she went straight to Bill’s side and gently put her arm around his shoulders.

Tbis was too much for Bill, who was suddenly nervous and fidgety, his shy smile replaced by a self-conscious grimace. I had to distract him, so I played the fool while I shot numerous frames to capture him in an unguarded moment. Manifest in every photograph I took are the woman’s radiance and warmth and her compassion for Bill. Before I departed, she told me she would look after Bill inside the shelter. Knowing what I do of shelters and the way they are operated, her words in retrospect seem naively optimistic, but when she spoke, I believed her with all my heart.


I don’t know her name. For all I know she doesn’t have one. I never thought to ask and probably would have forgotten it anyway, because most names in and of themselves are largely meaningless. We remember people by their actions. I will always remember her for the light and love she shared with Bill and me that cold and foggy afternoon, on a lonely, windblown sidewalk south of Market.


Filed under Local Characters, Sixth Street