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 near the end of 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 © 2004-2015, 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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19 responses to “Project History

  1. Hello Mark:

    I found your wonderful blog today, and it is so amazing to view all your work. Your story telling is deep and so sincere, I admire very much. You are a gifted writer and excellent photographer! The manner in which you describe architecture is truly poignant. The style in which you view architecture is how I see it also. Your perspective could be seen through the eyes of the famous metaphysical painter, de Chirico.

    I lived in SOMA for the last 10 years, from 1997-2007. I walked the streets everyday and loved to observe many of the abandoned and beautiful facades near 5th and 6th Streets, such as the PG&E Power plants at Jessie Street, the Golden Gate Theatre, the Hibernia Bank, Furniture and Carpets, the Old Emporium, and more.

    I am a fine art painter and the majority of my painting series are influenced by SOMA’s architecture.

    I look forward to viewing your book once completed..It will be fantastic!

    By the way, I am also in the process of self-publishing a coffee-table size book, featuring my drawings and paintings of the South of Market, titled “SOMA SEEN”.

    I will make sure to keep you posted with future shows. and again, so nice to have found your site today!Do keep me posted too of any new developments.



    Hi Patricia.

    I stopped by your website to look at your work and immediately recognized your face. I can’t say exactly where I’ve seen you before, although very likely it has been on the streets of the central city. I’m so happy to know another artist who loves this part of San Francisco as much as I do. I’m especially taken with your drawings of 6th Street and mid-Market Street. Beautiful work, Patricia.

    I will indeed keep in touch with you, Patricia, and hope to meet you in person sometime soon, perhaps at one of your shows. Maybe we could even have a joint show?


  2. BZ MD

    Thank you very much for your wonderful work. I have practiced medicine for 17 years working with people who are homeless and residents of 6th St. and the Tenderloin. Virtually every image resonates and comes with numerous connections to my patients, many of whom have lived and died in the hotels you document. In the past year I have become more interested in the history and visual spectacle of where I work. Your writings are heartfelt, highly informative and full of truth. In a just world your work will have the effect you wish of preserving beauty and memory and improving the lives of the people living here. In our only partially just world (at best) it has served to bolster my spirit.

    To know that my work has bolstered your spirit, Dr. Zevin, makes me a proud and happy man indeed, for I have long been aware of your exemplary work for the Dept. of Public Health.* I wish only that there were more people like you in the world.

    *Dr. Zevin is Medical Director of the Tom Waddell Health Center, which serves the homeless, indigent and underserved population of San Francisco’s central city neighborhoods, and is recognized as a local and national expert on health care for homeless people, HIV and hepatitis C care.

  3. ewe

    i love your site. thank you for posting. I lived in San Francisco during the 80s and 90s, twenties and thirties. I had great times and terrible times. I am visiting for 3 weeks in late september. I feel so melancholy about it and yet am so excited. Your blog brings me to tears for some reason and i don’t know why. Good luck. Love and light.

    Thanks for sharing this with me, ewe. It is most gratifying to learn that my work has evoked such an emotional response. I hope your visit here next month exceeds your highest expectations.

  4. Pingback: The Shadow « Darkness

  5. “the boundaries of what is perceived as beautiful”

    That is the most simple, complex and yet beautifully powerful statement.

    Thank you, Mandy. It is so wonderful to have ideas, for which I labored to find the right words to express, appreciated; especially by a writer whose work I admire.

  6. i too am a recovering addict… with nearly 15 years out of “the life”… i still struggle with finding a suitable direction in life… i envy your focus…

    i have been actively blogging now for a little over a year, and i feel as if this is the first step for me to becoming a person again… thank you for sharing all of this with us….

    Hi Paisley, and welcome to my world of the past few years. It’s a pleasure to have you visit.

    Just last night I wrote to a friend, “what I have left unspoken in my blog is that I want my own story, which I have tried to keep entirely secondary and with a bare minimum of gory details, to offer a ray of hope to others.”

    I took a quick look at your blog before answering your comment and I very much liked what I saw. I will be returning soon to absorb it at my leisure.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and for opening a window into your world. There is strength and solace to be found in sharing our realities.

    A big hug from across the bay.

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