A Fragmented 49 Miles: Reevaluating San Francisco’s Residential Space

by Nick Byers

SAN FRANCISO, CA—I walk through the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s tiny skid-row, every couple of months when I volunteer at Glide Memorial Church’s soup kitchen on Ellis Street. In the Tenderloin, homeless men sleep under faded awnings, trans women strut the sidewalks, and one man shouts out “Warriors!” over and over again, to an audience of zero. The streets smell of urine. These fifty square blocks house immigrants and squatters, families and elders, who have been tacitly declared, by politicians and technocrats, and sometimes even themselves, as the outcasts of a redeveloping city. This region of poverty lies below an expanse of multilevel lofts. When I walk down Taylor Street on my way to Glide, I see a disabled street-dweller staring widely into the street. He sits in a mobility scooter, one-leg propped up by a crutch, petting a dog. His leg has been amputated below the knee, and he holds a sign that reads, “anything will help.” A biker in business casual dress glares at the man as he rides down Taylor, but the street dweller remains unfazed, gazing through the biker to the other side of the road.

When Clubber Williams, police inspector for the NYPD, was transferred to the red-light district of Manhattan, he reckoned he would receive so many illegal bribes that he would stop eating cheap, chuck steak and start eating more expensive tenderloin beef. Soon after his remark, other cops started referring to this seedy part of Manhattan as the Tenderloin district. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, reporting one of the highest crime rates in the city, matches Clubber’s nickname in another way. Tenderloin beef is a sliver of meat between a cattle’s top and bottom sirloin, slightly resembling the triangular shape of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Although various groups have recently attempted to rename the district, locals have only ridiculed attempts to change the enduring description.  

Glide Memorial Church is on the corner of Ellis Street, on the northeast side of the Tenderloin. When I arrive at Glide, I go down to the basement cafeteria. The windows cast almost no light on the floor. A man sits at a table sipping coffee while a volunteer struggles to put on kitchen gloves. Glide wears the grime of the Tenderloin on its sleeve. On the street above the cafeteria, security guards pass out admit-one tickets to the people in line outside. 

When I get to the basement, I speak with James, a portly manager who always wears the same Giants cap. A tattoo covers most of James’ neck, and gray hair fishes out of the back of his hat. James blends in among the many capped and tattooed individuals at Glide, but my baby face and skinny jeans don’t. Much of Glide’s clientele is well into their seventies, while another portion sports beards down to their stomachs. Almost all the staff wears old, beaten baseball caps, to avoid the annoyance of the otherwise obligatory hair ties. I now wear a Giants cap like James’ to blend in more, or at least show my allegiance to the city.  

Sometimes James will remember me and ask me to help with the coffeehouse. Other times he won’t, and I’ll sit at a table near the man drinking coffee and listen to the dull chatter of the new volunteers. As I wait for a task, I recall my bus ride down from the unkempt golf course by my house in Outer Richmond to the Taylor street stop two blocks before the bright Macy’s sign of Union Square. The bus route moves through the modest and uniform, yet comfortable homes of my neighborhood, the Richmond, to the edge of the rapidly-gentrifying, historically-black Western Addition, and stops just shy of Nob Hill, where wide-eyed tourists and old-money aristocrats collide. My bus route, like almost every route in San Francisco, moves through neighborhoods populated by middle-income, second-generation European and East Asian immigrants, to wealthy, scenic sections of the city, long occupied by landowners and bankers, to districts like the Western Addition or the Mission, where six-figure salary transplants reside next to working-class, often black and brown families and cultural centers.

When I work at the coffeehouse, another volunteer and I take forty meals to a smaller room where families, elders, and others who need special care eat. When we run out of the forty meals halfway through breakfast, I run between the main café and the coffeehouse, bringing hot trays of lukewarm oatmeal to a ticket holder. As I run back and forth through the basement of Glide, James asks a server for two vegetarian meals, or tells an old woman we’re out of brown sugar, or asks security to escort an impassioned patron out. He passes out volunteer forms to youths logging hours for juvenile hall. When he learns I don’t need a volunteer form today, he smiles.  

“So you’re doing it for the love?” He says, almost wryly.  “For the love,” I say back.

“For the love” is one way to put it. For the smile on the toddler’s face who runs in ahead of his parents is another. For the banter between James and a regular, as they argue about the most recent Warriors-Cavaliers matchup, a third.

James holds a staunch belief in Glide’s work. He comes to Glide ready to serve food and unprepared to judge his peers by appearances. James looks at each volunteer and patron with the same unflinching eye, ready to be compassionate if possible and stern if necessary. Without excess thought, he assists all individuals who walk through Glide’s doors, and thus, Glide’s dining room can sometimes resemble a large and disparate, yet vibrant family, who all happen to be serving, eating, or complaining about lukewarm oatmeal. In a city where the top one percent of the income bracket controls 30 percent of the city’s wealth, James’ capacity to support the most marginalized San Franciscans could help the city overcome its income disparities, and sociopolitical differences.

These differences are perhaps best exemplified in discussions regarding San Francisco’s housing crisis. Whereas most people choose to either support or protest the construction of new housing complexes in San Francisco, James would not jump to one side or the other. Whereas many moderate politicians and tech entrepreneurs see unrestricted housing development as a critical solution, long-term tenants and low-wage workers see new housing as just another invitation for rising rents and displacement. Although James would strongly oppose the eviction of local Tenderloin residents, he would welcome any new residential building that promises a significant amount of housing for the working class.

Sometimes after working at Glide I walk four blocks south to Blue Bottle Coffee, an artisan café in Mint Plaza. A few years ago, Mint Plaza was just another deserted street on the border of the Tenderloin. Now, it is part of the ever-expanding Financial District, that grows larger with every new start-up and incubator. On the corner of Taylor and Eddy I see a man holding up a sign saying “Jesus Christ Saves.” A few tourists stare at him as he proclaims that God loves all sinners. By the time I reach Turk street, the smell of urine fades and plaid-shirted men walk by me. The area doesn’t lose its dirtiness, but it begins to hide it in alcoves of a few square feet, in stains on granite walls and cigarette butts on storm drains. When I arrive at Mint Plaza, the “community gathering spot” is empty save for a few homeless men resting in the shade. The plaza, designed to be a “vibrant public space” for public gatherings, consists of a few tables and several red chairs strewn about in neglect. To the dismay of its founders, the area surrounding Mint Plaza is noticeably working-class, and therefore not as ‘safe’ as the “Friends of Mint Plaza” hoped it would be.

Blue Bottle Coffee offers hope to the corporatist ‘Friends’ of Mint Plaza, bustling throughout the day with business partners. As I stumble into the café, I select an Ethiopian pour-over and pay the pricey, yet principled $5.50 swiping my debit card through the iPad’s register. Although the price severely limits the consumer base of the pour-over, it reflects one of the key values of third-wave coffee: fair-trade, transparent sourcing. My best friend James introduced me to third-wave coffee, also known as “coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries,” during our senior year of high school. Standing at a lean 6’4 and sporting a well-kept undercut hairstyle, he couldn’t look more different than the James I know at Glide. When James first gave me a taste of a Colombian drip-coffee, said to have “notes” of peach, vanilla, and bourbon, I couldn’t tell the difference between its flavor and Starbucks’ Dark Roast. However, a month into this new habit, I sipped a pour-over that tasted like a flower, and started to crave the flavors hiding in each mug of coffee. James dreams of traveling between the Americas buying and selling coffee beans to third-wave coffee shops. He grew up in a townhouse on Liberty and Noe, two blocks south of Dolores Park, as the Mission rose to the cultural forefront of the city. One of the first signs of the Mission’s preeminence, as a site of displacement , and activism against displacement, was the opening of Ritual Coffee Roasters in 2005 and Philz Coffee in 2003, two of the oldest specialty cafés in the city, that are now key signifiers for gentrification and redevelopment in the area. Now, as you look around even the most sleepy districts of San Francisco, you’re likely not far from a specialty café. In fact, San Francisco, has the most cafés per capita in the entire U.S. As we walk to these cafés, James remarks on the newest apartment complexes, saying “it’s going to change the whole neighborhood,” or “imagine this street ten years ago.”

Over 14,000 people have been evicted in San Francisco since 2010, and over 1,300 in the Mission alone. These evictions, often facilitated by the Ellis Act, a legislative loophole which allows landlords to evict tenants if they say they need to occupy the unit themselves, have forced thousands of Latinx families out of their neighborhood. Of course, these effects also move beyond housing, and alter business and conflict resolution in such areas. Just last year, a Mexican bakery that served the Latinx community in the Mission for over sixty years, and a local bar that hosted cultural shows and political events both closed. A few years before, AirBNB employees kicked local teenagers off a community soccer field, resulting in a tough exchange of words, and eventually, a public apology.

Although James and I recognize the troubling nature of gentrification, we frequent specialty coffee shops and vintage clothing boutiques just the same. Like many privileged twenty-somethings in San Francisco, Oakland, Brooklyn and elsewhere, James and I are complicit in the systemic deracination that is displacement, because we enjoy, and even prize, the craft products that the tech boom has brought to San Francisco. Regardless of how I spin it, That five-dollar and fifty cent specialty coffee, a drink I indulge in two or three times on some weekend days, contributes to the displacement of the Tenderloin residents a block or two away from Blue Bottle. Although it might be hard to know if cafes or high rent prices are the causative factor, a map made by independent researcher Jackie Gu clearly shows their strong correlative relationship. As dozens of cafes go up in the Mission, Potrero Hill and SOMA, so does average monthly rent.

Just as I praise Glide’s support of the poor, I paradoxically consume immoderately-priced third-wave coffee. As James and I see the high-rise condo on 20th and Valencia go up, we denounce the homogenized affluence it will bring. Yet once the construction finishes and James’ grandparents take a fourth-floor apartment, we check out the view from the roof. Acting as the privileged San Franciscans we are, we hate the idea of gentrification but then use it to our own benefit. Instead of wondering if Valencia 20 will provide housing for the underprivileged, we shake our heads and head to Ritual Coffee, which brews with expensive, freshly roasted beans and is full of young, gentrifying urbanites.

The difference between young San Franciscans, in my opinion, separates those who have lived in San Francisco for six years or more, and those who have flocked to the city in its most recent gold rush, which has increased the wealthiest San Franciscans’ income by 220 percent, and has created over 220,000 jobs. Those who have lived here for six years or more can be described courtesy Grayson Perry, as the “the shock troops of gentrification,” the artistically-inclined, bohemian burn-outs who ventured into run-down districts of San Francisco and speak in a sunburnt accent. The other half are the infamous “techies” of Silicon Valley fame and the Midwestern transplants brought in from coding academies. For native San Franciscans, the techie encompasses all that is loathsome about San Francisco’s recent transformations. The techie comes from universities inaccessible to the lower-middle-class, and drives up housing costs in working-class neighborhoods. The techie takes fancy, Wi-Fi-enabled buses to work in Silicon Valley, while others wait hours for defective Muni buses. The techie, more than a little like me, wants the charm of the urban neighborhood and the luxury of his Victorian home.  

In rapidly-gentrifying, historically working-class parts of the city, especially the Mission, the “techie” has become a common scapegoat for the city’s issues, leading one programmer, Enrique Landa, to relate it, ludicrously, to a racial slur. Walking around the Mission, it’s not long until I find “Fuck the Techies” tagged or stickered onto a sidewalk. Although these aggressive messages hint at the resentment working class residents possess for affluent transplants, the messages do not recognize that many of the techies are already here to stay. Although the message is pointed at the affluent who have evicted long-term residents of the Mission or compared their plight to that of immigrants of color, it might dissuade other “techies” from investing in affordable, low-income housing developments, or at least respecting the cultural identity of San Francisco’s public spaces. Although an uncritical glance could lead to the selection $100,000-earning applicant as low-income, and mixed-income units often cater to the most wealthy, some models, like Glide’s own housing developments, ensures housing for low-income, working-class residents. If these developments can be better advertised as a possible solution, and community organizers can convince big tech to support them (as Glide often does), they could provide critical support for working-class San Franciscans.

Mint Plaza is one of the many new urban spaces of Mid-Market, the commercial area directly south of the Tenderloin, and north of SoMa. A few years ago, Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, noticed that San Francisco’s Market Street had far higher vacancy rates and far lower rental costs than most of Silicon Valley. Williams, along with leaders of AirBnB, Uber, and Pinterest, additionally enticed by tax-breaks Mayor Ed Lee offered to companies moving into the area, realized Mid-Market could become the newest site of San Francisco’s urban renewal. As Twitter and Uber moved into their new Mid-Market offices, so too did newer tech companies interested in working with bigger groups. This technological conglomerate began to dream of a Mid-Market recreated into a Mecca of innovation, where each employee could collaborate and network inside and outside of their respective office, in “vibrant public spaces” like Mint Plaza.

Unfortunately, the collaborative locale these companies are advocating for results in the displacement and desertion of the working class currently living in and around Mid-Market. Rent in Mid-Market for office space has more than doubled in the last few years, jumping from $25 per square foot to over $50, threatening the dozens of social service centers that offer resources to the working-class and homeless that reside near Mid-Market. For the tech world, urban innovation begins with the repurposing of “underutilized” or unsafe public space, which in the eyes of the poor may seem like a way to make public space open to only the affluent. After all, once public space is strategically organized for “innovation,” doesn’t it lose its ability to be public? Recent stories involving Jennifer Schulte and Allison Ettel, two white women living in the Bay Area, who recently called the police on black locals selling water and barbecuing, suggest that public space may be public only to the rich and white, even in the purportedly welcoming liberal bastion that is San Francisco.

Whether it’s 5M, a commercial and residential project promising “to activate the public realm” or the Salesforce Tower, set to be at 1070 feet, asking employers to “collaborate freely,” new construction proposals anticipate an age where public and office life overlap. These entrepreneurs envision a renovated, sanitized Mid-Market, a Mid-Market in which software engineers are free to discuss business plans without interruption, from other citizens or even government officials. Some tech entrepreneurs envision new, more independent states, while others dream even bigger to new nations, primed for innovation. Although these visions have mostly faltered in their execution, in his essay the The Post‐Industrial “Shop Floor” critical geographer John Stehlin suggests that tech developers may be “recreating the city, both public and private, as the common workplace of the tech sector.” While many have decried the #Calexit movement and other exclusionary, outlandish tech utopias, downtown San Francisco itself may soon be the most realized version of such a vision. Thus, one must ask, will the liquor store owners and hairdressers get a say in this social and commercial re-creation, or will their own streets slowly betray them for a new urban ideal? Looking at Mint Plaza from Blue Bottle, I start to think the communal space that the “Friends of Mint Plaza” dream of is a space free of the neighborhood surrounding it.

According to the laws of supply and demand, the reconstruction of Mid-Market is exactly what the neighborhood’s disadvantaged residents need. Enrico Morreti, economics professor at UC Berkeley, argues that new luxury residences will decrease evictions of local tenants, because that housing could fill up with the high-income transplants that are currently taking the apartments of the displaced. However, Maria Zamudio, a native resident of the mission, a former housing organizer for Causa Justa, argues that luxury residential space will increase economic inequality, because it will convince even more people to move into San Francisco, and only drive up prices of goods and services in her neighborhood. And yet Alex Karner, professor of regional planning at Georgia Tech, settles in the middle of Moretti and Zamudio, arguing that more housing must be developed, but must be strongly targeted at low-income renters, because otherwise the thousands of working-class people who have been displaced in recent years will still have no way to afford San Francisco residences. Thus hybrid public-residential-commercial spaces become contradictions that I wholeheartedly support and take disgust in. Of course I gasp along with Zamudio when I see new high-rises filling up with tech executives, changing the cultural atmosphere of the city I grew up in. Of course I agree with Moretti when he says fewer low-income tenants will be thrown out of their homes if there is more housing for the rich.

But perhaps most of all, I agree with Karner, who argues that more high-end units won’t reduce the demand for low-income housing.

As is, Mid-Market pressures lower-class residents out of their domestic space and doesn’t offer enough new space for upper-class transplants. According to the backlash after some 84 evictions at 1049 Market, more rich still want in and more poor still don’t want to go. More housing must be created in Mid-Market, to either appease the rich or protect the poor. However, at some point, and perhaps already, the tax breaks Mayor Lee offers to public-residential-commercial spaces will not lower demand, but increase it. Once Mid-Market becomes a hotbed for new businesses, new wealth will flood the area, and the poor will be forced to flee.

In the Mission and Potrero Hill, in NoPa and SoMa, I see no end to the fervor for urban renewal. In 2016 alone, median home sales in the Mission rose by almost 30 percent, yet still a Chronicle writer believes the tech surge is leaving the city for Austin and Seattle. Instead of referring to economic standard, we must refer to previous instances of mass gentrification, and realize the need to invest in low-income housing. No longer will 400 new residences with “20% affordable housing” do in San Francisco. “Subsidized non-profit office space” will not keep the working class in their homes. Eventually, upper-class natives and transplants will have to acknowledge the bitter end-goal of Mid-Market’s current renovation: the exile of the poor.

Whether natives like it or not, the city’s 49 square miles have become the most expensive in the U.S. San Francisco’s median rent came to $3,442 this January. Even software engineers, usually starting with a 90k+ salary, would have to devote a hefty 45% of their monthly income to that renting price, while minimum wage workers would come up almost $1,000 short per month.

Every inch of this city is sought after, and without more construction, those unable to pay their exorbitant rents will be forced to leave. Before Mid-Market, we saw the working-class districts of the Mission and the Western Addition warped from low-income black and brown districts to havens of the white upper-class. The Western Addition, due in part to urban renewal in the fifties, and destruction of public housing in the ‘90s, has shifted from 80% black in 1970, to just 7% black in 2013. The Mission, similarly, has lost more than 2,400 Latino residents since 2000.

Without a change in our model of renewal, we’ll see the same happen in Mid-Market and the Tenderloin.

If we continue to look at each urban class as if they are isolated and defined—whether that is in my feigned distaste and perpetuation of gentrification, or a tech worker’s complaint of victimization—it will not be long before Mid-Market loses its cultural identity in favor of the highest bidder. Instead of arguing entirely in favor or against the new condos set to rise over Mid-Market, we must support the spaces built with the working class in mind, and the upper-class’ provisions. A review of mixed-income housing models by Diane K. Levy, Zach McDade and Kassie Dumlao demonstrates that these models aren’t just useful for gaining the funding of the wealthy, but also for increasing educational, health and employment outcomes of low-income residents. Another study focusing on Chicago, notes that economically-segregated communities, whether black, latinx or white, often have worse educational outcomes, and more violence.

Just as James serves the Tenderloin residents in need of a meal, but gladly accepts the help of other volunteers, we must prioritize those in need by using the resources of the fortunate. Perhaps the most shining example of this collaboration is the recently-passed Prop C, which will provide housing and mental health services to homeless San Franciscans, using tax revenue from tech companies. Another possible route forward can be exemplified by the Five88 Apartment Buildings, targeted at very-low-income families. The buildings opened in late 2017, in the developing neighborhood of Mission Bay, which has been recently gentrified due in part to the opening of UCSF’s new, 1.5 billion-dollar medical center. The entangled myriad of issues set off by displacement in San Francisco will not be solved through the construction of more affordable housing. But if we adapt a mentality that invites each resident, native or transplant, to recognize the economic inequality in Mid-Market, perhaps we will be able to adopt James’ belief in those around him, and learn to prize the inclusion that has been fabled to be this city’s essence.

Perhaps then, Jeanette MacDonald’s sentimental cry, at the beginning of the city anthem “San Francisco,” will finally ring true:

“San Francisco, open your Golden Gate / You’ll let no stranger wait outside your door.”

Nick Byers is a senior social studies major at Wesleyan University. He can be reached via email at nbyers@wesleyan.edu or on Twitter @bybybyers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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