Natives & Neighborhoods Standing in the Shadows of Brands: San Francisco at Dawn
When a city’s populace is wiped out of its longtime residents, so goes the collective memory of San Francisco.
Mari and I got day jobs at literary non-profits that kept us on their payrolls through 2012 while we earned MFAs. Framed paper in hand, we returned to full-time work funded by shoestring grants to manage arts-education programs with equally vulnerable funding, scaling the horizontal hierarchies of the not-for-profit economy.
Weekly, we’d meet for coffee on the steps of the 1390 Market Street building, a huge grey high rise of apartments and offices, with a token Starbucks downstairs filling out the triangular block, its hypotenuses jutting northbound into the Tenderloin district. Discussing writing, our bosses, and the proverbial what we really wanted to do, vague-to-serious outlines turned our conversations into those types of extended exquisite corpses that sharpen our wit, and fortify what resolve remains on a random workweek afternoon.
Across the street, the then-mysterious offices of Twitter, a blue corporate bird marquee telling time for the Civic Center populace. On the other side of the cross street, the rumblings of a new high-rise: an odd obsidian architectural thesis, casting a larger and larger shadow over myself and Mari sitting across the street. They named the building the NEMA—all caps—luxury condos and apartments. We’re gonna sit here and watch NEMA grow up, Mari said, astonished by how fast and high the development grew before our eyes.
In the post-recession hangover recovery programs the city underwent at the top of the decade, all we saw were cranes foretelling a future many here were not invited to inhabit. Indeed, the city’s skyline was becoming the interstitial shots of Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Never seen it , Mari said when I referenced it, and I tell her instead about the stone white block of a handrail leading out the nearby building’s door, how skateboarding innovator, artist and former SF resident Mark Gonzales used it for landmark achievements in “street style” and how it’s still sessioned today, the new construction a steady drum of sonic racket across a beautiful art deco preservation site turned tech office—rooftop couches to boot—a comfort desired but so out of reach here, Bay of Indian blood and forty-niner promise.
The other night I realized both of the cities I call home—Pomona and Oakland, California—have a Fox Theater. Produced by the film company of the same name, their chain of theaters grew nationwide during the 1920s and 1930s, overwhelmingly so in California. A few searches later and I realize that the site where Mari and I met for breaks was once the location of San Francisco’s own short-lived but truly ambitious Fox Theater.
Just down the street from the still-standing Orpheum and Warfield Theaters, San Francisco’s Fox opened in 1929, encompassing an entire triangular block, for a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis concert. The theater’s massively high arches, chandeliers, multi-level double-winged staircases, and stage that accommodated both live performances and film presentations—an advancement for its time—created an overhead that far exceeded the investor and promoters pockets. I imagine Hollywood celebrities could potentially catch an aquatic show at Sutro Baths in the morning and a show at the Fox at night, some classic San Francisco venues gone by the time Haight Street became America’s definition of the city by the bay. Despite solid attendance for the 4,651-seat theater, financial mismanagement bled any hope for profits dry, making San Francisco’s Fox one of the shortest-lived of its generation, and the largest west of Chicago.
And what of two artists from two different states who both now share the Oakland-to-SF work commutes, who cover each other’s tabs with money found in the back of taxis, who hold each other up with one hand while getting a future regret’s number with the other, all home in Oakland where we wanted to run to in those moments, drinking sugary crap from a chain we despise in a city we tolerate and enjoy for the most part, but always feel inside of and not a part of? The looks I get in some parts of town and the times she’s been asked if her hair’s real and I’ve been asked Do you work here?—W ould that still be the case, if not worse, if we were sitting instead on the velvet-carpeted floors of the Fox lobby, the help looking just like the young photos of our grandparents in their early twenties, my grandfather picking farms as far north as Salinas? What if he was a steward here, or in the kitchen. Would he and Mari’s grandmother equivalent even be let into the building?
When a city’s populace is wiped out of its longtime residents, so goes the collective memory of this city, replaced instead with a victor’s pen stroke, romanticizing the city’s history away. Haight Street’s advertised freedoms. Journey sing alongs at Giants games. New and dull murals all over the East Bay—Welcome to Telegraph! Rockridge! Temescal! they exclaim, guiding newcomers through gentrification. Sitting there with Mari, I wondered what would survive this city: new buildings, new people, or neither?—until I realize Mari’s doing this thing where her body tightens into a ball before she exhales, says I gotta go back; bye, friend and we depart until next time, when a new floor will be finished across the street.
A new job, a new commute, and a new entry point into San Francisco—SoMa at dawn—hit me in 2015. I started taking photos of a city as it wakes.
Most of the developed photos are black blobs of dead flash or overexposed light amidst city darkness. Poor attempts and pricey learning curves that still support the timeless business that develops these errors, probably smirking like This kid . . . when in reality, I’m thirty-two and just trying to remember the late teens that felt like childhood. But at least there are photos now.
I play stereotypical poet and move shit around like tarot cards that mean more through implication than ritualized pattern. Scratch that: I shake off cynicism to try and see why the fuck I took these photos to begin with, and why I woke up so damn early — who to see, what to avoid, or what to see and who to avoid, in a city still anonymous to those in the know, and experience defines the know.
Speaking of dark photos, two poised next to one another: a photo of a friend taken in a dark bar and only three small volcano lights appear somewhere above, in a den made to inhabit our collective inferno below. The other photo: a silhouette of what was once a strand of large braided ropes, python thick, mingling and dangling from the northernmost stairwell wall of Embarcadero BART, the stairwell I climb two steps at a time to let the dude ahead of me know that the dude behind me is walking two too, So hoof it! my body screams early. One guy perfectly times when he awakes from his suburban-to-city slumber to ensure that he is the first person out of the lead car of that 6:19 a.m. SF-bound train. If I took the liberty to beat him to the punch, oh man, my ankles are probably still suffering PTSD from the threat of his toes, covered in those quasi hiking boots that only white straight men in Business consider Casual.
Everyone is trying to occupy or temporarily own vital forms of previously public space during these morning hours. Rush hour gets all the credit because everyone’s awake to see it. But the lead car of the 6:20 a.m. train to SFO is a classroom that reassigns itself to the same seating chart of public transportation each morning: The suburban commuters whose previous generations fueled the white flight to the suburbs now occurring in reverse, powered either way by BART. The brunette with the full-body puffy jacket and coiffed bangs. The aforementioned balding banker with branded everything who always needs to exit first from the door. The security guard who exits promptly at 19th Street Oakland, even though his shirt clearly says he works in Berkeley.
The second and newer train, a Montgomery-bound train, is a bandage for the doubling of population. Public transportation usage has been documented by KQED to have apexed just in this handful of years, thanks to a resurgence of new tech money, a housing price boom, and the jobs to fuel it all. Indeed, the bay area’s demographics have altered mightily and rapidly. A school teacher in the city today can’t afford to live within its limits. The African-American population has dwindled dramatically, with the Latino and Asian populations quickly following suit. The cost of living is so sharp that the middle class is eroding under its weight. White flight in reverse is leading to a familial re-conquering of the city, strollers now pushed in parts of town where only crushed needles found homes. And amidst the pros and cons of all the changes are those pockets of space and time where these arguments stand still for a bit, hanging in the gallery of the city’s waking mind, before the city finds such silence uncomfortable, deciding instead to trounce itself in its daily chaos.
And it’s within this time that I arrive to the city on the Montgomery train, which turns around immediately at the Financial district to bring in more commuters from the East Bay, before I transfer to MUNI. A kid on the outbound L who looks like Kurt Cobain’s lost roadie: all middle-part bleached hair with black roots, a kind of chubby kid who I imagine misspelled “Fender Strat” on his Christmas list months earlier. One day he rocked the Morton Salt Jawbreaker shirt on his way to school in 2016, the band disbanding years before.
Exit Van Ness just before 7 a.m., the station’s southeast escalator rising towards the ATM security guards at the Bank of America on Market and 11th, a guard usually on either side of each machine. I light up by the former newsstands removed by the sidewalk trees’ obese roots tearing up the corner. Walking south on 11th, nod and daps to the brown men guarding the parking garage housing Teslas. On pace with the theater that is our lives, the northbound 49 passes me just as I arrive at the bus stop on Howard. Left turn down Folsom to a cafe towards 10th, and while crossing, I look down Folsom: its empty horizon, its flat accessible beauty, the flying pink pig attached to one of the nearby haunts, 13th Street and the mountains housing Twin Peaks in the distance, the quiet of a city voguing its defected seams.
Reset with three new photos:
Top left: a photo of what was once the convention center, 888 Brannan, now Airbnb HQ, and the developing city-block-stretch of condos across the street, taken on the way to my tech job a block away.
Top right: one of the infamous Division Street offshoot encampments underneath the 101 and 280 freeways, entire belongings stuffed between the supporting pillars, concrete planter, and the fence dividing the sidewalk from a pay-to-park lot.
Bottom center: a billboard local weeklies have described as a fortuitous portal to Bay Area life, posted and tagged on Folsom and 9th, that starts with “It’s Your Town” and is consumed by the shitty two-color bubble tag. Its audience: bridge-bound city dwellers.
I play three-card Monte with this trinity of photos for a bit, turning them into a bootleg panoramic image, a landscape triptych of urban gentrification, from commercial declaration and coffee thermos’d commutes, to new condos next to new money. I wonder if these three photos can become a carousel panorama visible in analog slide projector handhelds or VR headsets, whatever compels something with a pulse to give a shit and shut up and maybe even do something about the It we all try and try and try and try . . .
Do vacations reach the parts of Market Street that dole over-the-counter remedies to alley-therapy addicts in the SROs and shelters around town?
The graveyard shift Walgreens cashier and security guard discuss the torn bar codes and security tapes found discarded around the store by some Market Street hustler who always wants to return a pair of speakers, a reminder that the simplest, most innocent joys—music playing on the streets, in the parks, by men and women not prone to ask to return an AUX-cord-included hand speaker from a drug store—are the most prohibited in cities like Mayor Ed Lee’s. Days after overhearing this conversation, I read in the Chronicle about how two workers from that same Walgreens survived being stabbed after trying to stop a shoplifter. This proximity to palpable chaos is part of the everyday, even in the way we access public transportation now in the wake of the area’s population boom.
Past and present side-by-side: photos of Oakland in the earlier 2000s, of pimps still buying gators on Broadway, standing proud on 14th, knowing who they are, rooted in the Town. And last year, along Division Street, an unknown finger etches the words I DON’T WANNA BE AFRAID ANYMORE in such perfect typography, I wonder if it was out of desperation or staged for the ‘Gram.
In the silence of morning, the shutter goes click and no bird rises from the sound, merely a level of light circulating through lens and film toward the next available slot for documentation, in the palm of my steady hand. I do so carefully, walking gingerly away from each documented scene and moment, keeping the memory present, living past our interaction.
Mari moved out of the Bay Area in 2013, never seeing the final completion of the NEMA. A move to Brooklyn, then Lansing, and soon Lexington, Kentucky has been her path, while I have remained in Oakland, working in San Francisco.
While hustling non-profit day jobs and writing her ass off and living off an advance for a book she’s working on, Mari asks, How does the building look? Does it cast a shadow over the steps? Are the steps still there? And I reply Yes, Yes, and I don’t know for how long.
There is still no plaque honoring the Fox. Nearby the Gonz rail is the still-updated marquee for the Bill Graham shows going down weekly, powered by a small promoter turned media conglomerate. And the walls along Market go higher and higher, shadows under which we are all cast as new business plays some song talking about sun and brightness and shining days and that California soul we too long to grasp, again.
And no photos for those moments: two writers talking shit in the dead of afternoon promising the dawn of whatever night bears. Two souls talking shit in the shadows of an investing group’s dick of a skyscraper casting over all.
I develop the photos in the Castro, getting doubles to use as postcards to Mari and other friends now gone. In the grid at the top of each roll are thumbnails of the successes and failures of ‘disposable camera’ photography. And when the clerk asks What are you taking pictures of, I realize without any humans in the photo, the clerk can never ask Who— so few humans in my photos of a city whose ghosts are still invisible, no matter how bright and artificial the flash.