Thursday, May 7, 2015

Janet Delaney: South of Market

Painting Mural, Langton Street, 1980 by Janet Delaney

A few weekends ago, I spent a Saturday helping with an office move. The next day, to relax after hauling boxes and packing/unpacking seemingly endless office supplies, I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

The reason I went was actually to see Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, but while there, I remembered there was another exhibition I'd been meaning to see: Janet Delaney: South of Market, an exhibition of photographs of the SOMA neighborhood.

The timing was fortuitous, because the office move I'd just worked on was a relocation from SOMA (South of Market/South Of Market Area) to the Financial District. The Financial District, as its name implies, is has historically been the core of San Francisco business. However, the past few decades have seen more and more office buildings rise on the other side of Market Street, joining the previously quite solitary Pacific Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery. Now, with SOMA being the desired HQ for many tech companies, the amount of skyscrapers being built for business and luxury living is staggering.

Photo I took in July 2014, looking northeast over the Transbay Transit Center.

With this influx of tech companies and their highest-paid beneficiaries have come steeply rising rents. One bedroom apartments at Tower 2 of One Rincon Hill, the second tower from right in the photo above, currently start at 613 sq. ft. and  > $3000.

So Janet Delaney: South of Market, is especially timely. Delaney moved to SOMA in 1978, just as redevelopment was starting, and she soon began documenting the neighborhood's transition. This exhibition displays her resulting photographs of SOMA in the late 70s and early 80s: a SOMA with diverse residents who are feeling - rightfully - threatened by the construction growing around them.

Detail from Langton between Folsom and Harrison Streets, 1979.

Delaney's images are deeply affecting, especially for those familiar with the area. A few older visitors I saw seemed overwhelmed with emotion. I felt a mix of melancholy and guilt. The just-completed office move meant I would no longer spend my lunch breaks in South Park or Yerba Buena Gardens, where I walked, read, and wrote. But the only reason I had had access to those places was because of my job's location, which was linked to the development that displaced so many.

Excerpts of Delaney's interviews with residents are on display. Their concerns are strikingly familiar: fears of being pushed out of the Bay Area entirely, frustration at the changing landscape, and the stress of living under an absentee landlord who might indirectly evict you at any time by drastically raising your rent. Although I'm not in as dire straits as most of those interviewed, being able to stay in the Bay Area, where I was born and raised, seems less and less sure.

Sorry, as always, for my awful photos. 

Whether it brings grim consolation or just despair, Delaney's work highlights that there's nothing new about the constantly changing nature of neighborhoods and the constancy of instability for and artists and those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. While looking at the photographs and reading the stories, I thought of how the poor were displaced in Paris under Haussmann and in New York City under Giuliani. I wondered where those who work in the Bay Area but are increasingly unable to afford living here are supposed to go. Will areas inaccessible now someday be feasible again? SOMA landmark South Park was built in the 1850s as an exclusive square for the wealthy. Since then it has risen and fallen in real estate value multiple times. Currently, the park hosts a mix of tech workers, homeless, and dog owners of various income brackets, and is slated for a renovation.

Yerba Buena Gardens, part of what was unsuccessfully fought against in the pamphlet below, is a beautiful public space where a diverse crowd can find some tranquility in the city. Office workers, families, passersby, schoolchildren, and residents from assisted care facilities attend their free summer entertainment. It also shuts down occasionally for private, grandiose tech events. In one of Delaney's photographs, the area that is now the Yerba Buena Gardens and Jessie Square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum consists of a parking lot - and razed blocks. Now the surrounding neighborhood is one of the most expensive in the country.

Contemporary flyers, articles, and letters are on display.

Janet Delaney: South of Market has been popular - so popular, in fact, that the accompanying photo book was sold out when I visited, but the FAMSF-published book will be out mid-May. The exhibition runs until July 19th.

Delaney has since returned to SOMA to photograph. Her series SoMa Now is on her website.

Image info:
Painting Mural, Langton Street, 1980 - Janet Delaney's website
All other photos - mine, all but July 2014 taken at exhibition