Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Distant memories of South of Market

Fine Arts

"David, Father Leo Joseph's Roommate, 60 Langton Street, 1981," archival pigment print by Janet Delaney. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
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Janet Delaney: South of Market, now on show at the de Young Museum, is a photographic essay that documents the city's brush with redevelopment, gentrification, the wages of progress, and their casualties in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As such, it has parallels with 21st-century San Francisco that are difficult to miss. And what have we learned, you might ask, as history seems to be repeating itself with the current tech boom? To paraphrase singer Joni Mitchell's rueful lyrics, "You don't know what you've got til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

"Hamburger Mary's, 1582 Folsom at 12th Street, 1980," archival pigment print by Janet Delaney. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

While not exactly paradise, the lively, diverse neighborhood of South of Market depicted in Delaney's pictures, which was deemed a slum by opportunistic city officials and developers, was once home to an eclectic mix of artists, gays, small-business proprietors and Filipino families. Today, though, that's a mirage, a distant memory of an area that bears little relationship to the teeming, more homogeneous, higher-end district that replaced it.

Now as they did then, concerns about the deleterious effects of a modern gold rush on the social and ambient landscape of a community, not to mention the displacement of long-time residents, take a backseat when increased revenues and a soaring tax-base are at stake. The prospect of buckets of money rolling in and filling city coffers is – and was – too hard to resist. San Francisco remains a beacon for those who fit in nowhere else and seek the freedom to reinvent themselves in peace – if only they can afford a place to live.

Growing up in her hometown of Compton, CA, Delaney had watched as the tight-knit community she had known since childhood dispersed and departed for the suburbs due to a combination of sleazy real-estate speculation, racism and the panic that followed the riots in the 1960s. "It was like a Diaspora," she recalls. After moving to San Francisco and settling into her studio on Langton Street in 1978, Delaney intuited trouble ahead for her adopted neighborhood, and picked up her 4x5 large-format view camera to record threats to her new home, interviewing friends, neighbors and others directly affected. Some of their stories accompany the 40 or so color photographs on display at the de Young.

"It was a process of depicting people and a place no one else was paying attention to, and trying to understand a 10-block area that was cleared for redevelopment," she recalls. She would utilize the pictures to help people find jobs and housing, and otherwise mitigate the destructive impact of big business. "All art is a form of activism," says Delaney. "I believe art should play a role in the conversation about what's happening in one's community." It's an idea that continues to be an impetus for the artist, who's creating a new body of work focusing on SoMa today.

"Mercantile Building, Mission at Third Street, 1980," archival pigment print by Janet Delaney. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

When the hammer came down and the government removed the "blight" to make way for redevelopment and the construction of the behemoth Moscone Center in 1980, it was the assorted bohemians, the working class, and especially the poor, many of whom had been drawn by SoMa's cheap rents and central location, who suffered the most. They had the least power, virtually no voice in decisions that shaped their destinies, and the fewest alternatives. The show's images and personal accounts form a humanizing narrative that's a rebuke to the cold-hearted calculations of the powerful like the blunt former head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency who put it this way: The land was "too valuable to permit poor people to park on it."

The show, which has the feel of a photojournalism piece that might have appeared in Life magazine during its heyday, certainly triggers a sense of deja vu all over again. Reinforcing that sensation is this prescient statement, made in 1981, by Perry Lancaster, a musician who had a studio near Delaney's: "The landlord, in the next month or so, could say, 'You've gotta leave,' and more than likely, I'll have to move to Oakland, because I can't afford a space in San Francisco." Sound familiar? As for Delaney, she relocated to Berkeley in 1988. If not for the expense, she would have stayed in San Francisco and raised her children here.

"I mean, what redevelopment did was criminal," Philip Kiely, a city fireman and property owner, told Delaney in 1980. "They ran people out. They were just pushed right out of their houses, literally. A lot of them died, or they moved to the Tenderloin and shriveled up. They will never do it again as long as anybody remembers what they did."

Delaney's thoughtful document should help keep that memory alive.


Through July 19 at the de Young Museum.


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