Wednesday, May 9, 2012

SoMa ≠ Tenderloin ≠ Wasteland

Here's a mildly wrong @AP feature that, as remixed in the @SeattleTimes, implies the new Twitter building is half a mile northeast and a big world away from its actual corner at Ninth and Market in San Francisco. It looks like AP's work, which already confused our neighborhood with the Tenderloin, got skewed a little farther by a Seattle editor's photo and caption choices.

The article is about tech people brainstorming ideas to serve the homeless in the neighborhood of Twitter's new headquarters. Twitter is moving into the old Mart building on the south side of Market Street between Ninth and Tenth Streets. Oddly, though, the article talks about "the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas of the city," and the Twitter building location, and "one of San Francisco's poorest areas," as if those all meant the same thing. You could easily get the idea our whole end of town was a disaster area full of abject sufferers waiting to be rescued by tech industry handouts. Maybe it's necessary to say, we're not. (Has me wondering, btw, if the AP bureau might have moved from where it was for years and years: right across the street from the Mart building, in Fox Plaza on Market at Ninth.)

The Seattle version of the article gets things a little more wrong with a mistaken choice of photos. The actual AP version of the story does use photos that look like Twitter's part of Market Street. But the Seattle editors chose to lead a three-item photo essay with a street scene in the middle of the Tenderloin, looking northward from the corner of Turk and Taylor. That corner is half a mile away from the Twitter building: three long eventful diagonal blocks northeast on Market, plus an especially hairy block due north up Taylor. Did you see "Interview with the Vampire"? The exterior shots for the "interview" site are of the San Cristina SRO at Market and Taylor. That's not the Twitterhood.

The Seattle article also uses "Tenderloin" in its link text.

Oh, and the Seattle folks captioned this photo: "An old streetcar passes a display for an Apple iPad near Twitter's new headquarters in San Francisco." The geography is right -- it really is near Ninth and Market -- but "old streetcar"? As though we couldn't afford new ones? Folks, the car in that photo is part of the historic F Line trolley service. It's almost certainly one of the lovingly maintained 1928 "Peter Witt" cars imported from Milan. "Old streetcar?" Yes, that it is. But give it some credit, OK?

Now, the project described in the AP story sounds perfectly nice. Some tech folks, as a way of sharing the wealth, are trying to reinvent services for homeless people who live in areas where Twitter and other tech companies are starting new offices. They might in fact do some good. Especially now they've noticed how poor people really could benefit from shelter referrals on regular cell phones, if not so much from earlier-suggested apps that would have depended on expensive smartphones.

At the same time I'd tend to say that many of the services involved, such as showers and beds, have already pretty much been invented, and the barriers to providing them have more to do with lack of economic reciprocity and political will than with lack of technical ideas.

But let me come back to this "Mid-Market and the Tenderloin" business.

So, OK, literally, this data map shows that, considered by census tract, the Tenderloin and western South of Market look pretty similar, with, in some places, a third and more of residents living in poverty. But look at the headline on the story explaining that map: "Bay Area's Rich, Poor Live Side By Side." Average figures don't tell you much about the nature of a neighborhood.

The Tenderloin is North of Market, north and northeast of us, warmer, dustier, far more densely residential, with completely different history and vibe, with, I'd say, less economic contrast than down here. The Tenderloin really does come across as a poor neighborhood, a crowded, hassle-rich place to live, though it's also a neighborhood of rising immigrant families, nonprofit and government offices, schools, student housing, and more.

The term "Mid-Market" is a relatively recent promoters'/redevelopers' invention and, to the extent it has meaning, refers to Market Street alone. The Twitter building is, yes, in "Mid-Market" if you want to use that term, but the neighborhood around it and southward is Western South of Market.

Western SoMa is not the same as the Tenderloin, and while a lot of the neighbors are poor, many are middle-income and a few are rich. This area has street people on the streets, yes, and subsidized housing and shelters and clinics and other poverty services, and also marijuana dispensaries, and art galleries and clubs and good restaurants and cafes full of nerds with laptops, and design studios and high-end condos and boutique grocery stores and performance spaces and tech startups. Tech is not new here, either. Remember Web 1.0? The doomed "Petopia" startup was at Ninth and Folsom in the late '90s. And now, well, look on a map for Zynga or Dropbox. Walk down Folsom Street past the restaurants between Sixth and Ninth. Then tell me we're a "poor neighborhood". This area sustains an unusually various mix of people near each other. Because of that, it's mainly a good place to live.

Not that everything around here is wonderful. I especially have to admit that today. Learned this morning that a man I saw being lifted into an ambulance last night at Eighth and Howard may have been the victim in a fatal stabbing reported on that corner. Unsettling. But stabbings are just extremely not normal for around here. Really not normal at all.

[Update: turns out the homicide was at the Burger King near Ninth and Natoma. A little less surprising. A smidgen nearer Twitter tho, fwiw.]

Of course, the view of our neighborhood as a wasteland isn't unique to the Seattle Times-AP article. That message is flowing steadily from redevelopment boosters at City Hall, business groups, the business end of the SF Chronicle. Imputing "blight" to this area is a step for them toward paving over what we have now to make room for something more profitable. But it's cutting off our municipal nose to spite our shared municipal face. When reporters who don't know our neighborhoods take our city's leaders at their word and run us down, that hurts everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment