Six years ago, under the auspices of misfits, artists, and a city teetering on the brink of cultural and economic upheaval, I experienced a moment of clarity. I left my apartment after midnight. The Tenderloin neighborhood (TL) in San Francisco was widely regarded as the city’s skid row, a hotbed of violence, drugs, and homelessness. Apprehensive about my late night walkabout, I began a conversation with a homeless man in adjacent Union Square—the city’s gilded thoroughfare with all the trimmings of metropolitan wealth. We sought to use a hotel’s bathroom, but a few graying guests exited the lobby and snarled indiscernibly. One of the men advanced and threw his cognac at my feet. Standing unscathed inside a crescent of glass, we beamed muddled glances at one another and dispersed.
The homeless man shrugged it off and requested some cash to rest in a hotel for a night. I handed him twenty bucks and a few hustlers outside a nearby fast food joint took notice. Peering at the line snaking out of the Jack in the Box and eyeing the last bill in my wallet, I made my next mistake. I suggested the cash be shared evenly between them for food and handed it to one of the men. A pigeon fight ensued.
Descending from Geary street to O’Farrell, icy gazes and solicitations for crystal, crack, and H came hissing by. I set my gaze to the sidewalk for a few blocks to avoid the interactions. Just as the smell of defeat and some type of excrement became overwhelming, two piercing yellow eyes sliced through the night. A black cat’s silhouette slunk into focus, descending into the darker pitches of an alleyway. I consented. A flash of entheogenic splendor followed as I stood before a large mural of multicolored smiley face emojis spelling the word “MAGIC”. The air sizzled with electricity.
Working with new resolve, street lamp halos coaxed me further into the TL. Flicks of bic lighters and laughter soon emerged along with the silhouettes of a few figures. I hesitated but persisted. The men surveyed the scene as I arrived, and one of them introduced himself as Sion. Sion and I traded introductions while the others lost interest and continued on. He seemed relatively young but wore years of the streets on his face, explaining he was new to the city. I sensed the fragility of the man and thought about the different worlds we inhabit. We spoke for a while, and the inhibitions accompanying traveling into this foreign space faded away. He asked if I could bring him some toiletries to a nearby McDonald’s the next day. I agreed, wished him a good night, and took off. Sion never showed up to meet me.
Heart of the City is a documentary project five years in the making. It’s a story colored with the grit, character, conflict, and spirit of the community experience. The demographics of San Francisco are changing rapidly, and the Tenderloin is growing into a mixed income community. A recent acquisition of the adjacent Mid-Market district by a swath of tech companies has brought the face of wealth and skill to the foot of a neighborhood that can resemble a third world country. As income inequality becomes a more pronounced issue, mixed income communities in urban environments are opportunities to get creative about wealth distribution and progressive social policy. Opposites attract. Radical diversity, experimentation, and entrepreneurship are advancing the civic experience of the future. The confluence of social media and high technological specialization is seeding both a desire and the ability to use new skill sets and cooperative measures to address our most pressing social issues.
Our team is developing a social media platform in tandem with a feature length documentary film focused on bridging San Francisco’s socioeconomic divide. We’ve spoken with the homeless, politicians, activists, artists, corporations, students, non profits, police, teachers, and a whole myriad of other individuals who embody the city’s eclectic identity. By integrating the voices of both the online and living communities into our content, media and activism can work more seamlessly. This blog will consist of updates on the film, supplemental media, art, interviews, musings, and other selected works.
San Francisco holds at its center the Tenderloin, a heart of pawned gold. It is anything but a conventional neighborhood, a home to yuppies, punks, junkies, artists, a large immigrant population, and around 3500 children navigating the madness. However, time and time again, the people of the Tenderloin have stood up for their own interests and formed a haven for those marginalized and misunderstood. Eric Schmidt wrote in an article about how to build a better web: “The Internet is not just a series of tubes transmitting information from place to place, terminal to terminal, without regard for those typing on their keyboards or reading on their screens. The people who use any technology are the ones who need to define its role in society. Technology doesn’t work on its own, after all. It’s just a tool. We are the ones who harness its power.”
The value of a world wide web lies in human connectivity and insight. Our power grows exponentially together. Art has proven it can transcend classism, racism, and discrimination on many levels. An alchemy of our similarities and our differences brings us closer to mutual understanding. Now San Franciscans are experiencing a shift alongside the louder echoes of globalization. I believe we are on the brink of a fundamental change in the sociopolitical paradigm, one that won’t come easy but will be astounding.