Photo Essays

Tracing the Origins of San Francisco’s Gentrification

Janet Delaney, "Helen and her husband at the Helen Cafe, 480 6th Street" (All images courtesy of the De Young Museum)
Janet Delaney, “Helen and her Husband at the Helen Cafe, 480 6th Street” (1980) (all images courtesy of the deYoung Museum)

You might call the South of Market area in San Francisco the cradle of gentrification. Since the tech scene’s boom, the neighborhood has become a hub for affluent young professionals tweeting away in the offices of companies like Airbnb and Wired. Where mom-and-pop diners once thrived, customers line up for lattes at third wave coffee shop Sightglass and purchase high-minded furniture at BoConcept. Good luck finding a two-bedroom for less than $1 million.

The genesis of SoMa’s gentrification began in the 1960s, when blue-collar workers started moving out as starry-eyed bohemians flooded in. It changed again in the late 1970s with the city’s aggressive efforts to renew the derelict neighborhood. That’s when photographer Janet Delaney arrived. One night, she watched as workers bulldozed a residential hotel where many poor people had made their homes — an experience that inspired her to begin documenting the vanishing community with a 4×5 view tripod-mounted camera.

Today, South of Market bears little resemblance to its old self, but a one-room exhibition of Delaney’s series at the de Young Museum offers a reminder of the working class neighborhood that once was — one image shows a blacksmith working away in his shop, another captures the smiling husband-and-wife owners of a hamburger joint. Through the series, Delaney offers a tribute to the sidelined, disposable community and a questioning look at the cost of progress. “The intention of the show is to create a conversation about how cities change over time,” she explained in an interview with The Economist. “By looking back we can consider what was lost and what has been gained.”

Janet Delaney, "Skip Wheeler and his wife groom their horses after Veterans Day Parade, Folsom at 2nd Street"
Janet Delaney, “Skip Wheeler and his wife groom their horses after Veterans Day Parade, Folsom at 2nd Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "David Father Leo, Joseph's Roommate, 60 Langton Street"
Janet Delaney, “David, Father Leo Joseph’s Roommate, 60 Langton Street” (1981)
Janet Delaney, "Hamburger Mary's, 1582 Folsom at 12th Street"
Janet Delaney, “Hamburger Mary’s, 1582 Folsom at 12th Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Bulk Natural Foods, Russ at Howard Street"
Janet Delaney, “Bulk Natural Foods, Russ at Howard Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Artist in her studio, Project One, 10th at Howard Street"
Janet Delaney, “Artist in Her Studio, Project One, 10th at Howard Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Russ Street apartments"
Janet Delaney, “Russ Street apartments” (1981)
Janet Delaney, "View of the Financial District from South of Market"
Janet Delaney, “View of the Financial District from South of Market” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Longtime neighbors, Lanton at Folsom Street"
Janet Delaney, “Longtime neighbors, Lanton at Folsom Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Street"
Janet Delaney, “Mercantile Building, Mission at 3rd Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "Johnny Ryan Blacksmith Klockars, Blacksmith and Metal Works, 443 Folsom Street"
Janet Delaney, “Johnny Ryan, Blacksmith, Klockars, Blacksmith and Metal Works, 443 Folsom Street” (1980)
Janet Delaney, "31 Transbay Terminal Newstand"
Janet Delaney, “31 Transbay Terminal Newstand” (1982)

Janet Delaney: South of Market continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco) until July 19.

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