February 18, 2021 | Feature
family of four
a story, or not, of gentrification
When I was in the fifth grade, my family of four moved into a penthouse studio apartment located in downtown San Francisco, elegantly named Symphony Towers. An odd location for a family, the building was filled with young, single professionals and couples—the kinds of people you’d imagine wanting to live in the center of a dense, bustling city with a history of hippies and a reputation for pricey housing.
A “studio apartment” is essentially a master bedroom with a kitchen. My mom, my dad, my brother, and I lived in this 400 square foot studio for two and a half years. We had very little space by choice. We traded square footage, separate bedrooms, and a backyard for a downtown location, gorgeous bay windows, high ceilings (a penthouse privilege), two closets, a kitchen, and a disproportionately spacious bathroom. When we first moved in, my mom excitedly invested in Murphy beds that were nailed into the wall and could be conveniently folded up to make space. In reality, it always seemed like too much of a hassle to remove blankets and pillows from our beds and fold them up for a couple extra square feet. My brother and I shared one such Murphy bunk bed, nailed into the wall next to our office space (a table and desktop computer placed in front of the large windows). Our bunk bed faced the two closets, one of which I claimed for myself the day we moved in, leaving my mom, my dad, and my brother to share the second. Continuing along the wall to the left of the closets were a kitchen stove, oven, dishwasher, and refrigerator. Across from the kitchen appliances, my parents slept in a queen-size Murphy bed that similarly never got folded up. We talked of hanging a fabric partition to maintain some privacy between my parents and my brother and me, but we never got around to it.
Looking outside our bay windows, we could see the City Hall, which lit up at night in orange and black to celebrate the San Francisco Giants or in red and green to celebrate Christmas. I remember the view of the city narrowing as new high rises were built. Across the street from our studio was a public elementary school. In order to maximize space, the school’s playground area was on the rooftop, and I would occasionally see children running and talking and playing there during recesses. I remember being close in age to them but distinctly knowing I was not one of them. I, like almost one third of San Francisco children, attended a private school halfway across the city. How must it be, I wondered, to play and breathe in the middle of city life?
I don’t remember growing tired of the small space, or getting sick of constantly being around my family the way I do now in our larger home. I remember all of us going to bed at the same time, talking to each other late at night. One night, after turning off the lights and taking turns speaking into the darkness of the shared room, I went on such an impassioned tirade against my fifth-grade teacher that I cried while my parents and brother listened, their silence more pensive than empathetic. I remember video calling my at-the-time best friend, doing homework and chit-chatting for hours while my family moved about in the background. And when I discovered Harry Potter, I stayed up reading The Goblet of Fire locked in the bathroom—the only other room in the studio—so the light wouldn’t disturb my sleeping family.
I spent many weekends in the city’s main library, only a short walk away from our studio, wandering through the long rows of children’s books for hours and picking out a pile to borrow. One time, when using the library’s public restroom, I waited in line and looked and un-looked at the people in the room with me. I saw bags of belongings leaning against the walls while I stood in line clutching my bag of borrowed books, which I’d return to read in my penthouse home. The library felt like a haven for many. The streets at the library’s perimeter were populated with people and carts and bags of clothes, blankets, jewelry, empty bottles, and CDs. When I walked through these streets, I only looked and quickly looked away, keeping everything in the periphery of my vision. I was too scared to fully see and internalize the beauty and pain and success and struggle of the city that I lived in.
As I grew older in this studio apartment, I began to better understand the socioeconomic complexities of downtown San Francisco. Living downtown meant living next to dozens of bus and Muni (subway) lines, next to high-end vegan restaurants, next to immigrant-run grocery stores, next to the city’s largest public library, next to the famed San Francisco Symphony, next to parents and toddlers at the newly renovated playgrounds, and seemingly always next to homelessness. Our apartment building was just adjacent to, if not inside, the Tenderloin, a San Francisco neighborhood historically known as a center of homelessness, open drug use, sex work, and crime. This reputation persists today, creating an expectation and a fear in newcomers like my family of all of the above.
There isn’t one clear origin for the Tenderloin’s name. In one tale, police officers were said to have accepted so many bribes in the district that they could afford the tenderloin, an expensive cut of meat. A similar account claims that officers were able to afford the pricier cut with the bonus pay they received for working in the midst of the neighborhood’s violence. In a third tale, tenderloin metaphorically refers to the soft underbelly of the city, full of crime and corruption.
In the 1800s, while wealthy residents chose to live at the top of San Francisco hills, the flatter Tenderloin district was largely left to non-wealthy residents. This district developed into the city’s home for entertainment, both legal and criminal, as well as the home of rebels and outcasts. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Tenderloin’s streets were crowded with gambling establishments, speakeasies, theaters, jazz venues, brothels, and some of the first gay bars and clubs in the city. People would travel to the thriving Tenderloin district to dine out, drink, and dance.
In the 1950s, however, San Francisco took action against the successful and illegal businesses populating the district’s streets. Randy Shaw, an attorney and activist who worked in the Tenderloin for decades, said in a KQED interview, “City Hall intentionally wrecked the Tenderloin [in the 1950s]. They eliminated our gambling operation, which they had to do. They changed our street configuration. They took away our cable cars.” The city architected the Tenderloin to make it less attractive and less accessible, resulting in the replacement of businesses with drug dealing, petty crime, and not-so-petty crime.
Largely ignored in the second half of the 20th century, the Tenderloin was able to become “a haven for gay and lesbian San Franciscans” (KQED) who sought safe spaces. Outcasts and low-income residents found community, affordable housing, and new beginnings in this district. Following the Vietnam War and continuing into today, the district became home to many Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees, with locals affectionately naming a couple of the city blocks “Little Saigon.”
On weekend mornings, my dad loved to bring me to the restaurants and grocery stores of Little Saigon, walking us past bars and strip clubs without pointing them out. I remember during one morning walk, we came across scattered pieces of a ripped up one-dollar bill, an absurd and delightful finding. I excitedly picked up the shredded pieces, ignoring my dad as he told me not to bother, and found that I had all the scraps to make a whole bill. I wondered if I could tape the bill together and use it, reveling in the seeming magic of the city without thinking about the implications of violence and rebellion in what I had found.
Another morning, my dad and I passed by a man sitting on the ground, a paper cup with coins in front of him. I remember feeling acutely aware of my actions and particularly my lack thereof, but neither of us acknowledged the man’s existence. I know I often felt deep sadness and pity when seeing people living on the city streets. But projecting disillusionment and grief while ignoring the very human bodies who were the subject of my emotions does nothing for anyone. As Simone Weil says, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
My memories of walking through this neighborhood carry the luck and wonder that can be found, alongside the people who are trying to live while not being seen.
Although San Francisco was named “the most intensely gentrified city in America from 2013 to 2017,” (NCRC) the Tenderloin has largely and surprisingly resisted this. Nonprofit land acquisition, single room occupancy (SRO), and Tenderloin residents who advocated for regulations on high-rise buildings have all contributed to the Tenderloin’s apparent immunity from widespread gentrification.
However, high-rise buildings, like the one my family moved into, were appearing all along the outskirts of the district. We lived there at a time when piano stores and universities were replacing fast food restaurants and long-empty buildings that, for a long time, were seen as unattractive due to their proximity to danger and poverty, two things believed to be permanently intertwined.
After my family had been living downtown for some time, something frustrating yet sadly not uncommon happened to us. My parents had parked their car on the street overnight, and in the morning, the side window had been smashed, tiny pieces of glass glittering on the gritty sidewalk. Road trip CDs, a pair of tennis shoes, and a colorful bed sheet had been taken. A red crowbar was left in the place of these items, which I remember being bitterly perplexed by, wondering why someone would abandon this tool. There was dried blood, too, on one of the back seats, dark red-black hardened on the leather cushion.
That day, my mother wore her upset openly, hating the dirtiness of the Tenderloin. I remember thinking how shameful and awkward it felt to be upset about thievery from someone with very presumably less belongings than us. She was angry, we were angry, but it also felt embarrassing to be angry. When the violence of loss exists next to the greater violence of economic inequality, how can we—the city and its residents—heal the chasm between us?
A couple weeks after the car window was broken—enough time to lessen some of the initial upset—my dad came home, a little amused and a little sad. He had been walking back and saw the bed sheet that had been taken from our car, red and orange with a loopy, cursive flower pattern across it. A woman had hung it up to form a small shelter in the nook of an abandoned building, granting her several square feet of privacy in the middle of the city. There was her, a fabric partition, and then the world.