Difference between revisions of "Sixth Street"

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''Photo: Mark Ellinger''
 
''Photo: Mark Ellinger''
  
The hotels that have been bought and refurbished by nonprofit corporations now have modern, better-maintained accommodations, a major improvement to be sure; but a system of tiered management circumvents meaningful dialog with tenants who have valid complaints, and so-called supportive housing has a dark side that none will acknowledge. The purport of supportive housing is to assist those who have been homeless and otherwise socially alienated, and indeed it has to some extent reduced homelessness in the short term. However, many of the newly-housed come off the streets with drug problems and to this housing staff and management respond with the protocol of [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harm_reduction "'''harm reduction''']," which in effect means that serious problems are often ignored until they get completely out of hand. Old habits and behaviors die hard, especially if there is no motivation to change them. Thus widespread drug use and associated behavioral problems are commonplace in nonprofit SROs, as are drug-related evictions.
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The hotels that have been bought and refurbished by nonprofit corporations now have modern, better-maintained accommodations, a major improvement to be sure; but a system of tiered management circumvents meaningful dialog with tenants who have valid complaints, and so-called supportive housing has a dark side that none will acknowledge. The purport of supportive housing is to assist those who have been homeless and otherwise socially alienated, and indeed it has to some extent reduced homelessness in the short term. However, many of the newly-housed come off the streets with drug problems and to this housing staff and management respond with the protocol of [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harm_reduction "'''harm reduction''']," which in effect means that serious problems are often ignored until they get completely out of hand. Old habits and behaviors die hard, especially if there is no motivation to change them. Instead, drug-related problems tend to be “solved” by eviction. Worst of all are the City’s [http://www.thclinic.org/content/services/property_management.php '''master lease hotels'''], where crimes committed by staff and management—including embezzlement, drug dealing, property theft, prostitution, rape and other forms of violent assault—have been numerous and widespread yet rarely publicized, since cases involving crimes against tenants are largely settled out of court. Prominent among master lease hotels is the [http://www.scribd.com/doc/78453127/Letter-to-Randy-shaw-January4-2011a '''Seneca'''] on Sixth Street; in essence a government-funded crack house, notorious for violence and open drug activity in the hallways.
 
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There is also a glaring dissociation between on- and off-site management, particularly in hotels that are operated by way of the City’s [http://www.thclinic.org/content/services/property_management.php '''master lease program''']; yet another issue no one will openly address, an issue that adds fuel to the fire of drug-related crime. One of the worst examples of a master lease hotel is [http://www.scribd.com/doc/78453127/Letter-to-Randy-shaw-January4-2011a '''the Seneca''']; in essence a government-funded crack house, notorious for violence and open drug activity in the hallways.
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[[Image:6th-Street 1950-.jpg]]
 
[[Image:6th-Street 1950-.jpg]]

Revision as of 09:32, 19 March 2013

Historical Essay

"I was there..."

by Mark Ellinger

6th & Minna 06.jpg

Sixth and Minna, 18 April 1906.

Photo: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

After the earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco’s Sixth Street was rebuilt with rooming houses and residential hotels—also known as SROs, or single room occupancy hotels—that for many decades housed the working class. These days, Sixth Street is where the poor are warehoused and the neighborhood’s working class origins are largely forgotten. As poverty is for many people an uncomfortable truth to be avoided, there are prejudicial blind spots in the general consensus regarding Sixth Street. In fact, most people wish Sixth Street would just go away.

Pot Roast Restaurant 1927.jpg

Pot Roast Restaurant, 1927. Long ago demolished, the Pot Roast was a Prohibition era speakeasy on the corner of Sixth and Jessie, next to the Hillsdale Hotel.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Daily life on Sixth Street has been documented since 1992 by the staff and students of the Sixth Street Photography Workshop, and some moving portraits of neighborhood residents comprise a chapter of the book Many Voices* by documentary photographer Virginia Allyn. I began my own portrait of Sixth Street by documenting its architecture and signs. By getting involved in the neighborhood, I got to know the people who live and work there. By listening to their stories, I learned some history. I got involved with the neighborhood by living in it.

∗2005, Trafford Books.

6th-&-Jessie 1995.jpg

Sixth and Jessie, 1995. On the left is the Shree Ganeshai Hotel, and in the upper left corner are the three turret windows to my old room, #10.

Photo: Virginia Allyn

Even though at any other time in my life I would not have chosen to do so, pressing need is a powerful motivator. Thus in mid-Spring 2001, while in the initial stages of recovery from a six year nightmare of homelessness and heroin addiction and with little more than the clothes on my back and a monthly income of 690 dollars from State Disability Insurance (SDI), I moved into the Shree Ganeshai Hotel on the corner of Sixth and Jessie. There I lived until October 2006. From the moment I became a tenant until the day I moved out, that hotel was home, my sanctum; the world wherein I reinvented myself and the soil in which Up from the Deep was sprouted. The seed was a cheap digital camera that I rescued from the trash.

30-Millionth-Man 2003-.jpg

Surviving on $690 a month was a constant struggle. For a long time, my one daily meal was lunch at St. Anthony's Dining Room.

San Francisco Chronicle, 01 May 2003

Conveniently-Located.jpg

"Conveniently Located"

Midtown Loans, 39 Sixth Street.
Whitaker Hotel, 41 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

When I immigrated to San Francisco in 1968, the South of Market area was a working class neighborhood largely populated by laborers, off-season migrant workers, merchant marines, and retirees eking out their golden years on meager pensions; men whose sweat and toil helped make San Francisco a thriving, prosperous, world-renowned city. I soon discovered that most people believed these men were all bums and winos, characterizations that had been cultivated since the mid-50s by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and downtown developers, instigated by hotelier and real estate mogul Ben Swig and aided by the San Francisco Chronicle and News Call-Bulletin, two of the City’s daily newspapers.

Alcoholics-on-Skid-Road 1956.jpg

Newscopy: “Alcoholics on Skid Road.”(SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956)

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Following World War Two, the densest concentration of South of Market SROs was in the area known as Yerba Buena, just across Market Street from San Francisco’s business and shopping district. To Ben Swig, Yerba Buena was prime real estate for the expansion of commercial and civic functions. Since the most expeditious way of clearing the area would be to have it declared blighted, in 1954 he donated money to the redevelopment agency to prepare a study. Even though the money was returned by agency director and future mayor Joseph Alioto, the plan moved forward.

Men-gathered-on-Skid-Road 4.jpg

Newscopy: “Men gathered on Skid Road.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956) Look closely at the faces and attire of the men in this photograph and you’ll see that these same gentlemen were also posed in the next photo.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

In a campaign to discredit the neighborhood’s residents, the newspapers published articles that depicted South of Market SROs as flophouses inhabited by alcoholics and lowlifes, embellishing the stories by posing unwitting hotel residents in photos that purported to show them getting drunk on the sidewalks.

Group-of-men-on-Skid-Road 1956.jpg

Newscopy: “SKID ROAD, SAN FRANCISCO–’No one along Skid Road is likely to shop carefully.’” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1956)

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Little mention was made of the workers and retirees who were by far the majority of SRO residents. The intention was to mitigate concern for the thousands of people who were to be displaced by the razing of every SRO from Third Street to Fifth Street, thus allowing the City to save millions of dollars by sidestepping the issue of relocation. Who would care about the evictions of bums and ne’er-do-wells?

Hotel-on-Skid-Road 1952-.jpg

Newscopy: “SKID ROAD–This is a hotel in the wino district. It has 200 rooms renting from 50 to 75¢ a night, chiefly to old-age pensioners.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo, 1954)

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

In 1969, many of those who would be affected joined together to form Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment, which took the City to court. After a grim and protracted battle during which people were killed, buildings burned, and political organizations suppressed, the City was forced to provide a measure of relocation support and to build a few residential facilities for seniors before the area was completely gutted. Be that as it may, the cynical manipulation of public opinion successfully engendered a prejudice against hotel life that to this day shapes the common perception of Sixth Street.

St-Daniel-Hotel 1961.jpg

Newscopy: “Slum area hotel at 259 Sixth St., owned by William H. H. Davis, president of the City Board of Permit Appeals.” (SF News Call-Bulletin photo by Sid Tate, 1961)

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

In recent years a sympathetic district supervisor helped to implement some needed improvements for the SROs that remain, but otherwise the policies of city government and law enforcement have created more problems than they have solved. As if filthy sidewalks and poorly maintained hotels with greedy owners and abusive managers were not bad enough, residents must also live with the constant threats of robbery and violence, because the police for years have used Sixth Street as a containment zone for crime. The corralling of criminal activity by the San Francisco Police Department and irregular, substandard maintenance by the Department of Public Works are underlying reasons why attempts to improve the appearance of the neighborhood never seem to make any lasting difference.

Winter-Evening---6th-Street.jpg

"Winter Evening, Sixth Street"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

The hotels that have been bought and refurbished by nonprofit corporations now have modern, better-maintained accommodations, a major improvement to be sure; but a system of tiered management circumvents meaningful dialog with tenants who have valid complaints, and so-called supportive housing has a dark side that none will acknowledge. The purport of supportive housing is to assist those who have been homeless and otherwise socially alienated, and indeed it has to some extent reduced homelessness in the short term. However, many of the newly-housed come off the streets with drug problems and to this housing staff and management respond with the protocol of "harm reduction," which in effect means that serious problems are often ignored until they get completely out of hand. Old habits and behaviors die hard, especially if there is no motivation to change them. Instead, drug-related problems tend to be “solved” by eviction. Worst of all are the City’s master lease hotels, where crimes committed by staff and management—including embezzlement, drug dealing, property theft, prostitution, rape and other forms of violent assault—have been numerous and widespread yet rarely publicized, since cases involving crimes against tenants are largely settled out of court. Prominent among master lease hotels is the Seneca on Sixth Street; in essence a government-funded crack house, notorious for violence and open drug activity in the hallways.

6th-Street 1950-.jpg

Sixth Street, circa 1950.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

I have great love for Sixth Street, not for what it has become, but for what lies beneath the veneer of crime and decay, invisible to all except those who live and work there: its people and its history. Much of what I have learned has come from the stories of old-timers who have lived and worked on Sixth Street for many years. I also have the experience of living in Sixth Street hotels for nearly six years and personal memories that span the years since my landing in San Francisco. While there are very few archival photos of Sixth Street, my own photography adds a bit more to the record. Though my portrait of Sixth Street is largely an expression of love, it is also an act of defiance whereby I call down the despoilers of individual lives and thumb my nose at the blindly onrushing forces of redevelopment and urban renewal, which have no use for history.

Sai.jpg

"Sai"

Sai Hotel, 964 Howard Street

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Near the middle of February 2001, a week after I left the hospital, I rented lodgings at the Sai Hotel for 400 dollars a month. As this was well below what other SROs were charging, it seemed like a bargain. When I saw what I had rented, it seemed more like a swindle. On the top floor at the back of the building was an undersized door that opened inward on an absurdly small room. I first thought I had opened the wrong door, but the number on the lintel said otherwise. The bit of floorspace unoccupied by the bed was just a narrow strip along the length of the room. As this was mostly taken up by a small sink and a nightstand, all that remained empty was clearance for the door. When using the door from inside the room, I had no choice but to stand on the bed. Every time I shaved or washed my face, I risked electrocution by the ungrounded electrical outlet in an open utility box over the sink. For all practical purposes inaccessible, the lead-colored walls were entirely bare. Above the nightstand, a diminutive window provided meager illumination that was never sufficient to wholly dispel the gloom. More light was available from a naked sixty-watt light bulb suspended by a length of ancient, cloth-insulated wire, but its glare was intolerable, so I used it as little as possible. Every aspect of the room was uncomfortable and oppressive. It felt like a broom closet, in fact I think it had been one, but it was the first place I could call home after nearly six years on the streets.

I spent very little time actually living at the Sai. Even though I was grateful to have it, my room was far too cheerless and confining to be more than a place to rest my head. It would be many months before I completely healed from surgery. Between twice-weekly visits to the hospital wound clinic, I occupied much of my time reading and writing at the Main Public Library on Grove Street. Lunch at St. Anthony's Dining Room was my daily bread. An acquaintance one day introduced me to his friend Jozsef, who invited us to have tea in his room at the Shree Ganeshai Hotel on Sixth Street. Jozsef was an artist and housepainter who fled Hungary during the turmoil of 1989. We discovered in each other common sympathies shaped by hardship and our dialog filled a mutual need for intellectual stimulation. I was soon enjoying regular visits to his snug and homey room, where he had been living for several years. The Shree Ganeshai Hotel was small, quiet and affordable,* and management rented only to long-term tenants. It seemed ideal, and with Jozsef's endorsement, the manager agreed to let me rent the next available room. I could only hope it would be soon.

Invocation.jpg

"Invocation"

Shree Ganeshai Hotel, 68 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger
After a month at the Sai, I spent a hellish five weeks at the Hotel Fairfax and a few weeks sleeping in bus shelters. At last in mid-May, I took possession of a room at the Shree Ganeshai. The title of this image is derived from the name of the hotel. Many centuries ago, Sanskrit scholars began their writings with an invocation to God, usually the one their family worshiped. One such invocation, to Ganesha,* was shree ganeshaya namah. Over time, the invocation came to be used before starting any activity and was gradually shortened until shree ganesh sufficed as a prayer for an auspicious beginning. The phrase is used today before any beginning, be it a meal, a journey, or a task. During my stay at the Shree Ganeshai, I took comfort in knowing my home was an endless prayer to Ganesha for a bright and beneficent new beginning. To this day I keep on my bookshelf a small golden effigy of Ganesha, a gift from the Shree Ganeshai’s manager, Nagin.

∗In the Hindu pantheon, Ganesha is the elephant-headed god who brought writing to the world by breaking off one of his tusks to use as a pen, the god of wisdom and auspicious beginnings.

Ganesha01.jpg

Ganesha

Photo: Mark Ellinger

A-View-from-My-Old-Room.jpg

A view from my old room.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

View-from-Room--10.jpg

A view from Room #10.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

A-Corner-of-My-Old-Room-.jpg

A corner of my room.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Abracadabra-.jpg

"abracadabra"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Reinventing myself meant foremost, reactivating parts of my brain that had lain dormant for six years and recovering my hand/eye coordination. To accomplish this, I used writing, drawing, painting and calligraphy as my primary tools. Above is the first of my pen-and-ink drawings, dated July 2001, my third month at the Shree Ganeshai Hotel. While hospitalized, I had rediscovered my love of language and symbolism when I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Soon afterward, I started a journal and sketchbook. Once I'd established myself at the Shree Ganeshai, I began poring over alchemical treatises and ars combinatoria of the Middle Ages, wherein I found the inspiration for many of my drawings, including “abracadabra.” Below, dated November 2001, is the first of three watercolor decorated letters that paid homage to poets whose writings had inspired me in years gone by. Near the end of 2002, after acquiring a castoff plastic camera, I began photographing my surroundings.

IIlumination-1-.jpg

"Alone" (Stanza from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Dawn---Rain's-End.jpg

"Dawn – Rain's End"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

As an insomniac, I've seen many beautiful sunrises. I captured this one while seated at my computer one spring morning after a night of heavy rain. On the left is a corner of the Hillsdale Hotel. The stacks are part of a PG & E steam plant on Jessie Street. This particular view resonated very deeply with me, and the reasons for this are to be found in my childhood.

Gray-Day-3-.jpg

"Gray Day #3"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

I grew up in a Midwestern city in the 1950s, before urban renewal, corporatism, and the "form follows function" aesthetic of postmodern and corporate modernist architecture eviscerated much of this country’s soul. Grandpa “PR” Ellinger was a brakeman for the B & O Railroad. Some of my earliest memories are of freight trains being assembled in the yards by 0-8-0 switching engines, and of giant 4-8-2 locomotives waiting by the pit or in the roundhouse. Everywhere were the smells of coal smoke, oil and hot metal, and the sounds of herculean iron machines at work: a crashing and hissing of superheated steam punctuated by whistle blasts that telegraphed the movements of the trains.

Island-Out-of-Time.jpg

"Island Out of Time"

Hillsdale Hotel, 51 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

My other grandfather, “Red” Tobin, was a chemist for the city water purification plant, built circa 1912. When I was a boy, the plant’s enormous machinery, valves, pipes, filtration pools and conduits were still original, as were the many brass-handled controls and oversize gauges. Everything was perfectly maintained and housed in cavernous structures of iron and brick. All of this filled me with wonder and I idolized Grandpa Tobin, so at times when he had to check plant operations, I would beg him to take me along. Each time he would walk me throughout the enormous facility, patiently explaining everything in great detail. Most wondrous of all was the pump house, a brick building five stories high and three stories deep that had brass-railed ironwork galleries instead of floors, and walls that were lined with banks of indicator lights and old-fashioned recording gauges—all built around the colossal, steam-driven, Corliss flywheel pumps that fed the city’s water supply. Such are the archetypes that inform my world view.

Hillsdale.jpg

"Hillsdale"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

It should therefore come as no surprise that I find poignant beauty in buildings most people consider lowly, squalid eyesores. These old hotels have an archetypal quality that stirs my blood and attracts me like a magnet. So many people, so many stories, so much living has taken place within their walls. How can you not feel it? We are far too willing to dispose of anything that is old just because we are told that new things are somehow better. I would ask why we are being told this. Who benefits when we are divested of our history and culture?

My-Back-Yard-.jpg

"My Back Yard"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

The closest building in this photo is the Lawrence Hotel. Behind it is the Hotel Seneca, where windows to inner worlds glow as evening falls. The rear wall of Fascination can be seen peeking over the roof line of the Lawrence where it intersects with the edge of the Seneca. Between the Seneca and the McAllister Tower in the background is black-iron framework that once supported a water tank. Many of the older buildings in San Francisco have still-functioning rooftop water tanks, built in response to the 1906 conflagration that was catalyzed by earthquake-shattered water mains.

Dentils-of-Metal.jpg

"Dentils of Metal"

Sunnyside Hotel, 135 Sixth Street.
Minna Lee Hotel, 149 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

In Classical architecture, the repeating, box-shaped components of a cornice are called dentils. While their size and details vary, they are always symmetrical and look like rows of evenly spaced teeth, whence their name was derived.

A-Lost-Art-.jpg

"A Lost Art" Sunset Hotel, 161 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Shown here is a small section of the cornice that crowns the Sunset Hotel. I like it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the simplicity of its design. I also like the very large dentils and the medallion that decorates the bracket at the end. Rust reveals metal beneath the illusion of carved stone. Simplicity and neglect combine to make this architectural detail a perfect symbol for all old residential hotels.

If-Walls-Could-Speak.jpg

"If Walls Could Speak"

Hugo Hotel, Sixth and Howard.

The Hugo is Sixth Street’s oldest hotel. Shuttered and vacant since a fire burned out several rooms in 1987, the unreinforced masonry building also suffered structural damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1997 a group of artists led by Brian Goggin transformed the Hugo into an immense sculptural mural called "Defenestration." Scavenged furniture and appliances were modified by the artists to make it appear animate and then cleverly affixed to the hotel. Tables and chairs leapt from the roof and ran across the walls. Lamps corkscrewed from some windows, and sofas, refrigerators, bathtubs, even a grandfather clock squirmed and leapt from others. The furniture is there to this day, still leaping and running about and squirming through the windows. Untold thousands of photographs have been taken of the Hugo and its famous furniture, now a designated sightseeing stop; a housing crisis turned into public art. I photographed the Hugo’s former service alley because it shows the only wall of the hotel that has not been altered, save by the hand of Time.

Defenestration-.jpg

"Defenestration"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

"Defenestration" has now endured for nearly thirteen years, although most of the original sideshow-themed paintings have disappeared beneath eye-popping murals of polychrome street art. As a work of conceptual art, the Hugo Hotel is universally appealing—everyone likes it—and I’ve become more attached to it with each passing year. Yet few people know the hotel remained empty for over twenty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They refused to repair and maintain the building as low income housing, but were unable to sell it because their asking price vastly exceeded the building’s actual market value. Their outspoken contempt* for those less fortunate reflects an attitude that for years has been tacitly encouraged by the policies of local government. After years of haggling with the owners, in January 2008 the redevelopment agency announced it was seizing the Hugo by eminent domain, foredooming the controversial landmark to demolition.

∗”They can put the low-income people somewhere else… you can be homeless somewhere in Idaho.” — Varsha Patel, former owner, Hugo Hotel.

Daybreak---Hugo-Hotel.jpg

"Daybreak – Hugo Hotel"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

As embodied by the new Yerba Buena pavilions, galleries, malls and tourist hotels, and a widespread proliferation of drab and overbearing condominiums, modern urbanism has been steadily taking over the South of Market landscape for several decades. The old “South of the Slot” district is no more, and Sixth Street for years has been slowly dying by attrition. Inasmuch as the Hugo Hotel has helped prevent the total dissolution of the old neighborhood by holding off encroaching modern urbanism and gentrification, the transformation of Sixth Street will no doubt proceed in earnest once the hotel is razed. Despite its longtime closure in the face of a housing shortage, the Hugo has also served as a signpost: a reminder of the past and a symbol of the present that will soon be just a memory.

Continue to Part Two


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