Sixth Street

Historical Essay

"I was there..."

by Mark Ellinger

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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 that are inherent in the general consensus regarding Sixth Street; in fact, most people wish Sixth Street would just go away.

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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.

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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, and thus in early 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 from State Disability Insurance (SDI), I moved into the Shree Ganeshai Hotel on the corner of Sixth and Jessie. There I lived until mid-autumn 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 the St. Anthony Dining Room.

San Francisco Chronicle, 01 May 2003


"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.

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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, and because 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.

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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?

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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.

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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 weren’t 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, 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 the efficacy of so-called supportive housing is problematic, insofar as it maintains tenants in a state of learned helplessness instead of lending meaning and direction to their lives by inspiring them to help themselves. There is also a glaring dissociation between on- and off-site management, especially in hotels that are operated by way of the City’s master lease program. The Hotel Seneca, for example, is in essence a government-funded crack house, notorious for violence and open drug activity in the hallways.

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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 a Sixth Street hotel for five-and-a-half 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; and 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 Hotel, 964 Howard Street

Photo: Mark Ellinger

Near the end of February 2001, I moved into the Sai Hotel, into the tiniest room outside of a closet I have ever seen. For a monthly rent of $400, I got a seven-by-five-foot room on the top floor at the back of the hotel that was barely large enough to contain an attenuated single bed (for reference, I am over six feet, four inches tall). A narrow door opened inward, just missing the minuscule sink attached to the wall opposite the bed. Unable to squeeze between bed and sink, I had to step onto the bed to enter or leave the room and had to face the sink from the side to use it. Furniture consisted of a small nightstand; there was no closet nor even hooks or nails in the walls. The one electrical outlet was in an exposed utility box just above the sink. Lighting the room by day was a small window near the head of the bed; an unshaded light bulb dangling from the ceiling lit the room at night. 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.



Shree Ganeshai Hotel, 68 Sixth Street.

Photo: Mark Ellinger

One month at the Sai was all I could take. A month-and-a-half and two hotels later, I settled 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 Ganesh,* 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, whether it is 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 Ganesh for a bright and beneficent new beginning. To this day I keep on my bookshelf a small golden effigy of Ganesh, a gift from the Shree Ganeshai’s manager, Nagin.

∗Ganesh is the elephant-headed god in the Hindu pantheon 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.


A view from my old room, #10.

Photo: Mark Ellinger


Same room, different view.

Photo: Mark Ellinger


A corner of my room: cramped, but comfortable.

Photo: Mark Ellinger


"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 power 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"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

I grew up in a Midwestern city in the 1950s, before urban renewal, corporatism, and the “form follows function” aesthetic of corporate modernist architecture eviscerated much of this country’s soul. Grandpa “PR” Ellinger was a brakeman for the B & O Railroad, so 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"

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, and all were 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.



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"

Photo: Mark Ellinger

The closest building in this photo is the Lawrence Hotel, behind which 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, just before 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"

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

Photo: Mark Ellinger

The box-like 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" 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"

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 took this photograph of what used to be the Hugo’s service alley because it shows the one wall of the hotel that has not been altered, save by the hand of Time.



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 that the hotel remained empty for over twenty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They didn’t want to 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"

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.

Part Two

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