California-based photographer Robert Gumpert’s new book Division Street shows how visible the wealth gap has become in San Francisco, a city where some of the richest and poorest butt up against each other closely, and yet couldn’t be further apart. Gumpert shares some of his striking images here with the street paper network, and describes how the project came to be.
By Robert Gumpert
Just before San Francisco hosted Superbowl 50 on 7 February 2016, the then-mayor sent police and Public Works employees to “encourage” unhoused people to move from the city’s tourist areas to the wide sidewalks and decidedly non-tourist Division Street corridor, that is where and when the Division Street project began.
Since then, the unhoused population has grown and encamped in many other parts of the city, and I have followed, documenting San Francisco’s changing “culture”, building boom, and growing numbers of unhoused residents.
Street photography, still lifes, portraits, recorded interviews, overheard conversations, advertising, graffiti messages, poetry and commentary fill the pages of this new book and give a sense of change in San Francisco, changes familiar to many around the world.
The stark inequality and violent displacement of homeless people is terrible, but it is not new. The gold rush of 1848-1855 brought San Francisco into being. For today’s San Francisco, as with cities around the world, the gold is in speculation and kowtowing to corporate planners.
The late historian Don Parson, in his 2005 book Making A Better World: Public Housing, The Red Scare, And the Direction of Modern Los Angeles, wrote that the early 1950s shifted government housing and social policy from “community modernism” to “corporate modernism”. In corporate modernism, housing is property, a signifier of worth and status. Public housing and affordable rents are considered breeding grounds of crime and laziness, the residents as undesirables. Parson was writing about the 1953 Los Angeles public housing fights between advocates of “shelter-as-a-right” and corporate development forces. Then, as now, the fight was about race, “communism” and property. Corporate interests won in the 50s and in the globalized world of 2020, corporate interests are winning still.
From the late 1930s San Francisco was a center of “community modernism”: well-paid working-class union jobs, city programs, affordable housing, clean streets and a diverse social and economic culture. Today “corporate modernism” has remade the economic and social landscape of San Francisco into a model for 21st century society. Division Street ponders those changes.
Loss of union wage jobs, the tech driven boom-bust economy, and rampant real estate speculation are symptoms of a public policy catering to “corporate modernism”. Development abounds, but so do unaffordable rents and homes prices, underfunded services and growing numbers of people living rough on the streets.
Division Street begins on the city’s eastern edge in the heart of SOMA, San Francisco’s tech and start-up district. From there it runs west, changing names before ending at Duboce and Market.
Leaving the high-tech developments behind, Division Street still looks a bit like old San Francisco, a mix of warehouse buildings, building supplies shops, art and paint stores, even a coffee roaster. Two to four story apartments in the classic San Franciscan railroad flats style abound.
Many years ago, a block from Duboce—Division by another name—and a block off Market, I accompanied two homicide detectives into such a flat. They didn’t find the estranged husband of a murdered woman they were looking for; they did find 12 other men living in the one-bedroom flop. I didn’t realize it then but that flat represented San Francisco’s working-class past and its coming tech boom. Today employees in all economic sectors arrange “co-living” accommodations, modern versions of the overcrowded flops of the past. Then as now, “co-living” is a response to unaffordable rent.
The voices of the unhoused and others are integral to this project. First-person storytelling, messages left on the street and on neighborhood list serves, media headlines and politicians’ characterizations make Division Street a collaboration between many communities.
Division Street, in photos and words, has become a metaphor for the “division” of communities, between the wealthy few and the expendability of the many, in San Francisco, in the US and the world.
Like the project itself, the book is divided into two sections. The first covers San Francisco as a place of traditions, progressiveness and wealth, where people could work a job, do art, participate in “café-society”, be patriotic and afford a place to live.
Using found quotes, adverts, overheard conversations, and photos, it becomes clear that is no longer San Francisco. It’s not a pretty picture. An image of a town of disparity, a place where wealth and often the con, are the true aspirations. Where housing is unaffordable to renters or buyers. Where the poor, and especially the unhoused, are vilified and feared. In short, the first section reflects how many who can afford the town, see the town.
The second section, called ‘Home’ is made up of portraits of the unhoused, individuals and families, with their narrative of what they want people to know about them, their hopes, their needs, their desires and in some cases, a bit about how their life looks to them.
With thanks to Quiver Watts from Street Sheet
Courtesy of International Network of Street Papers