Imagine this: you live in San Francisco, and one day, a postcard from a stranger appears in your mailbox with the following message: "There's more to the Tenderloin than the drugs and dealers. Over 5,000 kids live here! Including my 4-month old daughter."
Would it give you pause? A fresh sliver of insight into a place you rarely visit?
That's the hope of the Neighborhood Postcard Project, which offers marginalized neighborhoods the opportunity to highlight their charms to outsiders. Residents write their stories on simple postcards, which are then mailed, at random, to homes in the rest of the city.
It was the brainchild of Hunter Franks, who launched the SF Postcard Project last April. Franks wasn't looking to spotlight the poorest or most under-served communities based on statistics, he says. Rather, he picked places that are defined by news reports of violence, poverty, or drug use. For example, he notes, tourists are often warned away from walking through the Tenderloin at night "because it’s dangerous."
Franks partnered with local organizations and events, such as the Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club and the city’s Sunday Streets program, to collect the postcards. He asked residents to write down what they love about their neighborhoods -- for example, specific places or stories that people don't really hear otherwise.
He's sent around 350 postcards to date, collected across five San Francisco neighborhoods - Bayview, Central Market, Tenderloin, Western Addition, and Lower Polk. Along the way, he's learned a few things.
For one, he realized his original idea of simply sending postcards from marginalized areas to rich ones was too narrow-minded. Franks says this initial strategy quickly exposed his own assumptions about the city, i.e. if you live in rich neighborhoods, you probably don’t visit the poor ones.
Now, he recommends sending the postcards to random addresses found in the phone book or on whitepages.com.
He also thinks the project could use more real-life interaction. On one hand, getting a random postcard in the mail is harmless and unlikely to offend. "It's not trying to tell people to take an urban field trip to hang out in Bayview all night long," Franks says.
But he was pleasantly surprised when two women who received a postcard from Bayview followed the printed URL on the back of the card. They sent him an email suggesting a meet-up with the postcard's author, which led to a successful group dinner.
Since the SF Postcard Project launched, plenty of people have gotten in contact with Franks about starting one in their city. So he recently launched a toolkit, with postcard templates and recommended guidelines. It's been a hit.
For example, design student Pamela Jue collected postcards from specific neighborhoods - in her case, Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia and Adams Morgan, and New York City's Hamilton Heights, Prospect Heights, and Upper West Side.
Meanwhile, Portland-based architecture firm SERA just launched a version that hopes to shine light on real experiences of everyday life, in a city often perceived through the stereotypes of Portlandia. Here's a sample of the submissions SERA has received so far, gathered from clients, baristas, bus riders, university students, and more.
Lifelong Connecticut resident Meg Dalton is extending the Neighborhood Postcards concept across her state, which she says has great economic disparity despite its small size. She's building up "From CT with Love" in five inaugural cities (Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Hartford, and New Canaan), hoping to connect Connecticut residents of different geographic regions, generations, and backgrounds.