A DIY project that wants to change people's stereotypes about their city.

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. 

From the SF Postcard Project -- Images courtesy of Hunter Franks/Neighborhood Postcard Project 

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.

From the SF Postcard Project -- Images courtesy of Hunter Franks/Neighborhood Postcard Project 

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.

From the SF Postcard Project -- Images courtesy of Hunter Franks/Neighborhood Postcard Project  

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.

Images courtesy of SERA Architects, Inc.

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.

And just last week, Franks announced that Ciudad Emergente, a Santiago-based organization focused on urban innovation, is taking a Spanish-version of the project to Chile.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    Why Flood Victims Blame Their City, Not the Climate

    Cities may struggle to gain support for climate action plans because they haven’t dealt with infrastructure issues that regularly afflict residents.

  2. a photo of a man at a bus stop in Miami
    Transportation

    Very Bad Bus Signs and How to Make Them Better

    Clear wayfinding displays can help bus riders feel more confident, and give a whole city’s public transportation system an air of greater authority.

  3. a photo of a woman on a SkyTrain car its way to the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    Transportation

    In the City That Ride-Hailing Forgot, Change Is Coming

    Fears of congestion and a powerful taxi lobby have long kept ride-hailing apps out of transit-friendly Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s about to change.  

  4. a photo rendering of "Siemensstadt 2.0" in Berlin
    Life

    Berlin's Take on a High-Tech ‘Smart City’ Could Be Different

    The German company Siemens is launching an ambitious adaptive reuse project to revitalize its historic corporate campus, with a modern data-collecting twist.

  5. a photo of a security camera
    Equity

    Six U.S. Cities Make the List of Most Surveilled Places in the World

    Atlanta and Chicago top the list of U.S. cities that are watching their citizens with security cameras, but China leads the world when it comes to official surveillance.

×