Janet Delaney was a 26-year-old photography student when she arrived in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood in 1978. Then, SoMa was still home to working-class immigrant families, small-business owners, artists, and a vibrant gay/leather community. With relatively low rents, "it had a long history of being a port of entry to the city," says Delaney. "There's a quote from one of my neighbors that I love: 'South of Market was a place where you could get yourself together.'"
But SoMa was already changing, as the city moved forward with decades-long plans to redevelop the area. The then-under-construction Moscone Center, a 700,000 square-foot convention-plex, attracted Delaney as a photographer interested in architectural forms. But as Delaney thought about the thousands of homes demolished to make way for the Center (which ultimately became the axis of the neighborhood's transformation), she soon focused her lens on her neighbors. Their existences in SoMa were in peril, too.
"I don’t think I’d ever heard of the word 'gentrification'," says Delaney, "But I was fascinated by issues of urban living, in part because I'd grown up in south L.A. when the freeways were being built, and houses were disappearing. The idea really troubled me."
Armed with books by Jane Jacobs and Chester W. Hartman, she began to "piece together" the effects of redevelopment as a photographer. Over several years, in images and in interviews, Delaney documented SoMa's residents as they fought hard against—but were ultimately pushed out by—rising rents, apartment-building arson, and wild real-estate speculation. Sparkling new office buildings and high-rise apartments popped up where their homes had been. "It felt like a moral imperative [to take these photographs]," she says. "I couldn't leave it up to other people."
Fast forward nearly 40 years, and Delaney's photographs and interviews are on view now in "South of Market," at San Francisco's de Young Museum. The show presents an almost eerie mirror of the development wars being fought in San Francisco today.
"Today, we have a younger community of people coming in who are well-educated and are capable of making a huge amount of money," says Delaney. "So the challenge is to make sure they can appreciate the hard-fought [political and social] liberties that come with living in this city. And that usually happens through interacting with art."
But artists are again being pushed further and further out of the city, which worries Delaney. "It's like losing an organ. If we could wave a wand and figure out more housing for everybody ... then we'd all be happy."
In spite of the fact that she's witnessed the city transform again and again—or perhaps because of it—Delaney doesn't completely mourn for the future of San Francisco. She went walking around SoMa just yesterday, she says, and enjoyed the energy and bustle of people on bikes and in cafes and at work. The city's dramatic changes remind her, a little bit, of New York City.
"There's just more of everything," she says. "There’s more to despair, and there’s more to celebrate. But we're not New York City yet."
All images courtesy of Janet Delaney.