Wendy MacNaughton cuts through the noise with Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words.
Wendy MacNaughton, an author and illustrator who has the rare distinction of being a fifth generation San Franciscan, that’s such a tiny part of it.
"When I used to think of San Francisco I considered it my city," says MacNaughton, whose graphic journalism appears everywhere from The New York Times Opinion section to Edible San Francisco. "I thought I knew enough about it to have a sense of everything going on. I thought I knew the town. By learning about other people’s lives here, lives very different from my own, I started appreciating how many different experiences of the same place are going on at once. My little S.F., between work and home, the restaurants and bars I enjoy, is only one of thousands of S.F.'s. And all of those thousands together is what make up a city."
A keen, empathic observer, MacNaughton is insatiably curious—as you might guess of someone who, within the space of a year has (or is about to) publish a scratch-and-sniff guide to wine, an illustrated memoir (with Caroline Paul) on searching for love and a lost cat using GPS, and a compendium of stories about tattoos. I spoke with her about her latest work, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words, a book that finds beauty, intrigue and hilarity in MUNI drivers, Mission hipsters, farmer’s market vendors and the bison (or are they buffalo?) of Golden Gate Park.
Tell us a bit about your background. You weren't always an illustrator—how did past pursuits inform this project?
I’ve always drawn. I went to art school, but promptly stopped drawing and started making really bad conceptual art, like most undergrad art students do. After graduation I went into advertising. My job was to come up with short, pithy, visually driven stories that would make people buy things. I created campaigns for spiced fresh packaged chicken (ready for salad!) and un-aired Budweiser Superbowl beer ads (“what’s your Superbowl?”). I learned about storytelling, but it really wasn’t that fulfilling.
Then I worked overseas. In Rwanda I created the national campaign to teach people how to vote in the first democratic election. In Kenya, I created health education materials for nomadic tribes. Suddenly the goal wasn’t to get people to follow directions. It was to get people to feel empowered to make decisions. But my American ideas didn’t translate, and my top down advertising model didn’t work. I realized I had to learn how to listen. So I went back to school to study social work, where I also learned seemingly simple things like how to approach people and ask open-ended questions.
I started drawing again when I was commuting between San Francisco and Oakland. Every day, twice a day, 20 minutes, for five days a week I’d draw the people on the train and write bits of overheard conversation and short quips about what I thought they were thinking. I learned to draw fast because someone could get up and off the train at any second. I learned to draw without being noticed and without looking down too much. And I learned what to do when people did notice me -- how not to be shy about it, but instead make it an opportunity for a friendly interaction -- and how to connect with strangers through the act of drawing.
Advertising, social work and drawing. Three very different fields, but all essential to the process of creating a Meanwhile story.
You've talked about how approaching people with a notepad is far less threatening than approaching them with a camera. How did people tend to react when they saw you drawing?
Most people don’t notice. They’re busy walking wherever they're going, reading, looking at their phones or chatting or riding the bus. When they do notice, people are often curious, taking a quick glance over my shoulder as they walk by. Sometimes people ask what I’m doing or ask me to show them what I’m working on, which I usually do. Some people will assess the work, say “nice job” or “not bad” or “his nose looks a little big, don’t you think?” and that often starts up a conversation. Point a camera at someone and it feels more intrusive, more like you’re objectifying them. It provokes very different response.
You were hired by a developer (Forest City) to draw the people of Pier 70, an historic shipyard that’s going through a major transformation. That's an unusual thing for a developer to do. How did that project come about?
I had done the Meanwhile story about 5th & 6th streets in San Francisco (which is in the book) and the head of Forest City saw it and thought similar research and storytelling around [the city’s] Pier 70 and Dogpatch neighborhoods could inform planning of a development they are working on there. A lot of traditional research like surveys and focus groups had been done, but they still didn’t think they had a full sense of the history and communities in the area and wanted to hear more voices. I was skeptical at first -- I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with a developer. I questioned their motives around working with a local artist and was concerned I was being used as a tool for their community outreach. But after learning more about the project and their approach -- and the fact that they agreed not to edit anything I submitted — I agreed. After a month of drawing and conversations, I presented the finished story at a public exhibition in the neighborhood and online. The community provided feedback to the story and that information has influenced Forest City’s plans. One of the things that stood out to me most from the process was the words of a longtime Dogpatch resident, “It’s inevitable the neighborhood is going to change, it’s a matter of how.”
It's been said that San Francisco is perfect for each person at the precise moment they arrive here; any experience that follows is somehow less legitimate. That's particularly amplified now with all the anti-tech sentiment in the city. You're telling the stories of lots of longtime residents, folks with deep roots and from different walks of life. What do you hope readers can glean from these stories? What discoveries were most rewarding to you?
I chose to focus on more unsung communities and long-term residents because I didn’t know much about them. Though I grew up across the bridge in Marin, I’m a 5th generation San Franciscan. Yet I had no idea about the history of the Dolphin Club, who the people are who sell me food at the farmers market, why there are so many SROs are on 6th street, or if those are bison or buffalo in Golden Gate Park and how they hell they got there in the first place. These are all fascinating, uniquely S.F. stories. I think every resident and visitor should know about them.
What impact would you like this work to have and what are the some of the ways you're reaching out to locals?
Change is a touchy topic. People are having a hard time talking about development and gentrification in San Francisco without it quickly becoming a polarized fight. I think a lot of the people who are in tech right now are feeling very conflicted. They want to be here and enjoy San Francisco for all it has to offer, and they don’t want to be part of the problem. But many have no idea what it even means to be part of S.F. They aren’t connected to the city and its residents. They’re getting around town in private cars and working inside buildings with cafes, preventing them from interacting with anyone outside their community. I want this book to help get these folk interested in the town they are a part of, inspire them to explore the city on their own and meet people in other communities. I hope that tech companies will use the book as a conversation starter with the employees around the roles they play in they city and start discussions around their engagement and impact. I want people to be inspired to go do their own versions of "Meanwhiles," whatever that might be.