What a walk down San Francisco’s Market street and into its main library reveals about the city’s great divide
Today I’m walking down Market Street in San Francisco, staring a few seconds too long at the faces and scenes I pass, and with a voyeurism that shames me as I realize that I would never permit myself to gaze like this in a city of a developing country. A few weeks away from this city and I have forgotten what passes for normal here: a man passed out and sprawled on the sidewalk, his bicycle overturned and tangled in his feet; an acrid smell from a man setting his hair on fire with a lighter; a young woman struggling to drag several suitcases and a cart over the uneven brick sidewalk.
A couple months ago I read an essay in The New Yorker on a prominent Silicon Valley technologist/empire-builder. The Brooklyn-based writer of the article could barely conceal his discontent at his surroundings during this reporting, and a thinly veiled sense of superiority when confronted with a very 'unlovely Silicon Valley', as he described it. Ever since reading this phrase, I keep silently tossing the adjective around, trying it on any number of objects, streets, scenes I see in San Francisco and its periphery. I don’t dare use it out loud to anyone I know here, for fear of offense, and yet the more often I put the word into contact with what I see, the more it gains force, legitimacy, even creating a sense of calm as I realize it explains much of the grating aesthetic disjunction I have had with the cityscape since moving here. But now, as I walk down Market, confronted with what many would agree is the most obvious of the ‘unlovely’ here, I realize the word is bubbling up with a force that I might not be able to suppress.
My walk was to take me to the SF public library to work for the day. Despite having lived here for over a year, I’d never visited the main branch, and had expected it to fall into the general sphere of public spaces of learning that I had frequented over the years: the British Library in London, where I spent some time as an undergrad doing research in the archives; the bibliothèque in Lyon, a space I had also spent many weekends writing essays in French for the classes I was auditing while teaching there. These spaces seemed to attract a mix of the economic and social reality of their respective city's population. In Lyon, the library struck me (and this was in the France of the late aughts) as an exemplary public institution, its visitors a perfect cross-section of the city. More symbolically, it seemed an easy example of French coexistence, appeasing to my liberal sensibilities: there were the young ‘bobo’s' (bourgeois bohemiens), several older French men in carefully pressed wool suits, some maghrébin teenagers studying with earbuds in, a few older Vietnamese women on the computers. And, for an example closer to home, a week ago I ascended the marble staircase of the New York Public Library to spend an afternoon of work under the coffered ceiling of the main reading room, one of a sea of readers and writers in that grand space with the warm lamps and spirit of quiet industry.
Today, upon entering the (unlovely, I mouth to myself) grey, institutional lobby of the main branch of the SF library, I am hit with a whiff of dried urine that recalls what I’ve just passed on my walk here. An older lady sits alone on the grey stairs leading to the basement, cart nestled between her legs, silently staring an inch in front of her eyes at the braids she is plaiting for herself. Neither the guards nor the other patrons seem to take any notice of her. I take the elevator up, and realize I am the only one riding who is not carrying a significant portion of my worldly possessions with me. On the fifth floor, searching amongst the rows of desks for an empty space, I pass by a few older men and women reading magazines and newspapers, but several with no materials at all, their heads cradled in their arms, hunched over and sleeping with the heaviness of the exhausted, face-down on the desks. Walking past the desks and computer stations one by one, I realize I had never been so aware of bodily odors when in a library. The privilege of having access to a washing machine flits through my mind (a thought I’ve rarely considered outside of time spent in rural Nepal and Haiti). After a tour of the 4th and 5th floors — and at this point I admit to myself that I am no longer really searching for a desk, but rather for some understanding of who in my city inhabits this space at 11am on a Monday, — I register that I am perhaps in the minority of library visitors who can leave here and return to a home. This realization adds to my sense of disorientation after the already disconcerting walk down Market street: I have never studied or worked in an environment where this is true.
More scenes: this time, in the women’s bathroom in the basement of the library, three women and a man hunch over individual sinks, their bags of belongings scattered over the floor as they wash their hair. Another unpacks and repacks her bags talking to herself, not quite loud enough for anyone else to make out the words. The doors of the stalls barely reach my chin, which means that from inside I’m still able to see the backs of the women standing at the sinks two feet away (the guard who showed the way to the bathrooms later explains that the low doors are meant to ‘discourage drug use or other potential illicit behavior’). A quick search reveals that a men’s bathroom stall here was the site of a stabbing only a year ago.
What to make of this all?
Leaving the library aside for a moment, the ‘unloveliness’ of adjoining Market street can perhaps be blamed superficially on the stretches of unfortunate architecture, down-market gentlemen’s clubs, trash, or drug-dealing. Many have heralded the reversal of this aesthetically unsavory area of the city thanks to arrival of third-wave coffee bars and hipster burger joints that cater to the tech workers in the neighborhood. But I am now certain that the unlovely will not be undone by these new, clean-scrubbed storefronts. In fact, the discomfiting walk along Market will, I believe, become all the more pronounced in the coming years, because the real root of the unlovely is that the divide of have’s and have-nots of San Francisco is exposed here in all its raw difference. It is, in fact, an ethical unloveliness, not simply an aesthetic unloveliness that is so jarring — the unlovely of the ‘wicked’ and not just the ‘unpleasant’. So as the managers of these stores push the homeless away (a NIMBYism of retail, which I’ve witnessed on multiple occasions in front of the new ‘Chai Bar by David Rio’ on Market and 6th), Market Street might superficially ‘clean up’. But the reality of the mental health crisis amongst the homeless, the drugs, and the desperate living circumstances that stretch out over generations will be further exposed, and thrown into even greater relief. And unless something shifts in how we are confronting this problem, I expect more homeless be driven from Market Street and into the makeshift shelter of the library.
Here is the ugliest reality of the inequalities of our country, the inadequacy of our public services, and the particularly disastrous plight of the homeless of San Francisco. In New York, a trip to the public library shields me from this reality, allows me to pretend that I’m still somehow in Europe (from both an aesthetic and ethical perspective). But San Francisco — I must credit the city for this — doesn’t allow for any such illusion: it throws the unlovely at us, in the very center of it. On Market street, originally the passageway from the Bay ferries to its inner residential neighborhoods, and now home to both the tech giants of its new renaissance as well as its most disadvantaged, it asks us to confront what it means to live in a 21st century America that has still not figured out how to extract from its staggering growth and wealth a better life for all citizens.