Equity RipplesFeatured NewsLocal News

Photo Story: Living, aging — and staying — in San Francisco

By October 31, 2019 November 3rd, 2019 No Comments

Longtime resident of the Tenderloin reflects on life in a changing neighborhood

Thomas Byrd, a passionate R&B piano player, reflects on his love of music inside his tiny room in the Tenderloin. The room is filled with musical instruments, old vinyl records and posters of his favorite musicians. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

Thomas Byrd talks with the front desk clerk at the West Hotel SRO on Eddy Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where he lives. “Some people have been here for 20 years in rooms, some of them smaller than a jail cell,” Byrd said. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

Thomas Byrd walks into his room on the fourth floor of the West Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

Thomas Byrd grew up in the Haight-Ashbury and has many memories of the “Summer of Love,” when music was everywhere. His love of music is evident in his SRO in the Tenderloin. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

Thomas Byrd refers to the single-room occupancy (SRO) building as a “standing room only” hotel due to the small size of its living spaces. (Photo by Felix Uribe / CatchLight Local Fellow)

Looking down from his fourth-floor window onto Eddy Street, 61- year-old Thomas Byrd can see the flint-hard effects of gentrification and poverty any time of the day or night.

Homelessness and drug addiction have left their marks on this street in the heart of the Tenderloin, and from Byrd’s vantage within his tiny room in the West Hotel, it’s a neighborhood that’s struggling for its very survival.

“It’s terrible when you can look out your window and see all this death and destruction here and you can actually turn your head to the right and what do you see? You see one of the wealthier spots in San Francisco,” Byrd said, referring to the fancy hotels, restaurants and tourist shops that surround Union Square like a defensive perimeter.

Byrd, a native of San Francisco who grew up in the Haight and the Fillmore districts, says he and his neighbors are no longer welcome in the city, which he ruefully points out has granted tax breaks to giant tech companies in the hope that a rising tide will lift all boats – even those foundering along Eddy Street between Taylor and Mason.

“They came and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to give them this huge tax break because they’re going be spending money in the neighborhood,’” Byrd said. “But they’re not spending money in the neighborhood. They have their own cafeterias, their own little mini stores.

“When they do come down this block they’re walking in the street because they don’t want walk on the sidewalk,” said Byrd, who works as a desk clerk for the organization that helps run the city’s single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs.

The external pressures on the neighborhood are tangible to longtime residents, with the luxury apartment projects that bracket the city serving as reminders that the San Francisco of Byrd’s youth is gone.

“I call them the White Folks Projects,” he said. “Those nicer apartment buildings are encroaching and the area of the Tenderloin is getting smaller and smaller.”

Still, he expresses sympathy for new residents who fork out thousands of dollars a month to live in nice buildings only to be confronted by the sometimes unpleasant realities of San Francisco’s most vulnerable populations.

“If I’m paying $5,000 a month, I don’t want to walk outside and see shit, piss, needles, people passed out. It’s not cool,” he said. “But at the same time, these people have lived here most of their lives.”

Anther sign that the city seems indifferent to the neighborhood’s role as the last haven for many of its poorest residents is the lack of any readily available fresh, healthy food options.

“Where’s the grocery store? That tells you, if there’s no grocery store, they don’t really want you here,” Byrd said. “I got four liquor stores in this spot but I don’t have any place to buy fresh produce and that tells me right there, they’re going starve you out, they’re going make you so tired that people just give up,” he said.

But there doesn’t seem to be much give-up in Thomas Byrd. “Most people down here think that this is the last page of their book,” Byrd said. “I’m different. I’ve got more history to write.”

The Bay City News Foundation, with support from PolicyLink, is excited to partner with CatchLight Local on this project, given our shared interest in telling stories about how inequality plays out in the Bay Area. We are currently producing a series of data-based stories and aim to develop more visual packages like this one in the months ahead. CatchLight Local is a new visual storytelling initiative working to engage visual journalism at the local level, in partnership with The GroundTruth Project and with the support of The Kresge Foundation. It connects talented visual storytellers directly with newsrooms, including the Bay City News Foundation.