Pittsburgh is repeating San Francisco’s mistake

I see the photograph (figure 1) and I instantly recognize the location. It’s 10th and Market Streets in San Francisco:

Pedestrians pass in front of Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Feb. 8. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Fig. 1. The intersection of 10th and Market Streets, San Francisco. Not visible in this photograph is the tall part of Fox Plaza, which would be off to the left. Photograph attributed to David Paul Morris of Bloomberg News, apparently taken May 8, 2020, via the Washington Post,[1] fair use.

Checking the location to be sure, I type “Fox Plaza” (across the street in figure 1) into Google Maps and sure enough, figure 2:
FireShot Capture 144 - Fox Plaza - Google Maps - www.google.com
Fig. 2. Screenshot from Google Maps for 10th and Market Streets in San Francisco, taken May 13, 2020. The pin is slightly misplaced for Fox Plaza, which is mostly a tall building occupying the triangle between Larkin, Hayes, Market, and Polk Streets. The Starbucks location visible in figure 1 is on the side of the short portion that also houses (or housed) the Postal Service location (which, as I recall, actually faces Larkin Street). Larkin connects to 9th Street (which adjoins the Walgreens Drug Store) and Polk connects to 10th Street. Twitter is correctly shown at the corner of 10th and Market.

I don’t just recognize the location from the years I spent in and around The City, but because in darker days, while driving taxi in San Francisco, I lived in a residential hotel, the Chase Hotel, above Ananda Fuara, a vegetarian restaurant at Larkin and Market Streets (Larkin connects to 9th). It would have been convenient had I been vegan then but I wasn’t and so didn’t go to that restaurant until years later when I was.

As my time in that residential hotel suggests, the neighborhood had been a hard luck kind of place and last I saw, it still bore the look. City officials celebrated Twitter’s move to that location (long after I’d moved away) as the beginning of a renaissance. Success was limited; when San Francisco passed Proposition D, to tax vacant storefronts,[2] I thought of Market Street in this area, especially along the stretch from 5th through 8th Streets. In this area, Market Street borders the Tenderloin, the Civic Center area (closest to Twitter), and the South of Market Area (SOMA).

Residential hotels, whose occupants are often considered effectively homeless but are at least not subject to police harassment (especially at around 3 am, when the cops are bored and the homeless are easy prey) dot the area. The Civic Center Plaza and the adjoining United Nations Plaza, extending from City Hall to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Civic Center station at 7th and Market Streets, long hosted large homeless encampments. Drug abuse and prohibited drug sales were, and I presume, still are, common.

In short, this is an area where poor people live, with all the problems and all of the crime that a neglected population endures. And of course as high tech came to San Francisco, especially SOMA, beginning with the dot-com era (mid-to-late 1990s, ending abruptly in 2001), gentrification ensued, even if the properties didn’t look much better, leading to yet more homelessness. In San Francisco now, for very much the larger part, you are either rich or you are homeless. The City made news when the federal Housing and Urban Development department decreed in 2018 that singles making less than $82,200 per year were “low income.” For a family of three, not four, but three, that figure rose to $105,700.[3]

The cost of housing, really along the entire west coast, is one reason I am now in Pittsburgh, where I have been shocked to find, in some areas, entire blocks consisting mostly of abandoned homes. Amidst them might be a couple places where people still live, looking only a little better.[4] Some examples of abandonment are really quite spectacular (figure 3):
Fig. 3. An abandoned church facing Larimer Avenue at Kalida Drive, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photograph by author, May 3, 2020.

These are neighborhoods that need a lift. But more importantly, and this is the part that is forgotten, as the poor are always forgotten, the people in those neighborhoods need a lift at least as much. This is the failure of gentrification, in Pittsburgh,[5] perhaps most famously in Lawrenceville, where the question I always ask is, particularly where winters can be harsh, what happens to the people for whom this was home?[6] Like in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see some of them on the median strips and on street corners, holding their cardboard signs, begging for alms. “Anything helps,” say the signs. “God Bless.”

In Pittsburgh, you see it along Second Avenue, just south of Oakland, reaching out to Hazelwood. I’m pretty sure steel mills used to be here, along the Monongahela River. In Hazelwood, the steel frame of what very much looks like a former mill now serves as a superstructure for modern office space still under construction. Along Second Avenue, new buildings, some occupied by Carnegie Mellon University, others by technology companies, are all served by a boutique hotel. You see it in Lawrenceville and in the South Side, where housing obviously built for the working class has been refurbished for richer tech workers. A shopping center occupies the site of the mills where the Homestead Strike occurred—a historical marker remains here and by two adjoining cemeteries up the hill in Munhall where some of the dead strikers are buried.

You also see it in even worse traffic. San Francisco’s traffic has only grown worse while high tech has moved in. Pittsburgh’s traffic[7] is now tolerable only because of lockdown orders for the COVID-19 pandemic. But city officials barely if at all tax the capitalist demand that all workers all show up at the same places at the same time.

None of it—absolutely none of it—much lifts the fortunes of Pittsburgh residents. People moving into these places come from elsewhere. Driving for Uber and Lyft, a lot of my business is to public housing developments, blights in themselves, a lot more to just poor neighborhoods, some also afflicted by out-and-out blight. I take many passengers to their jobs in restaurants where they make a pittance or to their jobs in health care, where maybe they make a little more, and I drive them home, often to slums.

I see all this and I know, Pittsburgh is repeating San Francisco’s mistake. And don’t you dare tell me that we really give a damn about those that since the pandemic we now call ‘essential workers.’

  1. [1]Heather Kelly, “Twitter employees don’t ever have to go back to the office (unless they want to),” Washington Post, May 12, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/12/twitter-work-home/
  2. [2]Adam Brinklow, “SF election results: Vacant stores tax Proposition D leads,” Curbed San Francisco, March 4, 2020, https://sf.curbed.com/2020/3/4/21164603/election-results-prop-d-vacant-store-tax; Dominic Fracassa, “SF’s Prop. D vacant storefront tax wins; so does Prop. E, tying office space to housing,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/SF-s-vacant-storefront-tax-measure-Proposition-15112228.php
  3. [3]Adam Brinklow, ”Six-figure salary now considered ‘low-income’ in SF, according to feds,” SF Curbed, June 26, 2018, https://sf.curbed.com/2018/6/26/17505550/low-income-limit-2018-salary-san-francisco-families-hud
  4. [4]David Benfell, “The abandoned,” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/19/the-abandoned/
  5. [5]Ryan Deto, “Pittsburgh is one of the most gentrified cities in the U.S.,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 4, 2019, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/pittsburgh-is-one-of-the-most-gentrified-cities-in-the-us/Content?oid=14381722
  6. [6]Ryan Deto, “The displacement of Anthony Hardison from his Lawrenceville apartment is a microcosm of a neighborhood epidemic,” Pittsburgh City Paper, January 15, 2020, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/the-displacement-of-anthony-hardison-from-his-lawrenceville-apartment-is-a-microcosm-of-a-neighborhood-epidemic/Content?oid=16556108
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Pittsburgh driving for the uninitiated,” Irregular Bullshit, n.d., https://disunitedstates.com/pittsburgh-driving-for-the-uninitiated/

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