Construction sites sit empty along Market Streets, leaving you to wonder if the imaginary condo towers will ever be built. On my daily walk along Valencia, storefronts advertise that a new business is “Coming Soon!” but inside, tools and drop cloths lay haphazardly on the floor and ladders stand unused in the corner.
It’s the daily reminder of an urban landscape in a downturn, where capitalist impulses loosen their grip a little and a creeping emptiness seeps into the corners of our bustling city. But for all the vacant space, nothing really goes to waste. Storefronts, vacant lots and empty houses are being reappropriated in ways that are creative, entrepreneurial and sometimes illegal, but taken together, they’re creating a transitory snapshot of a city in flux.
I headed toward Hayes Valley, where I’d read about some very practical-sounding plans for developing the city-owned empty lots there. Since the developers slated to build on the sites can’t get construction loans right now, Envelope Architecture & Design has hatched a plan to lease the two vacant lots next to the Hayes Green and erect small, temporary structures there that would be filled with restaurants and retailers for two or three years.
On the site, I found two very likely tenants for vacant lots: a parking lot and a Christmas tree vendor. The Delancey Street Foundation's annual Christmas tree lot lent the space a festive spirit while it was there, but now that it's gone the space seems emptier than ever. If architect Douglas Burnham has his way, this place will get plenty busy—but that party too, will have to end. Craig Stoll, proprietor of Pizzeria Delfina and a probable tenant of the site if the project goes through, told me that may be for the best: “That’s the length of people’s attention spans sometimes.”
He envisions a wood-fired pizza oven, a gelato case, and a fried food cart cooking up everything from squash blossoms to fish—a sort of street-food version of what he cooks now that taps into the public desire for cheaper but interesting food. His and other food stands would be grouped around a central seating area, kind of like an upscale food court. If pop-up restaurants and mobile food carts remain all the rage, maybe a restaurant with an expiration date is a recipe for success.
At the other end of the urban renewal spectrum is a group that takes improvisational occupancy in another direction entirely. Tim, who asked that his last name not be used, invited me into his home in the Inner Mission a few weeks ago to show me around. We entered his small, single story house through the back door, which he opened with a key on a crowded chain. The four rooms inside had basic amenities like a refrigerator, a bed, a dresser, and a table, but otherwise were pretty bare.
Trash bags were taped over the front windows, and about four working computers rested on the floor (Tim is trying to start a computer repair business). Even though he’s lived there for more than two years, it looks like he could be ready to move out the next day, which is kind of the idea. Tim, 44, is a squatter; he’s been living for free, off and on, since he moved to San Francisco in the early 90s.
He’s a soft-spoken guy who dresses in dark, comfortable clothes and volunteers his time with Homes Not Jails, a San Francisco squatters organization that helps “open” (using wrenches, hammers and other hardware) vacant buildings for the homeless to live in. He grew up in Maryland, attended college there, and said his mother would faint if she knew he was living like this. He has a part-time job helping the disabled in their homes, and in his spare time he’s written a book about the Tao Te Ching.
But he said that renting a permanent place in San Francisco is simply too expensive; the closest he’s gotten was subletting an office from an organization for $150 a month, where he lived for two and a half years. He’s on a waiting list for subsidized housing with the Community Housing Partnership, but he’s not sure he’d like living in their units, which sometimes have shared kitchens and bathrooms and electrical problems.
The most surprising thing about Tim’s squat is that the owner knows he’s there. After first breaking in in September 2007, he danced around with the owner and caretaker for two months, finding a way in again every time they locked him out. There was electricity and free wireless from surrounding buildings, though he had to carry in buckets of water from next door. He played the two men against each other, telling each the other said he could stay.
But when they finally took a look around and saw the place looked pretty nice under his care, they shook hands and told him he could stay as long as he agreed to leave at a moment’s notice. After all, their plans for demolishing the building and erecting condo units had stalled, and they were upside down on their mortgage. He became a sort of unofficial building manager.
“If the graffiti goes up, I paint it; if they get important mail, I call them,” he said. Still, they’re nervous about him making a legal claim that he’s a tenant, which would make it hard to evict him when the time came. So that’s why Tim’s apartment looks so impersonal, and why they didn’t want him to pay to repair the plumbing when it broke down recently (he decided to pay anyway, behind their backs).
Tim’s not sure how long this arrangement will last. The owners are behind on their mortgage, and the house was supposed to go up for auction a couple weeks ago. But for now they’ve worked out a deal with the bank. “The lack of stability is a little bothersome,” Tim said. “It does make life more difficult. It’s the little things, the lack of permanence.” But even though Tim’s been arrested for squatting before, he believes there’s no reason why someone should sleep on the ground outside a vacant building when they could just as easily sleep inside of it.
It’s hard to imagine shiny new condos going up at Tim’s current place of residence, but then I’m sure his building owners didn’t anticipate their current plight, either. In search of a bit of insight into the real estate market, I visited Ms. Teriosa, a fortune-teller who has recently taken up residence on 24th Street.
Ms. Teriosa (a pun on the word “mysterious” in Spanish) is the brainchild of Jetro Martinez and Kelly Ording, husband and wife artists who got a grant through the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art in Storefronts program. The program is designed to fill empty storefronts with eye-catching installations and re-energize neighborhoods that have been hit hard economically. Martinez and Ording are painters, and they’ve covered the former auto body shop at 24th and Folsom with bright lettering advertising “Fortunas” and illustrations of eyes and hands.
A box attached to the wall invites you to write questions and submit them, and the questions, along with the answers, are posted in the store window. The questions range from “What will my daughter’s transition from prison to society be like?” to “Will my girlfriend let me pop the big whitehead on her chin?” Jetro Martinez told me that while he and his wife can’t claim to tap into actual mystical powers, they try to be sincere in their answers. They both remember when there used to be more palm readers and fortunetellers on 24th Street, and they’re trying to bring back a little of that mysticism.
I took out a piece of paper and thought for a moment. Then I wrote, “Will there ever be a store here again?” I’m waiting for the answer.
If you feel like diving further into vacant San Francisco and are not so fussy about things like legal occupancy, Homes Not Jails is always looking for new volunteers. They meet the second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Housing Rights Committee at 427 South Van Ness. If you’d like to ask Ms. Teriosa a question about love or money, visit her shop at 24th and Folsom. You can find information about other Art in Storefronts projects at the San Francisco Arts Commission website.