Sheila McLaughlin lived in the same San Francisco neighborhood for over 20 years. She had friends, raised a son, and felt connected to her neighbors. But by 2013, things around her had quickly changed.
Her son — her only family nearby — moved across the country for a job. Many of her friends left San Francisco to care for elderly parents or to raise children elsewhere. The alternative art spaces where she once socialized started to close down.
For a long time, her Western Addition neighborhood, was full of working folks and middle-class people. But as it started becoming fashionable, attracting a young and trendy demographic, realtors renamed the neighborhood “Lower Pacific Heights.” A columnist in a San Francisco rental magazine from November 2006 wrote that it was an attempt to associate it with tonier Pacific Heights nearby, and to capitalize on escalating housing prices.
Before McLaughlin knew it, the neighbors she once knew were gone.
“I used to know the people upstairs, but they had left,” she says.
McLaughlin recalled feeling like “the last man standing.”
Her apartment was rent controlled, so she didn’t even consider moving. But it felt as though she had just arrived in Lower Pacific Heights, despite being there for over 20 years.
When she walked up and down the street, nobody said hello. It made her feel invisible, she says.
She felt a sense of isolation that was at times unbearable, she says. “And I wanted to change that somehow.”
McLaughlin is a photographer, so she turned to her art to explore her feelings and connect with the people around her.
“That’s why I went outside in front of my own house with my camera, loaded with film,” she says. “And I would just ask the first person I saw: ‘Do you live around here?’”
Art as an icebreaker
If they said yes, she had a spiel ready: “I’m Sheila. I live in this house. I’ve been here such a long time. I’d like to create some sense of community in this neighborhood because there doesn’t seem to be any. And I don’t know how you feel, but do you know your neighbors? Do you feel connected to this neighborhood?”
This often started a conversation. She says, people told her that they shared her feelings: they were lacking a sense of community, too.
So McLaughlin would ask if she could bring her camera and tripod to the neighbor’s home to take their portrait — and to get to know the neighbor better.
McLaughlin says she approached about 50 people on the street.
“You make yourself very vulnerable when you go up to a total stranger and say, ‘Please let me come into your house,” she says. “So I had to be in a particularly outgoing frame of mind.”
Nobody was rude to her, even when they weren’t interested in being photographed. Still, McLaughlin says she had moments of insecurity. She would imagine being approached on the street and would wonder, “‘How would I feel if somebody walked up to me and said this?’”
Her answer to herself: “Don’t think about it. Just do it.”
Some neighbors who said “no” at first eventually changed their minds. And neighbors who agreed to sit for a portrait often introduced her to others.
That’s how she met single mom Sandy Minella, who lived around the corner.
Art as community builder
McLaughlin photographed Minella and her daughter, Gianna, in their kitchen, sitting beside a table covered with photographs of family and friends.
Since joining the neighborhood portrait project, Minella says: “I’ve met many people that I now can say ‘hi’ to on the street and everything.”
Artist Hildy Burns was selling paintings at a garage sale on the corner when McLaughlin approached her.
Burns says she didn’t know many of her neighbors before participating in the project and she was surprised by how many artists lived nearby.
This also surprised McLaughlin. So many of her friends who moved out of San Francisco were artists. And it’s a discovery she could only make because she went into people’s homes with her camera.
“Your environment tells me a lot about who you are, and what kinds of things that you have in your house represents who you are more so than me photographing you here in the sidewalk,” she says.
For Hildy Burns, it was the easels, paints and stacked canvases.
In the portrait of Julie Swenson, we see the large American flag hanging in her bedroom, a symbol of her asylum in the U.S. after escaping the Khmer Rouge.
Victoria Linder poses in front of the stained glass windows she and her husband Mort salvaged from the condemned building they bought in the 60s.
Each portrait tells a larger story about a person, a home, a neighborhood, and about San Francisco. Many of the people photographed have left the city. But for McLaughlin and those that remain, the portraits document community.
McLaughlin photographed nearly 30 neighbors. At first she posted the photographs on her blog, then, she and a neighbor turned the portraits into a book, called Neighbors Within Reach. She developed relationships with the people she photographed, McLaughlin says. Some of them have become her close friends: they go hiking, dine weekly, and go to museums.
She doesn’t photograph strangers from the street anymore to create community. Instead, every December, she hosts a cookie party for old and new neighbors.
“Things changed for me because I was feeling like I’m onto something, this is bigger than myself,” she says. “This could resonate with other people for different reasons. It’s not just about me now. It’s about everybody that’s involved.”
You can view the “Neighbors Within Reach” portraits on Sheila McLaughlin’s website.
A version of this story originally aired on the podcast The Pulse.