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South of Market to SoMa: A photographic memory of a changing San Francisco neighborhood

It’s the last week of school at Bessie Carmichael Elementary on 7th and Harrison in the South of Market neighborhood. Photographer Janet Delaney and I are here to see someone we’ve been trying to get in touch with for months -- Bobbie Washington.

“Bobbie Washington was a long term, long time resident on Langton Street,” Delaney tells me. “She had a lot of stories to tell me about what it was like to grow up in the neighborhood.”

Washington works at the school and grew up just two blocks from where we are right now. She met Janet Delaney more than 30 years ago, when the photographer knocked on her door and asked to take her picture.

“She was asking a lot of questions and I wasn’t too comfortable with her at first because I didn’t really know who she was,” explains Washington. “And then she asked if she could come in and I told her yes.”

In the photo Bobbie Washington is sitting in her living room braiding her daughter Ayana's hair. The walls have dark wood paneling and there’s an indoor plant hanging from the ceiling in a macrame basket. The TV is on in the background. Washington and her daughter both wear yellow shirts, which match the pale yellow curtains behind them, and the soft yellow glow of the light seeping in. Delaney took this photograph in 1982.

“I love the fact that they’re doing this ritual, and they're very comfortable,” says Delaney. “There’s a nice warm character to that, and just she's very settled in there.”

When Delaney took this photo, she was in her late 20s, living in a small two bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood as Washington -- on the same street actually.

“I moved because the rent was very affordable. My roommate was studying film and we got a three bedroom apartment for 250 dollars a month,” Delaney says.

From casket factories to convention centers

She built a darkroom in the third bedroom, and started photographing her neighborhood. South of Market was filled with industry: casket factories, blacksmiths, sign shops, auto mechanics. It was a working class neighborhood with families, a growing gay population, and artists. But that was about to change, and Delaney wanted to capture it on film.

“My initial site was the construction center of the Moscone Center,” Delaney says.

The Moscone Center is now the largest convention center in San Francisco. Back in the 1960s and 70s the land it now sits on was claimed by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The city bulldozed entire streets to make way for the giant project, and thousands of low income residents got displaced.

“I realized my home, and my neighbors were going to be greatly impacted when the site was completed,” says Delaney. “So I decided to try to understand what had been removed in order to build the Moscone Center because it was 10 square blocks. It was 700 businesses, and 4,000 people, and where were they? And how did that happen?”

Photographing neighbors 

She hit the streets with her view camera -- the old fashioned kind where you drape a cloth over your head to take a picture. She took a tape recorder too. She recorded the stories of some of the people she photographed.

“They’re jamming us together. I feel they’re pushing us closer, and we’re not going to have that neighborhood-like feeling,” Bobbie Washington said in a tape recording from 1982. “It’s not that I don’t want to move away, it’s just that I’m so comfortable with the surrounding. We moved to the South of Market neighborhood when I was 11. I’ve seen all the changes, all the disappearing, all the comings, and the goings. I’m what you call the last of the litter!”

Keeping the connection

After almost 20 years in South of Market, Washington eventually had to leave the neighborhood. Two years after Delaney photographed and interviewed her, a huge fire destroyed her apartment and all her belongings and she couldn’t afford another place. She moved in with friends, and has been struggling finding permanent housing ever since. But, Washington still has a deep connection to the neighborhood - like her job as a counselor at Bessie Carmichael school.

Today she’s in the gym hanging up streamers for an end of the year dance. We sit down and start flipping through Delaney’s book. Washington points out the images that spark old memories. She says back then people would just hang out together, and families stuck together.

“I mean we had so much fun during that time,” she says. “We had all sorts of events on Langton Street. We would block the street off ourselves and have dancing and hanging out. Langton Street was the bomb. My sister lived halfway around the corner. She was in a little alley with her four kids, and my other sister lived on Howard with her one. My brother lived on Clementina, and … my dad lived on Third Street.”


Now, Washington lives in the Lakeview neighborhood, near Ingleside. It’s her home now, but it doesn’t feel the same.

“I’m looking at this book,” she says. “At all these old things like the car shops that we used to go by, and we would know the people that are in the car repair places, we would know who our neighbors are. We would know them by names, we would know our store people!”

Delaney’s photographs captured those store people, those car repair shops, the mom and pop restaurants and cafes. A lot of those things are gone now. For example, Walt’s Diner was a whitewashed clapboard restaurant on the corner of 7th and Townsend. Now, it’s an office for Adobe Systems. Flip a few pages -- there’s a photo of a woodworking shop with light beaming in through a skylight -- People’s Construction.

“It’s now like a commune for tech people who go to Burning Man and develop websites,” Delaney says.

A family business

Tech hasn’t completely taken over the all buildings Delaney captured, however. Ted’s Market and Deli on Howard and 11th, has been a focal point of the neighborhood ever since it opened in 1967. Delaney photographed the owner, Ted Zouzounis and his son, Dave, behind the front counter. The year was 1982.

“This photograph is kind of a quintessential chock-full-of-stuff corner store with a deli, but it’s exactly what you’d expect to see when you pop into the store for convenience,” Delaney describes.

In the photo, Ted is smiling. And his son Dave looks like … he wants to get back to work. Both have big black eyebrows, and thick mustaches. There are jars of chocolate chip cookies in front of them. Boxes of Marlboro cigarettes, Bic razors and black plastic combs on the shelves behind them.

33 years later, Dave Zouzounis keeps two copies of Delaney’s South of Market photo book behind the counter. One is encased in Saran Wrap -- for extra protection.

Today is his mom’s 93rd birthday. She beams from her wheelchair, near the front of the store. Her son hands out cupcakes to anyone who walks by. Like a good neighbor, just like his dad.

“My father never closed his market for 30 years,” says Dave Zouzounis. “That includes Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, Fourth of July. He never closed.”

Dave Zouzounis doesn’t live in San Francisco anymore. But working at the market has been -- and still is --- his only job. From behind the counter,  he’s been able to watch the neighborhood grow, and change. It’s a unique perspective, and one he’s had for almost 50 years.

“In the ‘60s we had a lot of the live work art spaces,” he recalls. “And then in the ‘70s and ‘80s we had, I guess you would call it, the Sexual Revolution and our customers started the Folsom Street Fair. We sold food at it for the first few years until it got so big and powerful that we couldn't even get in there anymore.”

The most recent changes within the city, Zouzounis says, have hurt his customers more than ever before.

“During the ‘dot com’ businesses got displaced,” he says. “But now I've seen residents get displaced as their buildings are getting torn down.”

But Zouzounis says there’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

“It's nice to have the third generation here at Ted's Market with my daughters helping me,” he says.

In a city that’s changing constantly, this is still a family business -- just as it was when Delaney photographed it back in the ‘80s. As I leave, Zouzounis and his family crowd the market’s matriarch, Penelope. They smile for a photographer -- not Janet Delaney -- who snaps their picture with a digital camera. This photo probably won’t ever be shown at the de Young, but it’s still a documentation, a record of how some things change and others stay the same.

This story originally aired in July 2015