Mural depicting the history of San Francisco's Market Street

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October 16, 2014
Church Street Mural

New Doc Chronicles Market St. Evolution

Urbanstreet Films tracks the myriad recent changes in San Francisco’s Market Street corridor.

At one time, the nexus of 6th, Taylor and Market streets in downtown San Francisco, the location of both the Golden Gate Theatre and the Warfield Theatre, was the hub for what was considered to be the city’s version of the Great White Way, say Dan Goldes and Robert Cortlandt.

The two filmmakers are having a Saturday brunch at their usual hangout, the busy sausage eatery Show Dogs on the northwest corner of 6th and Market. Amid a din of loud rock music, shrieking sirens from outside and the happy cacophony of customers, they’re discussing their documentary-in-progress, “5 Blocks.” “Rumor has it that there were tunnels going back and forth to speakeasies,” says Goldes. “It was the coolest place to be!”

The five-block area between 5th and 10th streets, the focus of their doc, which is produced by their nonprofit company Urbanstreet Films under the fiscal sponsorship of the San Francisco Film Society, also boasted 18 movie palaces, all built between 1906 and 1929.

San Francisco has been trying to revitalize this derelict corridor for 50 years, ever since the area, torn up to construct BART, was reassembled. Almost every building on this strip was built about 100 years ago, says Goldes, and for the last four or five decades they’ve been in a state of disrepair.

Until, maybe, possibly, now.

When the filmmakers embarked upon the project, in 2011, they knew they were tackling a big unknown. Would this new effort to revitalize a neglected section of Market Street—called Mid-Market, or Central Market, or, back in the day, South of the Slot—succeed? Would their project simply be “another-failed-Market-Street-attempt” movie? The jury is not in yet, but Goldes and Cortlandt are immersed in the project, with three more years of filming and post-production to go. “We decided to take the chance that something might happen that would make an interesting film,” explains Cortlandt.

Initially, Goldes, a Bay Area native and Glen Park resident who is the former executive vice president and chief stakeholder officer at the San Francisco Travel Association, conceived of the idea for the film. He asked Cortlandt, who’d been in a documentary filmmaking program at the San Francisco Art Institute, to join him. Bayview resident Cortlandt, an award-winning documentarian whose films explore topics that range from aging to spirituality, agreed. Since then, Erin Palmquist has joined the team as cinematographer, and an assistant editor organizes footage. Peter Stein, senior programmer at Frameline, is a consultant, and an advisory board includes everyone from “Oscar winners to city officials.” Amy Cohen, director of neighborhood and small business development at the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, has been instrumental in helping them navigate a morass of people and issues. Goldes and Cortlandt, who support themselves as independent consultants (Goldes in planning and leadership development for nonprofits; Cortlandt in human resources), are working on the film without salary; the project is funded by a variety of sources, from hundreds of individual donors to the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. The filmmakers, not certain that the documentary’s best format will be a traditional 60- or 90-minute film to be pitched to festivals and PBS stations, are looking toward new technology. “5 Blocks,” they say, could end up as a series of web documentaries with an interactive component so that viewers can go deeper into, say, the story of one of the film’s interviewees, Market Street resident Sylvester Guard—who’s a particularly eloquent artist and community tenant organizer—or the rise and fall of the Strand Theater, now being restored by American Conservatory Theater as its second stage.

The filmmakers, who have lived in the city since 1982, began their research by attending community meetings, listening, taking notes, getting to know the neighborhood, explaining who they were and what they were doing there. And they talked without cameras to everyone from storeowners to heads of nonprofit groups to residents

of the single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels to city officials and police. So far they’ve filmed 15 to 20 of their dozens of interviewees, with an eye to ultimately focusing on five to seven “characters,” such as Sylvester Guard, who represent the area’s many different constituencies. “We didn’t come into this with a perspective or bias or potential outcomes,” says Goldes. “Our interest is in hearing the …stories around how a neighborhood changes. All perspectives are interesting.” Because they came in without an agenda, and because they stuck around, people slowly started to open up to them. In some cases it took a year or two for specific people to be willing to talk. “They’re very conscious of being exploited,” explains Cortlandt. “So we are very conscious of that as well—making sure to meet people where they’re at and treat them with respect.”

The various groups that have a stake in the outcome of this latest urban redevelopment project make for strange bedfellows. The neighborhood’s population now includes tech companies such as Twitter as well as long-term, low-income residents who are protected by city law from displacement, and arts and social service nonprofits who are not protected by rent control. “When you ask, ‘What is success for you?’ everyone you talk to will give you a different answer,” says Cortlandt. “But everyone wants it to be a safer neighborhood. They don’t want drug dealers. That’s the one thing bringing everyone together. There are concessions on different sides.”

“Change is actually happening, and that was not a foregone conclusion when we started this project,” elaborates Goldes. “But the economy started booming and the city [offered] the tax break [to new companies moving into the area], and those two things brought in the new wave of high-tech companies… There was no way we could have predicted that would happen. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart! . . . And in response to that there are now almost daily changes, buildings being rehabbed that haven’t really been touched for 40 to 50 years. Now the owners are putting money into them.” He points across Market Street to the historic, recently restored Wilson Building and the Eastern Furniture Building, and remarks on the many new restaurants (the recently opened, upscale Home Skillet across the street was too crowded to get into for brunch on this Saturday) and new retail shops. “We’re not sure where the resident population is going to get the services that they used to depend on,” he adds, as small businesses are being pushed out of the area due to escalating rents. “It’s an issue we’re looking at.”

Like small businesses, nonprofits are not immune from displacement. Groups such as the venerable Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street at 6th have been here for years because of the area’s affordability, as have other art galleries, dance spaces, nonprofit offices and even a few illegal live-work spaces. Initially, city officials were convinced that the arts could be used to revitalize the neighborhood; now, the focus is on high-tech newcomers.

Still, the arts groups are persistent. The Center for New Music just moved in on this corner, at Taylor Street. The dance organization CounterPULSE will move into to a former porn theater on Turk Street. American Conservatory Theater’s small performance space, the Costume Shop, on Market near 7th, is in constant use for productions by many theater companies, and A.C.T. is slated to open the newly renovated Strand, on the same block, in
April 2015.

In fact, Goldes and Cortlandt expect the trajectory of the Strand, which first opened in 1917 as the Jewel, to provide the narrative backbone for “5 Blocks,” from the moment that A.C.T. took possession through its current demolition stage, to a grand opening night. They see the ups and downs of the Strand as a mirror of the ups and downs of Market Street.

“Nationally, for two decades there’s been a back-to-the-cities movement, and it’s [really] taking off now,” muses Goldes. Will this Market Street project result in a neighborhood where the longtime residents and the newcomers can thrive together? “If that happens, it will be a success story of interest to other changing cities who are trying to deal with [urban challenges],” offers Goldes. The League of California Cities has already expressed interest in screening “5 Blocks” as a study of how a city is coping with major change.

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