Gentrification: A Photo Essay

Mary Chiles was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. She spent three years working at the YWCA post-college as a child care teacher and as an AmeriCorps member in the Social Justice department. Mary now lives in San Francisco, CA. 

I moved from Birmingham to San Francisco a year and a half ago excited at the prospect of living in a creative, vibrant city that has long been on the forefront of progressive social movements. I didn’t expect to arrive in a city mired in conflict over the booming tech industry and its contribution to sky rocketing rents and an increasingly homogeneous population.

I have started countless essays about the tech industry and gentrification for this blog, but I have struggled to finish in part because my feelings are continually evolving, and in part because I’m nervous to take on this explosive issue. I’m a white, college-educated, tech employee who relocated to the Mission, a historically Latino neighborhood; I’m essentially a poster child for gentrification.

The issues surrounding tech and gentrification in San Francisco have been tackled in national media by many people smarter than I, so I’m going to take a stab at telling the story differently, via photos I’ve taken over the course of my stay here. This is a visual representation of both the problems and the things I love in my newly adopted city.

Gay Pride celebrations were particularly ebullient in 2013 as they took place the week the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Having grown up in Alabama, I could hardly believe that the City Hall was decked out in rainbow colors!

The Supreme Court also overturned Prop 8, meaning same-sex couples could once again get legally married in the state of California. The Pride Parade was full of couples carrying signs along the lines of, “Partnered 37 years, married this morning.” I was moved to see officials like Nancy Pelosi, the mayor of San Francisco, and the police chief marching side by side with LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) activists.
I took these photos at the Carnaval parade in the Mission District where I live. This annual parade and celebration was decidedly different from any Mardi Gras parade I’d seen in Alabama or Louisiana. Dancers, musicians and other participants represented many different Latin American, Caribbean and African cultures. The parade was a joyful celebration of the neighborhood’s diversity and culture. (Full disclosure: I totally teared up when a float full of school children sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)

These are the Atlas chickens. They live in the abandoned lot behind my favorite coffee shop, Atlas Café. I love Atlas for its outdoor seating and the motley crew it attracts. A sleek, new café selling artisanal coffee just opened up across the street. In Birmingham, I was always thrilled about the opening of any new restaurant, bar, or coffee shop, but I’m growing to understand the locals’ gripes about gentrification more and more. The shiny new spot might make delicious, meticulously-crafted cups of coffee, but will its employees allow homeless people to sit inside undisturbed with a glass of water like they will over at Atlas? Will Latino families, aging hippies and urban hipsters all rub elbows the same way they do at Atlas?

One of the things I love most about the Mission is the street art. Murals are often used to beautify low-income neighborhoods; here they adorn the sides of laundromats (above), convenience stores, barbershops and markets.


This is one of the Balmy Alley murals. Like this one, many of the Mission District murals relate to Mexican and Latino heritage. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (the blue building at the top!) leads guided tours of the neighborhood’s street art gems. I love the vibrancy of the murals and the strong sense of Latino pride they foster. When feeling like an interloper in the neighborhood, I try to focus on the appreciation and respect I have for my neighborhood and its roots.

The tenor of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival in November was very different from that of Carnaval only a few months earlier. No-fault evictions of long-time Mission residents with rent-controlled apartments had increased as landlords were eager to raise rents. Activists used the opportunity to protest the changing tenor, cost, and culture of the neighborhood by carrying signs that read “Dia de los Muertos — not white people second Halloween” or chanting “Aqui estamos y no nos vamos (We are here and we are not leaving).” The part of me that gets excited about protests and social justice was thrilled by the signs, the message and the agency I witnessed. At the same time I felt a palpable discomfort; respectful and appreciative though I try to be, I am part of the problem.

I was very frustrated when I captured this photo as I’d been waiting for my bus in the pouring rain for ages and it was definitely more than 2 minutes before the bus finally arrived. When I first arrived here, the public transit seemed like a marvel. “You mean people take the bus to work and arrive on time?!” As I’ve grown more accustomed to reasonably well-functioning public transit, I feel like I too have a personal stake in the incredibly fractious Google bus debate. I feel strongly that private transportation for tech workers should pay higher fees to use existing SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) infrastructure. This is an example of when the vast amounts of tech wealth could easily be used to improve the city for everyone.

This picture serves as an illustration of tech wealth. This is a main thoroughfare in downtown San Francisco that was shut down for 3 days for a Salesforce conference. My bike route was roped off and replaced with a giant inflatable arena to keep high profile speakers out of the rain.


One thing that brings the city together is sports. The Bay Area has rabid sports fans. Attending Warriors or Giants games is so fun in part because people of all races, income levels, and vocations get together to cheer with gusto for the home team.

Although San Francisco has changed a lot recently, it’s still a city where you can let your freak flag fly.

I was so in love with San Francisco on the day thousands turned out for Bat Kid. I think it says something remarkable about a city and its ability to overcome division when a huge mass of people comes together to grant a wish to be a super hero, for a child with leukemia. Everyone I talked to that day was gleeful about Bat Kid’s adventures and was moved by the outpouring of support.

I am still figuring out my place in the city and in my neighborhood. I try every day to navigate my situation with grace and compassion because, at the end of the day, this place is pretty incredible. 

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Gentrification: A Photo Essay