by Hannah Rose
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.
Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco. 1955
Aliyah has lived in San Francisco’s Mission district her entire life, which I estimate at being around twenty-eight years. Mission is the city’s working class and Latino area. She sleeps on the living room floor. The TV is on and throws intermittent light over her slumbering form, phone still in hand. I have to step over Aliyah on my way to her room—which I am renting through Airbnb for the week—and am careful not to wake her despite the blare of the TV. On the wall, beneath a tangle of half-deflated gold balloons left over from a party, is a giant poster of Whitney Houston—the queen of pop. Behind the water cooler is the silhouetted form of Michael Jackson—the king of pop—suspended on tippy-toes and ‘He Lives’ stencilled beneath.
Photographs of Aliyah and her husband smile back at me from heart-shaped frames that decorate the far wall and on a small, white canvas the words ‘Life is the Flower for which Love is the Honey’ are in poppy-red. One of a few splashes of colour in this windowless, dimly lit apartment.
Nobody here is unaware of the inequality that exists in San Francisco.
Aliyah’s husband’s name begins with J. I know this because there are his ‘n’ hers towels hanging in the bathroom. J is not here right now. J is in jail. Aliyah tells me this whilst cooking spaghetti, lifting the strands into her mouth to check if it’s ready yet. “He’ll be out before the summer—I hope”, she says, followed by: “Are you enjoying your vacation so far?” I list all the places I’ve visited, and comment on how the Haight area has clearly become a parody of itself since The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin hung out there in ’67. “Oh yeah, the Summer of Love,” Aliyah says. “I’ve heard of that.”
Over the week I only see Aliyah—awake—three times, but make an effort to talk to her a bit. I sit on the bed and ask her about the Mission while she fits a lock to my bedroom door with a screwdriver—a feature I felt awkward for insisting on but one which would have confirmed my swift change of plans if I’d had to go without. She acquiesced with no complaints agreeing that “a girl needs her privacy”. She tells me that “since the gentrification of the area, things have gotten expensive round here.” Her house is part of a social housing block five minutes from Valencia Street, where the angel-headed hipsters dine out on Californian ingredients saturated in sunshine. On Valencia, nothing costs less than ten bucks.
I get breakfast at Mission Pie cafe, an artisan bakery and coffee stop. After dining on a slice of their rhubarb pie, I step out into the unremitting sunshine and marvel at the Technicolour splendour of the city. Murals featuring giant blue hummingbirds and purple hibiscus flowers; rainbow Pride flags hanging from balconies on Noe Valley and the rainbow crosswalk in the Castro; of course, the tye-dye psychedelia of Haight. There are legions of cloudless cobalt skies here which turn ultramarine, indigo, and sapphire shades as dusk moves in. The clear dry air casts this amplified aesthetic in high-definition, as though somebody drew around everything with a fine black pen. I find it difficult to picture Aliyah’s home: the broken chair on the small balcony overlooking next door’s cast out old mattress.
Nobody here is unaware of the inequality that exists in San Francisco. Homelessness is rampant, and for every splash of colour I see, I come across a destitute individual—usually male—asleep or begging, on the ground. I accidentally walk through a crop of tents on the pavement on Folsom on my way back from the theatre one night. I have barrelled through someone’s home uninvited. “There are three types of homeless person here,” my cousin tells me. “Either down in their luck, with drug or alcohol problems, or a war veteran”— someone who just couldn’t re-acculturate into civil society.
Is it not the purpose of technological advancement to solve complex problems? Why not social ones?
But it’s not a case of the city simply failing these people; their issues are complex and manifold, and solutions are still being sought but yet to no avail. The disconnect I witness, and feel able to comment on, is between local San Franciscans like Aliyah who cannot afford homes of their own, and the employment tech market which moved in—companies such as Airbnb and Google— driving rents up. The skill-sets required to make enough money to thrive here seem inaccessible to many; higher education is staggeringly expensive in the US, even by UK standards.
It’s no one type of person’s fault that inequality exists in the West like this—certainly not the fault of those with skills who come here for opportunities their hometowns cannot offer, and work hard. Housing bubbles exist in most western cities. It is the fault of a wider inequality promulgated by neo-liberalism and the deliberate dismantling of socialist values. Technological innovation can surely exist within a more equal society, but we are being sold a false narrative that socialism must be at the expense of progress. Is it not the purpose of technological advancement to solve complex problems? Why not social ones?
I am heartened however, to see strategically placed ‘Fuck Trump’ placards in many windows here. However self-conscious, this city is humble and aware of its own imperfections and will not buy the Republican ‘Resident Trump’ agenda, which seeks to punish those in need. Self-determination on its own is not enough. I witness many San Franciscans giving dollars to the street homeless, at a loss for any other solution to this growing problem. A blind woman at the train station is singing a Green Day song and a man puts a five dollar bill in her hand, turns to me and says: “I love this woman, she sings all the songs I loved in high school”.
My Airbnb situation is achingly symptomatic of the social inequalities here in San Francisco: Aliyah rents out her social housing owned rooms—illegally—to tourists through Airbnb so she can afford to live while her husband is in prison. She is without a bed. There is another perverse twist: the second bedroom is occupied by an Airbnb intern, who cannot afford to rent anywhere else in the city because of the startups (one of which he works for). I never meet him in my week here, only catch glimpses of his jiggling, hairy feet hanging off the end of the bed.
Aliyah seems to work day and night, returning only briefly for a quick bite to eat at odd hours. She drives for Uber—another one of those new-wave companies which is redefining public industries. Aliyah is savvy and utilising the facilities around her to make money, even if they are the very things that keep her from ever earning enough to live comfortably here.
On the inside of the front door of Aliyah’s apartment is a postcard-sized hologram depicting a portrait of a teenage boy in an orange hoodie. When you move towards it the boy’s face breaks into a small smile. Behind him is the Golden Gate bridge and the inscription of his name and the dates, 2000-2014. The card reads ‘Forever in our Hearts’. When Aliyah leaves the house for an Uber run, calling “have a good one” to me over her shoulder, I see her touch the photo of the boy lightly with her fingertips.
All images by Hannah Rose
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