You Are Here: My Geography of Conflict

Cities contain physical landmarks, intertwined with emotional ones.

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JD Beltran

It was a single, slightly bent yellow post. It tilted, as though asking a question, at the corner of a parking lot at Seventh and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. A few years ago, while sitting at that corner in my car, waiting for the light to change, I spotted that stubby yellow post. Suddenly, a flashback—like a vignette from a film. A slightly pregnant woman, sitting atop that post as a man hovers over her, shouting.

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I am the woman sitting on that post. I shout back, but in a voice dulled with fatigue—we’ve been going at it for 45 minutes. I’d grown weary of standing and walked over to that crooked post, and although I had to balance on its narrow top, it was the only thing nearby I could find to support me.

That scene marked a seminal moment in my life. Later, when the baby was six months old, I realized that the man in that scene—the child’s father—provoked an emotional fog too toxic for the baby as well. He eventually was banished from my house, forever.

As I waited for the light to change at that intersection, the concept of creating a personal Geography of Conflict was born.

Every time I drive by that corner, I remember their wide eyes and dumbstruck faces.

I started paying attention after that initial flashback, and my daily travels transformed themselves into an unexpected tapestry, a grand tour of vignettes reorienting me within my past. I’d grown up in San Francisco and still live here—so the city’s network of avenues and its intersections of traumas small and large had drawn themselves deep into my psyche, whether I liked it or not.

I understood that mapping had started early in my life. Another vignette: I’m in the third grade at Lafayette Elementary, and I’m speeding around the corner of 35th Avenue and Anza Street on a skateboard. I’m dressed in a red jumper and lace-trimmed blouse (but a tomboy through and through) as I chase after two blond bullies who just made my older sister cry. I roll into their path, fierce with fury, this tiny sprite with black bangs, and challenge both of them to a fistfight. Every time I drive by that corner, I remember their wide eyes and dumbstruck faces as they fled. (And I still stand up to bullies.)

Fast-way-forward to another scene. A wintry evening in 2017, a tidy side street in Cole Valley, Belvedere near Alma. My mother facedown in the gutter. Our family had just returned to the car after the gaiety of a December dinner with friends, and we’d all hopped in—and only then noticed my mom was absent. Backtracking, we found her 20 feet away, lying in the gutter after she’d missed the curb in the darkness and silently fallen. I screamed. I thought she was dead. But she made a muffled sound, and we helped her up and to the car.

Twenty minutes later, I added another landmark: the dimly lit 1970s-era San Francisco General Hospital sign, formerly at Potrero Avenue and 22nd Street. My mom being hoisted onto a gurney that I clung to as the ER staff wheeled her down a hallway inexplicably lined with injured patients handcuffed to the bars of their cots, SFPD officers standing by. I asked one of the officers what was going on. “Full moon,” he replied.

My mom had broken her hip. She spent three months healing in San Francisco, then finally flew home to Honolulu in a wheelchair, and never visited here again. I didn’t realize at the time that her short journey toward the car on Belvedere was the last time she’d walk on her own. I’m grateful I decided to visit her in the hospital—every single day—for those three months. A few years later, in late 2020, while I sheltered in place in San Francisco and my mom sheltered across the Pacific Ocean, she unexpectedly passed away.

Cities frequently transform sites of sadness with remembrance through beauty.

The concept of a Geography of Conflict spurred me to pay attention to the landmarks that had permeated my subconscious and intertwined themselves with the lessons of my life. They were everywhere, scattered across the city. I just needed to notice them.

Each time I drive down Ninth Street in the South of Market neighborhood, I pass what marks the concluding moments of the relationship with that shouting man. A cheap motel, just past Harrison Street. On the second floor, a room with a large-paned window overlooks the street. I’d run out of the house after another epic fight, paid $85 to check into the peaceful solitude of a motel room for a night in a city I already lived in, and looked out that window as I wrote a long list of the reasons I needed to leave. I still gaze up at that window every time I pass.

But what if one can redraw those maps—perhaps erase markers we’d rather forget? After all, our natural geographies change, with time; landmarks, buildings, and even coastlines come and go. And cities frequently transform sites of sadness with remembrance through beauty and art. Then a new landmark is born.

My map continues to grow as well, now that I have a 19-year-old son; there’s a new generation of topographies. Like that corner of Brotherhood Way where, during summer camp near Lake Merced, the go-cart he’d spent so much time constructing stubbornly refused to go.

But as I paid more attention, I also realized that my landmarks weren’t only those of conflict. They’re mixed in with a Geography of Delight.

A spot on the north sidewalk of Mariposa Street, between San Bruno Avenue and Utah Street on Potrero Hill. While I was walking to the grocery store, a sudden umbrella of shade darkened my path, then disappeared. I looked up. In the sky, I spotted the tiny silhouette of an airplane. Wow. I always choose a window seat when I fly; if it’s sunny, I love following the shadow of my plane drawing a line through the landscape below. I’d always wondered whether, one day, a passing plane’s shadow drawing might intersect with me.

The Quad at the now-shuttered San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill. Twilight. I’d take a break with my students, and we’d go outside and line the concrete balcony, waiting for that moment when thousands of tiny windows on homes across the bay caught the rays of the setting sun and glittered like a fleeting constellation of gold stars.

I decided to learn what had happened to the spot with that yellow post.

Most personal landmarks seem to entrench themselves in the terrain of your life, no matter what you try to do to stop them. Unless something happens to redraw them. As I wrote this column, I decided to learn what had happened to the spot with that yellow post at Seventh and Brannan Streets. In subsequent drive-bys, I’d observed the time lapse of what had been an aged parking lot turning into flattened dirt, awaiting a new identity. The post was gone.

Then, while examining an updated map online, I was floored. Not only is the site being developed for affordable housing, but a few weeks earlier, I had participated in a community panel to select the building’s new public art.

And the corner we’d chosen for installing the new art was exactly where that yellow post once stood.•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

JD Beltran is an artist, filmmaker, and member of the Writers Grotto and the author of a novel in progress, Pay Attention, which illuminates the lives of six working artists at the San Francisco Art Institute as they attempt to launch their careers with skill, genius, or mere provocation.
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