On the day San Francisco announced its shelter-in-place orders in March 2020, I found out I’d won the city’s below-market-rate housing lottery. I was incredibly lucky—and the timing was perfect. Squabbles with my four roommates had become more frequent, now that we were spending so many hours cooped up together. As a recent immigrant, I saw a new apartment as an opportunity to put down roots. But most of all, having never lived by myself, what I sought was solitude. Double-masked and Clorox-shielded, I moved from a quiet family neighborhood, the Inner Sunset, to the clamorous Civic Center, where I’d go on to reside for two years, paying 40 percent of market rate.
My new home was a third-floor unit in a luxury 19-story building, one of three towers owned by Trinity Properties on the same block. It came with free gym access, proximity to eclectic theater and music venues, and a resplendent rooftop view of City Hall’s golden-leaved dome. Even to a relative outsider to the city like me, the glass and metal building, one in a Tetris of such imposing towers, did not feel like it was in unity with the rest of San Francisco: the slopes of pastel Victorian homes blooming like architectural wildflowers through stretches of public parks. In my Poetics of San Francisco class, we read an essay by Dodie Bellamy titled “In the Shadow of Twitter Towers”:
What happens here is happening, on some scale, everywhere. I read that the West is becoming more East and the East is becoming more West, that Tehran will eventually turn into a sort of hybrid of Beirut and Brooklyn, and that Africa will rapidly grow in wealth. Eventually the Earth will be one sprawling corporately-managed mall.
I had moved from Mumbai in 2016 as an international student to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. After graduating, I secured a hard-to-get artist’s visa and had just started teaching poetry with Youth Speaks when the pandemic struck. We pivoted to online teaching, and luckily the organization did not let go of anyone, which meant I could meet the requirements of my visa.
I set up my desk at a window overlooking Market Street. Below me stood the Orpheum Theatre, robbed of its usual festive hullabaloo. No serpentine queues for tickets, no audience flooding from the doors after shows. I began each morning with my cup of chai, fixating on the poster of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton: the silhouette of a determined man pointing upward to challenge the skies. The F streetcar, on reduced frequency, sliced the afternoons with its two-toned vintage charm—pistachio and cream, navy and yellow, red and orange—rolling along with a soothing rattle. It became for me a dependable sound that evoked normalcy in a time of ramping uncertainties.
But not all sounds were so life-affirming. In the wide-open space outside my windows, Trinity Properties was building a fourth tower as well as a Whole Foods, which would be the city’s largest. Pandemic notwithstanding, construction rushed ahead full steam. For the two years I spent in that flat, tractors groaned and beeped, cranes swirled, motors mixed cement. The noises that ran between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. brought a sharper edge to the isolation I was beginning to feel. I fought the urge to dish out an angry email to my building’s management. But how could I complain, given that I had the good fortune of paying less than half the market price for a flat with a walk-in closet, sparkling Caesarstone counters, and a bathroom bigger than the last room I’d lived in? It seemed that everyone else in my new building had found a way to escape the ruckus. As a housewarming present, my friends shipped me a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
Once, leaving for an evening grocery run, I passed a distraught-looking woman in the lobby who was in her pajamas and soundlessly crying. She was still there when I returned, frozen in the same pose, now asking to be taken to her children. I inquired with the receptionist on duty, who was perennially harried by food-delivery drivers waiting to be let in, whether we could help her. Without taking his eyes off his computer screen, he said, “It’s no use, she’s here often and cries for hours, she’s separated from her kids, some trouble with her mother, who lives on the eighth floor, whenever we call the cops, they find nothing wrong and send her back up.”
Nights, too, the neighborhood erupted in sound. Sirens were so frequent, they felt like a TV left on in the background. One side of the building faced Angelo’s Alley, a narrow strip where a few unsheltered people gathered. Some played techno beats, ’90s rap, a lot of Lamar. A woman often paced the alley and screamed into her phone, “I am tired of not being taken seriously!” Often, the sounds were not words, just moans and groans, long agonizing noises. Among these sounds, my aloneness felt minuscule in nature yet magnified in intensity.
In my early days in the United States, a white classmate asked me if I felt used to the squalor in San Francisco, given that I was from India. It is true that the suburban housing complex in Mumbai where I was born was until recently perimetered by slums. But in 2017, after three decades of petitioning, opportunistic property developers rehabilitated those slums into modern housing. And Mumbai’s housing market is fractured by class, religion, and, most devastatingly, caste. I grew up in a caste- and class-privileged home, and my family never faced a crisis of housing, but one quick scan of the listings in Mumbai reveals the lengths to which dominant-caste landlords will go to keep their precious rentals away from Muslims and Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi populations. The root evils in the systems of housing may be different, but the disparities continue to widen horrifically whether in Mumbai or San Francisco.
As COVID mandates relaxed, I started shopping nearby at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market. When the Vietnamese herb seller offered, “I can save you a methi every week,” using the Hindi word for fenugreek, I smiled an I-am-home smile. Come closing time at the farmers’ market, in their final attempt to peddle their fresh produce, sellers reduced prices, announcing tempting deals. “Three melons for $5, a whole bag of mandarins for $2.” Their calls echoed through the notoriously windy plaza. I wondered about the overlap of customers and how much revenue these vendors would lose when the Whole Foods opened opposite the market. As the store’s opening date drew closer, there was a surge of uniformed security guards sanitizing the sidewalks and shooing people away from leaning against walls or resting on cardboard boxes.
Last April, I decided to move out to live with my partner. During our apartment search, the agent showed us places that he kept promising, unprompted by us, were of the “no nuisances, no break-ins, no feces” variety. I realized that winning the housing lottery and living in a luxury tower had indeed deepened my sense of belonging in San Francisco. I had put down roots. And I was leaving my flat with a heightened awareness of the forces that maintain the city’s inequalities.•
You Are Here was a monthly column that examined ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto and published by altaonline.com from May to December 2022.