Skip Wheeler and his wife groom their horses after Veteran’s Day Parade, Folsom at 2nd StreetImage courtesy of the artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney
Skip Wheeler and his wife groom their horses after Veteran’s Day Parade, Folsom at 2nd Street
Image courtesy of the artist. © 2014 Janet Delaney
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See San Francisco Before the Tech Boom

Jan 20, 2015

Today, South of Market, a wedge-shaped neighborhood in northwest San Francisco, is home to tech giants such as Twitter and Airbnb, but for most of its existence it was a very different kind of place.

Once famous for its “factories, slums, laundries, machine shops, boiler works, and the abodes of the working class,” as writer Jack London noted in 1909, it changed dramatically in the 1960s when many businesses that called the district home moved out and a community of artists and gay men and women emerged in its place. In the late 1970s, in the face of then expanding dereliction and as part of efforts to remake the neighborhood, city authorities condemned many of the residential hotels that had become a hallmark of the area, displacing many residents and small businesses.

It was at this time that photographer Janet Delaney moved to the area, seeking cheap rent. Between 1978 and 1986 she captured a neighborhood at the cusp of change. One that was not salubrious -- she was held up at knifepoint and had her camera stolen -- but one where behind the rough edges, a small but strong community of families and businesses still thrived.

“In my first two years of college I spent a lot of time, like many people in the early 70s, thinking of formal issues, like structure, and how a photograph is constructed," Delaney says, recalling the kind of aesthetically-driven photography she was making up until she moved to the area. " [I was] responding to minimalism, and how photography addresses these concepts.”

Later, a six-month solo trip to conflict-riddled parts of Central America left a deep impression on Delaney, and saw her take a socially-conscious turn with her work. Upon returning, the often-tough lives of her neighbors seemed to take on a new significance and she felt the need to document them. Using a large 4x5 view tripod-mounted camera, she made portraits and architectural views and shot the interiors of local businesses, in an attempt to document life in the neighborhood.

Planting Boganvia, Yerba Buena Gardens Janet Delaney 

The images that emerged are as frank as they are beautiful and are a testament to a once gritty, even vibrant neighborhood. Indeed, they bear an uncanny resemblance to pre-war documentary photography. It is perhaps all down to the camera, Delaney says: a bulky contraption that takes up a large amount of space but yields finely detailed images. And for the photographer, the ever obvious camera itself became an important part of the documentation process.

“The camera gave a sense of honor to a neighborhood that nobody ever considered, a neighborhood the city felt it could demolish,” Delaney says.

By 1988, with rents getting ever higher, Delaney, now a mother, moved across the bay to Berkeley. “I wouldn’t have left if that rent hadn't been so high,” she adds, feeling that she was pushed out of her old neighborhood by rising prices. And that process doesn’t seem to be slowing as the neighborhood, now known as SoMa, continues to gentrify.

“I’ve continued to photograph South of Market,” Delaney says. "There’s more of a bustle, there’s more going on. But it’s really expensive. People are moving into high rises. It’s a more elegant, beautiful, [but] slightly alienating environment.”

Janet Delaney: South of Market runs until July 19, 2015 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco

Myles Little is an Associate Photo Editor for TIME

LIFE in a Great City: San Francisco

At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939.
Ferry near the the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 1941.
Fong-Fong bakery and ice cream parlor, 1941.
Diego Rivera working on pencil sketches for huge mural depicting Pan-American unity, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1941.
Shipyard ironworkers, San Francisco, 1942.
San Francisco 1942
San Francisco, 1942.
A civilian observer and plane-spotter, San Francisco, 1942.
Cemetery of Mission Dolores, San Francisco, 1942.
Newspapers welcome Madame Chiang Kai-Shek to San Francisco, 1943.
American troops, San Francisco, 1945.
Author Gertrude Atherton and her dog outside of her home in San Francisco, 1946.
Cable car turnaround, San Francisco, 1947.
View of San Francisco, 1947.
San Francisco, 1947.
Drive-in theater, San Francisco, 1948.
Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, 1951.
South San Francisco, 1951.
Dancing the mambo at San Francisco's Macumba Club, 1954.
Pacific Heights, 1955.
The Tin Angel, a waterfront nightclub, San Francisco, 1955.
View of the Golden Gate Bridge toward the hills of Marin County, 1955.
San Francisco 1956
Getting one's hair done in San Francisco, 1956.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights, 1957.
Kenneth Rexroth at a poetry reading, 1957.
Housing construction in San Francisco, 1958.
Looking at Alcatraz, 1958.
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Opening of the boating season on San Francisco Bay, 1958.
Opening Day at Candlestick Park, 1960.
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1962.
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Brand new BART, 1967.
Vietnam War protestors, San Francisco, 1967.
San Francisco, 1969.
Above San Francisco, 1969.
Black Panthers protest, San Francisco, 1970.
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Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco mayoral race, 1971.
Anti-war march, San Francisco, 1972.
At the scene of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1938.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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