Neighborhoods endure bad reputations because of blight. But what if you could hear directly from the people who actually live in these supposedly "no good" areas?
That’s the idea behind artist Hunter Franks’s latest project, which aims to deliver and display postcards written from inhabitants of San Francisco’s most maligned neighborhoods. Soon, he’ll be expanding the project globally.
Franks started thinking about underserved areas in San Francisco when he won a contest to redesign the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority logo and went to work for the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. There, he began working with teens living in Bayview, a neighborhood with chronically high crime rates, gang violence, and unemployment. When those Bayview teens went out with Flip Cams and asked their neighbors what they would like to see improved, Franks was surprised by their response. Instead of asking the Mayor’s Office to fix crime or other public services, one of the most common requests from Bayview residents was that they’d like to change other people’s perceptions of their neighborhood.
Perception can be a powerful placemaker. After all, judging a neighborhood on looks is how New York City ended up with the legacy of "broken windows theory" policing, an approach that many argue has ushered in an era of outsized crackdowns on petty crimes and tension between police and racially profiled populations.
Inspired by his Bayview experience, Franks began to analyze his own biases more carefully. "I think of this one quote: The danger of stereotypes is not because they are untrue," Franks told Co.Exist. "It’s because they’re incomplete."
As a result, Franks launched the SF Postcard Project in April of this year. By partnering with local artistic and community organizations, he’s sent out nearly 200 postcards detailing the wonderful aspects of narrowly stereotyped neighborhoods. Initially, he sent out postcards gathered on the streets of low-income neighborhoods to households in San Francisco’s more ritzy areas, but now, he says, the destinations have become somewhat randomized through addresses chosen on Whitepages.com.
Franks has also displayed some of the postcards in galleries, such as the Intersection for the Arts. The postcards all include prompts like, "My favorite place in Bayview is [blank] because of [blank]," and more personal anecdotes.
In October, Franks launched neighborhoodpostcardproject.com, an extension of the SF Postcard Project. It’s not quite complete, but Franks plans on adding a postcard toolkit that anyone can download to launch a similar initiative in other cities. He’s also hoping to design an online postcard builder with the help of a major arts organization so other cities’ "Greetings!" can be produced in a similar fashion.
"The attempt is to change perception and build community through a storytelling exchange," Franks said. "I think I've learned a lot since I've started it. The best way to learn is ask—and kids have less filter than other folks."