Incredible photos show San Francisco's 'startup district' before the tech industry moved in

A former warehouse and light industrial district, South of Market is San Francisco’s biggest tech hub. It’s not uncommon to watch entrepreneurs and Uber cars whiz by tent cities, or look out at the tallest man-made structures west of the Mississippi River rising over dilapidated auto body shops.

South of Market, often referred to as SoMa, is a neighbourhood in flux. It always has been.

Photographer Janet Delaney arrived in the summer of 1978 with her massive, old-fashioned view camera in tow. At the time, the financial sector put a squeeze on small businesses and affordable housing to make room for the Moscone Center, the city’s largest convention hall, which has hosted Apple, Google, and Microsoft special events over the years.

Delaney, a graduate student then and a professor at UC Berkeley now, wanted to capture the working class communities that made up SoMa, before they disappeared.

Delaney shared some of her images with Business Insider. You can find more on her website.

When Janey Delaney arrived in San Francisco's SoMa District in the late '70s, her rent cost $250 a month. Neighbours knew each other by name. But change came quickly.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

'I experienced San Francisco as the new frontier,' Delaney tells Business Insider.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Painting mural, Langton Street, 1980

One late fall night, Delaney (pictured) watched a demolition crew take out a hotel from which dozens of poor and elderly residents had been removed. It was her wake up call.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Janet Delaney in her dark room, 62 Langton Street, 1981

She decided to photograph the people who worked and lived in SoMa, before new developments claimed the neighbourhood. The Moscone Center drove that momentum.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Pat serving coffee at the Gordon Café, 7th at Mission Street, 1980

Originally conceived of as a sports arena, the convention hall (which today stretches 600,000 square feet) sparked a long-fought battle from the city's low-income residents.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Man with wheelbarrow, Moscone Center, 1980

Its construction would require 5,000 residents and 700 businesses to be displaced.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Langton between Folsom and Harrison Streets, 1979

Among the hardest hit communities would be the blue-collar workers and immigrants who lived in hotel dwellings called SROs, some of the only truly affordable housing in the city.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Helen and her husband, Chester, at the Helen Café, 486 6th Street, 1980

Source: Central City SRO Collaborative

The movers and shakers in city government argued the Moscone Center would bring in good business, Delaney remembers. San Francisco was already a popular tourist destination.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Across from the Moscone Center, 3rd at Tehama Street, 1980

'They wanted to bring San Francisco into the -- before the word was invented -- the global market,' Delaney says. 'They succeeded. But at what cost?' she says.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Langton Street residents Lalett and Venessa Fernandez with their son, 1980

Delaney set out on foot to discover interesting places in her new city. Once she found a place she liked, she would set up her tripod and stake out until she got her shot.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Bulk Natural Foods, Russ at Howard Street, 1980

'Some of the small business owners lived on the streets where the business was, so there was this kind of intimacy,' Delaney says.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Jean Decottignies, Jean's Auto Body Specialists, 1264 Folsom Street, 1982

Many of her subjects are seen looking directly at the camera, which adds drama and character. It makes the neighbourhood's original settlers much harder to ignore.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Giannini in his barbershop, est. 1936, 484 6th Street, 1980

After her camera equipment was stolen, she set out to know everyone on her street.' I wanted to know who I could trust,' Delaney says. It helped her project along.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Langton between Folson and Howard Streets, 1979

Delaney captured thousands of photos between 1978 and 1986.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Laura Graham, 62 Langton Street, 1979

When the Moscone Center opened in 1981, SoMa was nearly unrecognizable. 'It was built like a fortress because the surrounding area was so destitute,' Delaney says.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' San Francisco Ballet performing on opening days for the Moscone Center, 1981

Today, the tech industry has co-opted the neighbourhood. Google, Twitter, Zynga, Salesforce, Yelp, Adobe, Reddit, Zipcar, and even Burning Man have offices there.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' View of the Financial District from South of Market Street, 1980

Source: Google Maps

Delaney has since returned to the neighbourhood for a series called 'SoMa Now.' It focuses on the deepening gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' 2nd at Market Street, 1986

She says the scale of development happening in SoMa now makes what she witnessed in the '70s ad '80s look terribly small. The neighbourhood will be home to the tallest commercial and residential towers west of Chicago next year.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Moscone Center under construction, 1980

Though she no longer lives there, SoMa holds a special place in her heart. 'I came of age in SoMa, as an artist and a woman,' Delaney says. 'South of Market is always my home.'

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Canary Island Diner, 1207 Harrison Street, 1982

'I carry with me the memory of how it was,' she says.

Janet Delaney
'South of Market,' Ted Zouzounis and his son, David, at Ted's Market, 1530 Howard Street, 1982

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