Intro from Jay Allison: Benjamin Temchine's carefully-crafted portrait of place, his master's project at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
From Benjamin Temchine
In the center of San Francisco, there is a plaza with no benches and a fountain with a fence around. It’s a place that most people cross the street to avoid. How does this happen? Why does a public space fail? Is it just the homelessness and the drug addicts and dealers? Or is there something more to the story, something deeper? Is there a point where good intentions and idealism become so removed from reality, they actually border on negligence?
“The Biography of 100,000 Square Feet” was the master’s project for my journalism degree at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. To graduate with a Radio focus, you have to report, write, produce and air a 29-and-a-half minute long documentary. A half-an-hour is an awfully long time to tell a story; you have to pick a pretty big one to fill it.
Choosing the subject for my master’s project was simple. The perpetual presence of people on the streets has split San Francisco in half. The “homeless problem” dominated local politics for almost two decades. It ended the political careers of two mayors and launched the political careers of two mayors. It was more or less my beat 30 minutes is a lot of tape and a lot of research. Three months of research; four months of reporting; 35 recorded interviews, close to four-hundred pages of newspaper clippings, photos, public spaces theory, four complete re-writes and one twenty-foot long scotch-taped chain of A4 office paper and note cards stretched out in the hallway of my apartment. The editing and reporting process was greatly complicated because I had no idea what I was doing. The longest piece I had ever made before this was four and a half minutes. The longest piece I had been paid for was all of fifty seconds long.
Problem is, people shut off stories about homelessness in San Francisco because most are ideological cant, boring, clichéd or all three.
In the fall semester of my second year at UC Berkeley, I was in a Features Writing Class with the brilliant Cynthia Gorney. During the class, we decided that many of the pitfalls of lousy homelessness and poverty writing in general could be avoided by taking a microscope to a specific place and specific people. I focused my interviews on the people who worked, designed, cleaned or lived in UN Plaza. My hope was that I could tell a better story by focusing on the smaller, human details of a part than a general trudge through the history of homelessness.
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UN Plaza was a great mystery to me. I had often reported from failing neighborhoods and I was no longer shocked by daily encounters with degradation in such a beautiful city. What surprised me was the prominence of the display: not hidden in the crack alleys of the Tenderloin, but at the intersection of Market Street, San Francisco’s most important street, and the Civic Center, just outside the Mayor’s window.
In the constant flux of city life, we can sometimes forget that places, not just people, have memories, and forgetting that leads to tragedy.