52-Blue | Audio

(in)Fringe 01: The New Mission Soundtrack

Our first investigation takes us to the boisterous banks of San Francisco's oldest neighborhood, the Mission District, where waves of Silicon Valley money continue to inject the gentrification started here during the dot-com boom of the late nineties with a dose of urban steroids never before seen, or heard, at such pace, scale, and rhythm. Along sidewalks, through alleys, in and out of bars, cafes, and taquerias, we slide through a multitude of soundtracks. The events that shape a particular place, much like the ambient notes that distinguish one spot from another, emerge and submerge again behind our ears through this kind of concentrated listening practice. 

For generations, the Mission has been one of the most colorful and musical neighborhoods in the city. It has long remained a center for vibrant cultural events, art shows, diverse celebrations, theatrical rituals, and raucous activism. But today we're detecting new layers pushing into the streets' ears, sounds that represent something of a new paradigmatic re-ordering of the neighborhood—yet how best to capture them? Is the Mission's radical transformation even uniquely audible?

While the neighborhood’s rapid changes are visible, the power structures underwriting them aren’t always visually evident, but they can be heard. In listening for these edge sounds, the visual references that normally signify gentrification’s bordering might be better understood less as formal dividers of contested space, and more as an intense pixelation of many types of spaces vying for representation across a much larger landscape. The ’hood as a kind of noisy arcade, or a fluid matrix of hybridizing anthems. Certain fringes are defined just as easily by a moving car stereo as by the muzak inside a newly built Whole Foods. And these sounds are always wafting, moving, territorializing in their own ways—this nomadism of sound fascinates us. 

Over the course of several sound walks, we identified three distinct sounds that currently make up the new Mission soundtrack. We'll be revisiting other sonic aspects of the area in future posts, but the first and most apparent layer that stands out is the drone of tech busses that chauffeur thousands of employees from the Mission to the South Bay and back. We imagine a more complete study of the sonic imprint of tech busses. One weekday evening, we stand at the corner of 25th and Valencia Streets at 5:30 for roughly fifteen minutes and hear four busses stop to let off passengers. Another dozen or so pass by on their normal routes up and down Valencia; decibel ranges and bus types vary. 

A proper taxonomy of tech busses would make for an interesting project in and of itself, building upon some of the great exposes that journalists, activists, and mappers have already covered about the various shuttle services industries and routes, and their direct correlation to gentrification. While some of the more sleek black and gray busses remain surprisingly stealthy and quiet, purring like giant Porsches, older makes idle with loud panging diesel engines and shrill brakes. We suspect travel busses of this size probably aren't meant to drive within the tight city corridors as much as they’re being used for now, especially up and down a hilly city like San Francisco. It is quite obvious that many of the busses’ brakes suffer, sending a screech that resonates across the neighborhood’s sidewalks.

Popular discussion seems bent on covering noise purely as a messy, unwanted form of urbanized pollution. Though, oftentimes absent of critical demographics like race and class concentrations, resulting in a skewed picture of what is considered tolerable and intolerable sound in the city, and by whom. While noise “pollution” is an absolutely worthwhile examination, we are not yet sold on the extent to which the tech busses are contributing further to such a problem. But this marks the beginning of future research we aim to explore into the sonic culture of the busses. So stay tuned for more on that in forthcoming posts.

Another distinct sound of the New Mission is the ambience wafting from the dozens of high-end restaurants, posh cafes, upscale oyster bars, and urbane cocktail lounges that have popped up just in the last couple of years. Combined with the new chatter of everyone speaking into devices in the physical absence of the person on the receiving end, this vast percolating cloud of technobabble in the Mission is represented by its own foreign language of tech-bro chit-chat, programmer lingo, finance-speak, and so forth.

The other sonic variant, and perhaps the most important, is what we realize as a silencing of the old Mission. For instance, some alleys that once resounded with kids playing, or homeless people congregating and recycling, or other backyard and garage recreational activities, are now quieted by their renovation into strips of multi-million dollar condos.

Not merely a neighborhood re-divided and in conflict with itself, the Mission is comprised of many overlapping micro-worlds competing for space differently by day than by night—culturally, economically, sonically—yet, invariably co-existing. While many harsh edges do, in fact, exist here that have and continue to threaten to pave over the old with the new at great costs of displacement and cultural erasure, equally, there are these kinds of blurred edges shared by both old and new. 

It couldn’t be more obvious (or potentially more political): sometimes the newest sound is no sound at all. 

Homepage photograph by Nick Sowers 

Posted in: Social Good

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