Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Looking For A Home

Dear Reader,

Living and working in major U.S. cities throughout my adult life, I always came back to thinking, and sometimes writing, about San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I was born here, have spent the majority of my waking and working life here, and expect to remain here (unless I make it out alive). But writing about this place I call home – whatever home means – for myself and for publication has been my preoccupation, and for the past four years, my vocation. One of the spaces I’ve found for my work as a reporter has been as a biweekly columnist at The San Francisco Examiner.

In 2018, I was invited to create and contribute SFLives, a series about people, to the paper. Since launching, I’ve written over 100 columns, earned two awards in the columnist category (from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020 and 2021), and curated and hosted a monthly hour-long talk series, live streamed from Bird & Beckett Books and Records (continuing on the second Sunday of each month). Writing the SFLives column, intended to celebrate the extraordinary lives of everyday people who make this a singular city, has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. To get to know people, to be invited into the homes, businesses and lives of so many San Franciscans, particularly during the pandemic, and be trusted to tell their stories in a metropolitan newspaper, has helped me to better understand a complex city, though I can’t claim to know all its secrets just yet.

I don’t do the work alone: trusted friends and contacts have introduced me to people I may not have otherwise encountered. And of course the subjects themselves, San Francisco’s people, fulfill the major role in filling the column inches with their survival tactics, wisdom and personal histories every other week. Occasionally I get a little closer to the bone and to home, but it’s generally other people’s unsung, everyday achievements I’m interested in celebrating. Surely, I benefit far more from these tellings than do my subjects, though some of them reported back wonderful things that happened following the publication of their stories. I can’t think of anything more gratifying to me professionally, to be living and working in a complicated city with its neighborhood identities, and introducing its people to each other and to the larger community. I intend to tell these stories until my work here is done, though SFLives will no longer be hosted by the Examiner.

My consideration of our city’s emergency plan to bring “law and order” to the Tenderloin – San Francisco’s most long term troubled neighborhood – is my farewell for now. That the column concerns San Franciscans living unhoused on our streets is a sort of bittersweet occurrence but is not a coincidence. The city and its power base has not done right by its least fortunate and most vulnerable people (and the United Nations backs up that claim). Meanwhile the convulsive changes at the Examiner, a newspaper claimed by new ownership and management seeking a new identity, has recently made for a less than comfortable home for SFLives. I’ll be using my time away from it to continue my work as a teaching artist/writing instructor and a cultural reporter at other news outlets, and to further develop the SFLives project.

I am grateful to be among the housed in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest region of the country, and to continue my work, documenting the lives and times of my fellow San Franciscans living through perilous times. But please keep the faith, friends and readers, that San Francisco, as a city, as an idea, as a state of mind and as a people, does the right thing and cares for its most vulnerable people this winter, as the COVID variants surge. There are plenty of good folks and organizations here, with open hearts and a willingness to communicate with care and compassion: I intend to stick with them, to keep doing my job, and telling your stories, in conjunction with partners whose values and mine are better aligned. Thank you for supporting independent thought and reporting and please return or subscribe to this space for updates.

In solidarity,

Denise

SFLives

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , ,

Celebrating 100 San Francisco Lives

Corner Launderette, California Street, Inner Richmond District, San Francisco, 2021 photo by Denise Sullivan

The idea of the “soul of San Francisco,” and whether it’s been lost or found in these years of our gentrification and more recently the pandemic is worn-out. But what exactly does it mean, to go in search of something as ephemeral as a city’s spirit? After 99 columns, I’m still trying to find out.

“One of the things people say to me all the time is they’re happy we’re still here. As if they are expecting me not to be,” said Paula Tejada, the self-proclaimed Empanada Lady who presides over Chile Lindo, her specialty food stand and catering business on 16th between Capp and South Van Ness, the crossroads of good fortune and hard luck.

Tejada is the among the San Franciscans I’ve talked to for SFLives, my column that has been running every other week in the San Francisco Examiner for going on four years. In that time we’ve earned second and third place awards in the columnist category of the San Francisco Press Club’s annual Northern California Journalism Awards, launched a monthly talk series at Bird and Beckett Books & Records, talked to over 100 San Franciscans and shared a bit of our own history. The space has been devoted largely to probing the idea of what keeps some of us here, while there are others who try us, then decide it’s time to leave in a hurry. The whole project has been a thorny proposition, fraught with the usual contradictions of writing about a complex city. And yet, I learn more and more about San Francisco each day by talking to folks who call this place home.

“Foot traffic in the morning is done,” Tejada told me when I checked in on her pandemic status, three years after we first sat down for a chat.

“There are no Google buses, people who used to walk by in the morning aren’t going to work on BART and I never know if I’m going to have that customer that’s coming in for a dozen.”

And yet, Tejada digs into reserves she doesn’t really have to pay topflight jazz, salsa and bossa nova musicians to perform at her storefront, thanks in part to The City relaxing regulations around outdoor dining and drinking during the pandemic. She does it because she believes in that ineffable thing we call the soul of San Francisco…

READ THE ENTIRE COLUMN HERE and 99 other columns HERE.

As I like to say, please don’t believe everything you read in the national and international press about San Francisco. But if you get a chance to talk to one of us who lives here, you might find out, like I’ve found out, that our people have still got that indescribable something that it’s been said we San Franciscans are made of and carry with us wherever in the world we go: Maybe it’s a can-do spirit, maybe it’s soul; some might call it grace and I call it home. We all carry the place where we’re from with us, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I truly hope that here in this place once known as the City That Knows How we can find within us and its city limits the ability to rise from this very, very broken place we’ve arrived post-pandemic. Until then, squint your eyes and try to find some light in the darkness: I promise it’s here, but you have to look up at just the right moment or you just might miss it.

Filed under: San Francisco News, , ,

Columnist Nabs Greater Bay Area Journalism Award

For the first time since I was in high school (which was a really long time ago), I’ve received acknowledgement for my work as a reporter. This month, I was awarded third place honors in the columnist category for my biweekly column, SFLives, for the San Francisco Examiner, by the Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, held by the San Francisco Press Club and judged by members of the San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans Press Clubs. Among the 70 columns I’ve written for the San Francisco Examiner since early 2018, I have my personal favorites to be sure, and all of them were made possible with the participation of some extraordinary San Franciscans who make our city what it has been historically and what it is in these unprecedented times. Our people are freethinkers, visionaries and lionhearted beacons who lead the rest of the country in their respective pursuits and professions. Whether working in the arts, activism or as essential workers, we simply could not endure, survive and thrive in these times at the edge of the world without the everyday people who make The City extraordinary (the tagline of SFLives). Congratulations to all of the great journalists and photographers who participated and received acknowledgement and thanks to all who voted. But the biggest thanks of course belongs to the subjects of SF Lives: There is no column without San Francisco and our people. My recognition from the San Francisco Press Club belongs to all of us – thank you.

Read the latest San Francisco Lives columns

Filed under: Arts and Culture, column, San Francisco News, , , ,

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