San Francisco has gotten some pretty bad press as of late. The city’s history as a hotbed of liberal movements has been overshadowed in the past few years by a rapidly growing tech sector that, as many residents tell it, threatens to swallow up San Francisco’s culture at an unprecedented pace. The term “hypergentrification” may be an understatement. What’s happening in San Francisco is more like warp-speed gentrification.
Despite its changing character, San Francisco–like all cities–still holds on to some diverse communities and subcultures. These are the people, places, and things that illustrator Wendy MacNaughton focuses on in her new book, Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words. The book is filled with illustrated stories from every corner of the city–the Muni bus drivers who shuttle residents around, the members of the storied Dolphin Club, library patrons, and even the bison of Golden Gate Park.
MacNaughton, a native San Franciscan who worked in advertising and the nonprofit world and studied social work before becoming an illustrator, spends anywhere from a few hours to a month observing her subjects before coming up with completed illustrations. She first learned to draw quickly and stealthily while commuting on BART between San Francisco and Oakland, as she observed passengers around her. But the idea for the Meanwhile series, which began in 2011, came from Paul Madonna, editor at The Rumpus. In the past, MacNaughton had done single-image stories, but Madonna encouraged her to do longer-form pieces.
Her first quest: talking to and observing the chess players who hang out along Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare downtown. The book is filled with these kinds of longer tales, spanning multiple pages and characters.
The Meanwhile project started right as San Francisco began its upward climb into today’s tech boom. It would have been all too easy for MacNaughton to focus on that, but she didn’t. “I don’t think there was any way it couldn’t have helped determine the decisions I made. It wasn’t conscious decisions,” she says. “I’m interested in the communities that are not really getting the spotlight, so I continued doing that. But then given San Francisco’s current climate, that becomes pretty politicized. In a sense, it was good timing.”
After spending so much time observing the different corners of city life, MacNaughton came away with a new appreciation for San Francisco. “With homogenization and gentrification, it’s one thing to talk about that in such broad, vague ways. Once you get a sense of how many different ways there are to live in the city, it made it so real for me,” she says.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco obviously contains experiences that are specific to this one city, but MacNaughton believes that the basic ideas–observing the people we don’t always get to see, who in many cases keep the community functioning–are applicable anywhere. She hopes to continue drawing new communities in the Bay Area and beyond. “I could spend forever doing this, and I kind of hope I get to,” she says.