Margie O'Driscoll: A Changing San Francisco

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The pandemic has changed San Francisco, and Margie O’Driscoll set out to document it.

When the pandemic began, I started an Instagram account photographing a changing San Francisco. After looking over thousands of photos, here’s what I observed: Over the last year of quarantine, San Francisco considered most construction an “essential service” so building continued, despite the fact that construction workers were one of the professions most likely to contract COVID-19.

Sequestered in our homes for months on end, we focused on interior space. We knocked down walls, hung new art and repainted the bathroom. We created mini offices in cramped apartments. Or we threw up our hands and moved to a new home, city or state.

Restaurants moved outside to sidewalks proving San Francisco city government can actually respond to planning and zoning issues in just six weeks if there is a will.

San Franciscans embraced the idea of “home as billboard." Using street facing windows to post political signs is a time-honored tradition here. During the pandemic, this reached new heights: signs appeared thanking essential workers and supporting the BLM movement. We shared our emotions with every passer-by.

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Previously ignored places like roofs and tiny yards were seized as social spaces. Roof decks with string lights, and fire pits in gardens, illuminated the night, and conversations drifted over fences.

Shuttered businesses were covered with plywood murals.

Streets closed, creating flexible spaces for kids learning how to ride a bike or roller skate.

Quiet streets came alive. On my block, we started casual happy hours. We shared lemons, dahlias and even salmon, easily, because we saw each other more. And we had more time to chat and listen. We talked about boredom, finches and robins, the sighting of coyotes and shooting stars.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, I share deep feelings of sadness and loss about the last year. We have changed how we think about our home, workplaces and the public spaces we share. Whether this will continue will depend upon our embrace of these new collective forms of connection perhaps one of the few positive outcomes from the grimmest of years.

With a Perspective, I’m Margie O’Driscoll.

Margie O’Driscoll is a San Francisco-based strategist who works with nonprofits and governments on design and policy issues.