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Ghost Architecture
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

Ghost Architecture was an epic work focusing on the buildings and inhabitants that previously occupied the site of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum on Third Street in San Francisco. Using architectural and insurance records and oral histories of former neighborhood residents, Choreographer Joanna Haigood and Scenic Designer Wayne Campbell painstakingly researched and created this complex installation which transparently revealed the continuing presence of the past -- engaging the audience with a new perspective of time and space. Research also included the work of Ira Nowinski, specifically his extraordinary series of photographs from No Vacancy: urban renewal and the elderly (1979). His photographs, along with interviews with Mr. Nowinski, offered a view of the intimate lives of hotel residents, their rooms, their possessions, their lifestyle, and ultimately their demise. Mr. Nowinski also documented the production of Ghost Architecture.

Ghost Architecture was a six hour installation performed in thirty minute cycles. It featured poetic choreographed movement executed by pairs of performers who swapped roles every 30 minutes. The production ran for a total of ten performances. The set was designed as a full scale but abstract model of the four buildings that had previously existed at the location, suspended at their exact coordinates. The site itself is filled with history, both personal and social. It contains the stories of lives disrupted and of the hidden, and often tragic, stories behind urban renewal.

One of the focal points of the project was the historic West Hotel, a single room occupancy residence built to house transient male workers. Known as one of the finer residence hotels in the area, it had been sought after by single men working locally and at sea. By 1970 most of its residents were over fifty and living on modest pensions. In 1974 all the residents were evicted and the building was demolished to make way for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts complex. This cultural center includes an arts center, convention hall, restaurants, IMAX Cinema complex and public park.

Another featured building in the production was the Peerless Movie Theater. A film screen was placed at the location where it hung in the theater and activity from Third Street was projected via Camera Obscura onto the screen, experientially connecting the past and present.

During the 1950’s to 60’s, Justin Herman, Executive Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA), set his sights on the SOMA district (South of Market) as the proposed location for the new Yerba Buena Center. Herman stated that “This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,” and over time secured the purchase of 44% of the area’s properties, then allowed them to fall into catastrophic disrepair. This created the blight necessary to meet federal standards required for demolition and redevelopment. The future of neighborhood residents was not considered in the initial plan.

In 1969, local residents became fed up with the intransigence of HUD and formed their own organization, known as the Tenant and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR) Founded in the lobby of the Milner Hotel, the slogan of the organization was "We Won't Move," although its ultimate objective was merely to find decent new housing for displaced residents of the area. TOOR was fronted by George Woolf, a former leader of the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Union, and Peter Mendelsohn, a sailor who had returned from his final voyage to find the SFRA had taken control of his property. George Woolf noted that "it was a casual remark by Redevelopment Director M. Justin Herman which started him in battle." Herman had reportedly called the residents of the South of Market area "nothing but a bunch of skid row bums." Woolf was indignant -- "I'm not a bum and I resent being discredited and discounted." He responded by helping to establish TOOR.

*Source: Shaping San Francisco’s digital archive at FoundSF

In 2017 the plaza on the Embarcadero was named to honor Justin Herman. He was the architect of this tragic chapter of forced relocation of some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable populations. His classist attitudes and disregard of local residents gave credibility to this “urban renewal” project that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were laborers, elderly, and disenfranchised.

Choreography: Joanna Haigood
Scenic Design: Wayne Campbell
Sound Design: Gregory Kuhn
Lighting Design: Jack Carpenter
Costumes: Callie Floor

Performing Artists
Suzanne Gallo, Robert Henry Johnson, Sheila Lopez, José Navarrete, Shakiri

Premiere Date

Premiere Location
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

Funders / Commissioners
Ghost Architecture was made possible with generous support from Creative Capital, The Rockefeller Multi-Arts Production Fund, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Zellerbach Family Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, W.A. Gerbode Fund, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, and the San Francisco Arts Commission

Photography: Ira Nowinski

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