The Education of Buildings

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Having lived in San Francisco’s Mission District for 20 years come this fall, I have seen dramatic changes. There is the old saying that California is a reflection of the larger psyche of the United States only more so. That phrase could be adapted to describe the Mission as a reflection of San Francisco’s eternal flux.

Two decades ago Stewart Brand wrote How Buildings Learn that a few years later was adapted into a BBC series .  Not unlike species adapting and evolving, buildings are almost living things.

A building in the block north of me is a dramatic example of that.  The former green house at 1161-1163 York Street has always been a bit intriguing as one of the largest structures in the block, usually having somewhat nefarious characters hanging out on its front steps.

Though it looked to be a duplex or triplex, I always assumed it was rented out by the room or had some complex multiple room mates living there.

It came into greater prominence a decade ago when it was used as the primary residence of Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness.  The oddest part of the movie was that it was presented as being in Chinatown, something that anyone local would know that no residences of that size or character exist there.

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During the filming, I and other residents in my block were approached by the film’s producers and offered $200 to keep our front room lights on all night for the shooting of a short sequence in the film.  For maybe 10 seconds, my front windows can be seen in the out of focus background.


The house was used again and a bit more prominently a few years later for La Mission with Benjamin Bratt.  At least this time it seemed to be more credible of a “character” and true to its actual location.


This fall, the house went on the market for $1.2 million.  Actually fairly low for a building of that size, but the photos demonstrate that it is definitely a fixer upper though with great potential for whatever buyer will invest in it.

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The realtor did a very quick “tarting up” of the place, throwing on some paint on the front but not even the sides that are still weathered and have peeling paint.

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It will be curious to see how it will evolve from here, and how its neighboring buildings learn as well.

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