This is one of several profiles of the people who make the Mission District what it is today. They are part of our My Mission Zine. You can buy a copy here.
Bhautik Joshi will be the first to tell you that he’s a total dork — for technology, photography, art and even dorkiness itself.
That’s why, when he discovered San Francisco’s misfit-friendly culture, Joshi and his family decided to put down roots on the outskirts of the Mission District, where they have lived for about a decade. But as a senior software engineer for photo-sharing site Flickr, Joshi has become acutely aware of the neighborhood’s smoldering culture war and his place within it.
The recent, massive influx of workers from the technology sector has long been blamed for indirectly raising real estate prices, which have displaced many longtime residents. When letters started popping up all over the Mission District in 2012, urging tech workers to leave, Joshi said it was a wake-up call in more ways than one.
“This has been happening for a while, right? It’s just that I’d never actually seen it,” he said. “And I looked at it and thought, ‘I guess this feasibly applies to me.’ ”
But, instantly, he also understood the value of art as a form of activism.
“How else do you get such easy access to the issues that are present in the community?” he said.
Since then, Joshi has often walked through the neighborhood’s alleys where murals run from end to end, in hopes of encountering artists at work. When he comes across them, he shoots their portraits and gets them to talk about themselves — it’s Joshi’s way of examining the city’s internal tensions from yet another angle.
To Joshi, those artists may be the most tragic casualties of the city’s housing affordability crisis, since their departure could cheat his peers out of the same eye-opening moment that he experienced.
Joshi said he worries most about the people who are “so inoculated by the belief that tech is egalitarian, that they don’t recognize their own biases.”
He originally shared that egalitarian mindset. He had attended university at New South Wales, Australia, directly following high school, ultimately earning a master’s degree in medical and biomedical engineering, and then a PhD in the same field soon after. Then, he almost immediately set off to work in San Francisco’s tech sector in 2007, at Industrial Light and Magic.
At the time, he said, “I felt very strongly that you can do anything you like if you put your mind to it.”
But, living on the border between the Mission District and Potrero Hill, and taking the long bus ride to his job in the Presidio every day, he suddenly found himself interacting with “real people, frankly,” for the first time, he said. Some were well-off. Others were poor and uneducated. The more people he met, the less valid his worldview seemed. It needed amending.
Yes, he concluded, most people were capable of great feats, but only if they had two things first: the inclination, and ample free time.
Joshi witnessed that first-hand when he volunteered as a photography instructor at First Exposures, a mentoring program for teenagers with troubled backgrounds.
“Some of them were just creative geniuses,” he said. But because they came from low-income families, some of the kids worked part-time jobs to help their parents pay the bills, and they had trouble keeping up with the class schedule.
“In an environment where they would have the free time, they would thrive and be amazing. But the practical reality is that the situation they’re in — stuff that they have almost no control over — prevents them from achieving their massive potential.”
Joshi, on the other hand, knows where he’ll get his next meal, and that he’ll probably never have trouble supporting his family. He worries that his level of comfort is a barrier to relating to people, he said.
“How do you have empathy with someone who is being evicted from their house? How? That situation is alien to me. And it’s not because I don’t care — I imagine that it would be horrible, but I just don’t know what it’s like.”
But few are entirely safe from the city’s burning real estate market, and someday Joshi and his family might have to leave their building, which does not grant them rent control. The Bayview-Hunters Point area is a likely destination, he said, though he suspects that his new neighbors might see him as a gentrifying interloper.
“And that’s rough,” he said. “The burden is on us, to show our neighbors that we care.”