How did the Twitter tax break change mid-Market? A new documentary reveals: it’s complicated.

So many parallels can be drawn between Market Street and Mission Street. Both were once major theater districts. Both were torn up during the ‘60s to construct a subterranean BART line. And both were, and still are, meeting grounds for people of all stripes. 

Director Dan Goldes decided to make a documentary, called Five Blocks, about Market Street from 5th to 10th streets, a stretch also known as Mid-Market and, famously, the home of Twitter since 2012. 

The film attempts to unpack why the area fell into such neglect and searches for solutions to make it “cleaner and safer” for all of its residents. 

It so happened Goldes began shooting just as the “Twitter tax break” was approved by the Board of Supervisors in April of 2011 and a slew of other city revitalization efforts went into effect. Spoiler alert: The tax break didn’t do much. 

The film, a finalist for the Green Fire Award, will premiere Sunday, Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. at the Roxie Theatre as part of the Green Film Festival. You can buy tickets here

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was the impetus for making this film? 

It’s really a case of coincidence. I was in City Hall for a meeting in 2011 and I ran into Amy Cohen (the Director of Neighborhood Program Development at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development), and we were just comparing notes about what we’d been doing recently. I told her I had just finished my first film; I was very excited about it. And she said she was working on this project to help revitalize Market Street. She said, “If you know anybody who wants to make a film about that, have them get in touch with me. And so it took me about 24 hours and I called her back and I said, “I want to make that film.”  

In part, it’s because I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1983. I worked at 8th and Market for five years, inside the Orpheum Theater office building. And so I was aware of the fact that this was a neighborhood that it’s always, to me, seemed left behind. There’s also this popular notion that BART destroyed Market Street. So I wanted to see if that was true. And what I found is, that’s partially true. But it’s only one of many, many factors.

There were a lot of expectations for what the payroll tax would do in 2011. What did you see over the course of your filming? 

It felt as though something was changing, but it wasn’t readily apparent what it was. The Twitter tax break had been put in place. Was this tax break and the other things that the city was doing — and the tax rate was only one thing — was it really going to make a change? 

There has been a major plan to revitalize that part of Market Street every decade since (the ‘60s). And none of them have ever done anything. They never actually happened. So there was some risk that that could happen again. 

What it did do was bring lots of new people into the neighborhood. And so it brought some new energy and money and those sorts of things. But it all happened very quickly.

I have less concern that people who live in SROs are gonna be displaced because there’s a lot of protection. It’s not completely ironclad, but what does get displaced is affordable stores and restaurants that serve that population. We certainly saw some of that: places had their leases not renewed or the rents went up, and so they chose not to renew their lease.

That’s what leads to this sort of discomfort — this sense that there’s a clash. I think there can be a feeling that one type of person is more valued than another type of person. And I think that’s problematic.

So the answer (of whether or not the Twitter tax break worked) is: yes and no.

It’s certainly made some change and brought some new investment into the area. Whether that change can go as far as some folks who’ve been living in the neighborhood for decades would like it to go, I’m just not sure.

What other factors, aside from BART, did you find made mid-Market the way it is today? 

They’re all layered into one another. It’s sort of this perfect storm. There’s the flight to the suburbs, which was happening in cities all over the place, but certainly in San Francisco. That’s one of the things that even necessitated BART’s creation is this need to get people from suburban homes into their urban jobs. There was a major change in the way that the function that Market Street served in San Francisco. It had been this entertainment mecca.

On the five blocks that we focus on between 1907 and 1929, something like 18 movie theaters were built and opened. So that’s the function that part of the city played for a long time. Of course, tastes change. The big giant movie houses were no longer financially viable. They were being torn down, and that left Market Street without a real economic purpose.

And then the final factor was probably the real influx of automobiles onto a street that, although it was 120 feet wide, was never really designed with automobile traffic in mind. It just doesn’t seem to work well for cars. So all of those things contributed to changing the face and the nature of the neighborhood. 

If there was a thesis to your film, what was it?

From the very beginning, my idea was this is a really complex issue — and the more I learned about it, the more people I talked to, and the more I read — the more complex it seemed. And as things started appearing in the news about changes on Market Street, my concern was that there were people who were looking at this as though it were a black-and-white issue.

It’s clear to me, just from my general observation of having lived in the city for almost 40 years, that trying to make a change like that is never going to be easy, nor should it be easy.

And I hope that people will understand after seeing the film that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of factors that go into a revitalization effort like this. So that’s really what it was all about: Complexity.

Knowing that it is a very complex issue, did you discover any solutions? 

Solutions are tough. I discovered is that the people there all want the same thing: They want a cleaner, safer neighborhood. People who live in single-room occupancy hotels want that, and they’ve wanted it for decades. People who are newly arrived, who are living in very high end-housing — they want that. The business people who have had small businesses for decades down there — they want that. So there is this place of common ground that’s very basic: a clean, safe place to live and be. And so it seems to me that that’s a starting point.