The story of how I came to live in a condemned, haunted building on Skid Row in San Francisco, and create paintings there, is too long and complex to tell in this post. But there is a special painting, a memory, inspired by the ghosts of those long-ago years that I’d like to tell you about.
But first, the Reno Hotel. It was as wide as a city block and when it was alive and still breathing in this world, it stood on 6th Street between Mission and Howard. During the late 1960’s, in addition to the Tenderloin, 6th Street was The City’s home for winos, prostitutes, street hustlers, liquor stores, flophouse hotels and porn theatres. The Reno did not cater to transients; it was a residential hotel, home for truck drivers, longshoremen, pensioners, men and women without families. Many had lived there for years and the Reno was the only home they had. Until it was stopped by a class action lawsuit, San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency radically changed the neighborhoods south of Market Street by condemning dozens of residential hotels like the Reno. What you see in the photo above is only the skeleton of the home the Reno had been for its residents before they were evicted. In time it came to be the home of several artists as well, until a few years later when it was finally destroyed by fire.
The ground floor consisted of the lobby and front desk of the hotel, a bicycle repair shop, Louie’s Liquor and Groceries, a prizefighting gymnasium, The New Home Baptist Church and Nicholas Refrigeration Repairs. In the three stories above the ground floor there were at least 400 rooms, although the exact number was difficult to calculate. After the residents had been expelled, the upper floors were gutted: all sinks, tubs and toilets, all electrical fittings, including switches and light bulbs, were removed and the rooms became empty shells. Except for the ones I remodeled and lived in, quite illegally.
When I moved in to the Reno in the autumn of 1970, Louie’s store, the church and the bicycle shop still existed, but the other spaces had been rented to artists. In all, there were a dozen or so of us who occupied the place on a continual basis: 2 sculptors, a jazz pianist, 2 film makers, and a couple of painters. All of them lived on the ground floor– with plumbing and electricity– paid their rent ($40 per month for one of the sculptor’s studios) so they were legal residents. I lived on the top floor, courtesy of my friends, paid no rent, so I was illegal. Other than my friends, not even the Reno’s owner, knew I and my girlfriend lived there in what was left of fourteen rooms I demolished to build her a studio and darkroom, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a painting studio for myself. No shower or bath, but we were welcome to use the sauna the film makers constructed in their studio on the ground floor.
The words, living in the hotel on a “continual basis” are misleading. Everything was uncertain. We were under constant threats, first of all from the building’s owner, who, after gutting the structure, was prevented by the lawsuit from demolishing it. He was content to rent the ground floor to artists temporarily to keep out the winos, but he was always on the lookout for more upscale tenants. We were raided once by the police, who suspected we were selling what they called “contraband.” Then there were the intruders who found the most ingenious ways to get into the building. They, and the winos, were our biggest fears because San Francisco nights are notoriously cold and we were afraid the winos would try to get warm by building a fire. (This fear became all too real after the abandoned building next to the Reno was nearly destroyed by a fire set by intruders.) We were constantly on high alert.
But in spite of the police, the landlord, building inspectors, fire marshals, intruders and the awareness that the lawsuit could be settled at any time and we would be evicted, we all thrived in the Reno Hotel. For nearly five years it was my refuge and this painting was inspired by those times and the affection I felt for the place and for its ghosts.
The corner of the room is copied from one of the rooms I destroyed to make my studio. The high rise buildings in the distance came from a black and white photo from the San Francisco Chronicle, so they exist somewhere, but not in relation to the buildings in the painting. The dress came from a dream I had about the painting and which I borrowed from my wife in order to paint it. The words Rosa and the flowers? I don’t know where they came from: so much of what I paint is a mystery. I was just trying to create an image that would express a mood of nostalgia and loss.
As for the Reno, I moved out and eventually so did the rest of the artists. We were all gone when, in the early morning hours of 6 September, 1979, the Reno took its last breath in gasoline fumes and fire. The type might be too small to read, but the headline tells the story all too well.
For several years there was only an enormous hole in the ground infested with weeds where the Reno had lived and sheltered so many lives. But the last time I walked down 6th Street I was happy to see that a new building had been constructed on the site. It’s a neighborhood center and if you pause for a moment where the lobby of the hotel used to be you can hear the laughter of children in the gym inside playing basketball.