BEHIND THE SCENES with David Boyer

BEHIND THE SCENES with David Boyer

Where did the idea to make a serialized podcast documenting just one intersection come from?

THE INTERSECTION began as a one-off story in 2014. I was a fellow in KALW’s Audio Academy, and my editor Ben Trefny asked me to do a piece about a place in San Francisco that was just being reached by the latest wave of development. I ended up at an intersection in the Bayview district where there was a new organic pizza joint, a combo KFC-Taco Bell, an old black Baptist church and a non-profit that helps neighborhood kids get into college. Standing on that corner, I could see the past, present and future; this one intersection captured the sweep of change and hinted at the specific ways it impacts different lives. After I graduated from the Audio Academy, I was looking for a big idea, a concept broad and flexible enough to maintain my interest and allow me to produce all kinds of stories. THE INTERSECTION was an obvious choice. I sensed that any intersection—be it in San Francisco or Istanbul—could tell a compelling and unique story.

I initially intended to do a series of stories from different intersections around the Bay Area. But I had a conversation with Alex Blumberg at the last Third Coast Conference, and he suggested I spend more time in one place. It was the permission and push I needed to go deeper, to not be in a rush. And it made sense: there were and are plenty of people doing shorter pieces about discrete by-products of gentrification, but few have the time and space to consider how these pieces fit together. I also wanted to come at it from a different angle, so I decided to begin somewhere that seemed impervious to change. And that’s definitely the Tenderloin. It looks almost exactly like it did 20 years ago. But, of course, nothing stays the same.

Before coming to audio, you wrote for print. Why tell this story in sound?

In another life, I published a couple of oral histories—one about gay people and prom, the other about bachelor parties. Fun fact: I named my one-eyed shih-tzu Studs after Mr. Terkel and imagined I would always work in the oral history form that he pioneered. But, in 2013, I was in the early stages of an oral history about creativity and perseverance, and all of the stories read very similarly. A friend asked, “Is print the best way for your audience to access these stories?” I knew the answer as soon as I started cutting one poorly recorded interview in GarageBand; it was with a 70-something improv performer who never found fame but still loves what she does. Her passion, her commitment, her doubts, her regrets, her age, her Jewishness—you could hear it all in the recording. The difference between the print and the audio was like the difference between 2D and 3D. From that moment on, I was hooked.

I can’t imagine capturing the story of this (or any) intersection without the sounds of the streets and without the distinct speech patterns of the people who live and work there. In many ways, Stud Terkel’s focus on the stories of everyday people continues to inform my work. To hear voices of ordinary folks that are often overlooked—poor kids, homeless people, drug dealers, seniors, fast food workers, church ladies—is really powerful. And what better way to bring important issues to life and suggest what’s at stake.

You spent about a year at Golden Gate and Leavenworth, talking to residents and visitors from all walks of life. Can you talk about the process of gaining the community’s trust?

I think it’s all about time. Time breeds familiarity. It demonstrates commitment; it tells residents that their lives and stories are important and worthwhile. This is especially important in a neighborhood like the Tenderloin, which is the poorest in San Francisco, and on a corner that is notorious for drug dealing and homelessness. The area and the residents have been the subject of so many hit-and-run, hyper-sensationalized media pieces that they are understandably wary. Also, after five or six months, the drug dealers realized that I wasn’t a threat to their livelihood nor was I working with the police. Their perspectives are so rarely heard that they are convenient scapegoats and bogeymen. But, of course, the paths that led them to selling drugs on the corner are incredibly complex.

Lastly, I am a white, gay Jew from New York. I am very different from the typical person who lives and works near the corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth, so I needed to spend that much more time to really gain people’s trust and, frankly, to have a better sense of their challenges and triumphs. Put it this way: If it was a corner full of middle-aged gay writers and artists, I probably wouldn’t need to spend a year there.

This episode begins with your struggle of whether or not to explore crime and drugs in this way - worrying that it would add to the intersection’s bad reputation. What made you decide to go ahead with it? And how did you feel during the episode’s production, and its release?

Well, I was terrified when I started scouting potential intersections in the Tenderloin. I was actually planning to focus on a different intersection that had a police station on one corner, because it felt safer. But everyone I talked to in the neighborhood said, “That’s not really the Tenderloin.” The police presence made it an outlier. And one woman in particular challenged me. She literally said, “Don’t look away.” Because so many people avoid the area, rush through or avert their eyes. And that precludes any possibility for empathy and overcoming deeply ingrained misperceptions. Now, once I chose not to look away, I saw the inequalities, the structural impediments, as well as the ingenuity, the pride and commitment of the people who live there.

But it is a tricky balance. The last thing I wanted to do is hurt these people, who have already gotten a pretty raw deal. And I didn’t want to complicate the work of the amazingly dedicated service providers who, day after day, are trying to help society’s castaways. But I needed to square my affection for the people and their neighborhood with the need to capture their lives and environment warts and all. My editor Ben Trefny was a sounding board throughout and kept me honest. Still, I was definitely worried how some of the folks would respond to their stories. After each piece was released, that was my first phone call: to the subject. Almost without exception they loved it. They felt heard and that I honored their complexity. When I saw Katrina, the homeless heroin addict in Episode 1, she thanked me and hugged me with tears in her eyes. But she did have one bone to pick: Why no photo? So, we took one together and I posted it online. Turns out, she wanted to been seen, too.

Can you talk about your role in the story, how you decided how much (or how little) of yourself to include?

My inclination in print and audio is to get out of the way and let people tell their own stories. If I could have done this without narration I would have. In fact, most of my rough cuts start without narration and I only add it where I feel like it’s absolutely needed. The more complex the story, the more you hear my voice. I also found that the early, minimally narrated cuts lacked the intimacy of our actual interactions. They felt a bit bloodless or cold—like the person is telling his or her story…to no one. Plus, they didn’t reflect the reality of the situation—I was standing on a streetcorner with an expensive microphone in a neighborhood that most people in the Bay Area avoid. I needed to communicate that I felt comfortable and safe there—that I wasn’t looking away. Eventually, I started to mic myself. But I have months of tape where I’m muffled or inaudible. Lesson learned.

Has producing THE INTERSECTION changed your relationship to San Francisco in any way?

During the first dotcom boom, I hightailed it out of San Francisco for a decade. Because living in the middle of one long conversation about gentrification is depressing and grueling and just kind of yucky. It really changes the entire tone of the city. So, producing THE INTERSECTION has allowed me stay. I have a reason to be here. The closing of a beloved drag bar or the eviction of neighbor (or myself), isn’t just depressing—it’s also a story. And I have to say, I have been able to get past some of the knee-jerk, techies-are-ruining San Francisco sentiment that is pervasive. Not all techies are created equal and the reason San Francisco is changing is about more than well-paid Millennials. It’s the result of decades of government policy, the increasing desire of the middle and upper-middle classes to live in cities and so many other factors.

Any intersection secrets (anecdotes, great characters, favorite sandwiches…) that you weren’t able to include in the podcast but want to tell us about here?

Well, the city doesn’t seem to give parking tickets on that stretch of Golden Gate Avenue. True confession: After a few months, I stopped feeding the meter and/or parked in red zones. I never got a ticket, not a one.

Any chance you can tell us what intersection will you be documenting next season?

This past season was about understanding and humanizing people dealing with poverty and deprivation. Next season, we’ll be looking more closely at an intersection where people actually have some big advantages. I’m heading to Silicon Valley. I want to hear from longtime residents about what it’s like to live amidst intense changes. Before it was called Silicon Valley, it was nicknamed the Valley of Heart’s Delight, because it was full of apricot and pear orchards. Not anymore. I also want to talk to tech workers who are trying to be good neighbors. Like those drug dealers on the corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth, we rarely hear from the so-called techies with any depth or nuance. They have become scapegoats and boogeyman for a radically changing Bay Area.