This Sculpture Shows How the Tech Boom Has Upended San Francisco’s Neighborhoods

  • Image courtesy of Doug McCune.

Since 2014, San Francisco has held the dubious honor of most expensive rental market in the country. Median home prices have risen by 66% in the last four years alone, creeping as high as $1.38 million. As a result, now only 13% of San Francisco homebuyers can even afford a median-priced single-family home within the city limits.

These numbers aren’t pretty—that is, until Bay Area artist Doug McCune gets his hands on them. McCune’s most recent work manages to transform San Francisco’s soaring housing prices into a delicate, spiraling 3D print. The sculpture, which determines the height of each section based on average price per square foot at a given place on the map, reveals a city torn apart by dramatic economic disparities.

For McCune, this issue hits close to home. A programmer by trade, he and his wife had owned a house in San Francisco’s Richmond District for several years. In 2015, however, they made the decision to sell the property and move across the Bay to Oakland. The process sparked a critical examination of housing prices within the city. “Even within San Francisco, where everyone who can afford a home is, by definition, relatively rich, you see these houses listed in neighborhoods like the Marina or SoMa, and the price difference is so extreme,” McCune said. “They almost double from one point in the city to another. Even if you’ve bought into the city, the expensive parts are so out of the price range that you write those neighborhoods off. They’re not even within the realm of possibility.”

To visualize this phenomenon, McCune gathered statistics for 5,000 recent home sales from real estate database Redfin. As he divided an aerial map of San Francisco into hexagons and calculated average home prices for each section, the sculpture slowly began to take shape. Although he initially imagined the work as a series of suspended islands, McCune soon noticed a steady price increase between certain areas. A winding path emerged, linking high-cost neighborhoods to the ones below. The final design, which stands about a foot tall, took 36 hours to 3D print. 

  • Images courtesy of Doug McCune.

This isn’t McCune’s first foray into real estate market data. Discard the Poor (2015), created for a 2015 solo show at Portland’s Diode Gallery, speeds up the process of gentrification by gutting an aerial map of San Francisco of its poorest neighborhoods. Like much of McCune’s work, the wall sculpture juxtaposes an unpleasant, even messy, reality with a neatly contained data map. “I think there’s this attempt to take something that does feel very sterile and accurate—rows on a spreadsheet or dots on a map—and try to remember that it’s actual people or events,” he said of his practice.

McCune first came face-to-face with that disconnect at his programming job, where he creates maps and data visualizations of natural disasters. “I often found myself feeling divorced from reality—doing things like rooting for hurricanes as they were approaching the coast, because our business does better if the hurricanes land,” he said. “If there would be a big earthquake, I was excited to go check out the data and see how bad the shaking was. I was having these weird positive emotions and not really connecting the dots.”

So in 2010, he began to experiment with a more artistic approach to data mapping. “I started exploring ways to highlight some of the emotional punch that it has,” he explained, “because it’s so easy to forget the real-world impact.” Since then, he has mapped sex offender data in the interior of a polished wooden box and created constellations from the locations of homicides. Along with each of his finished pieces, McCune posts the source data for others to peruse—and perhaps draw their own conclusions. “Using data visualization in artwork can be a bit controversial,” McCune said. “There are often valid criticisms. It is a strange line to try and walk, when you want to present legitimate data, but you’re also trying to tell a story.”

The 3D model of his San Francisco housing prices sculpture is available for download as well, allowing interested parties to tinker with the design and even print their own version. “I have my own gut intuition about what I’ve observed in San Francisco, my own bias about what areas are expensive areas and what are not,” McCune said. “But the goal is to look at things as objectively as I can and still be able to tell a powerful narrative.”

—Abigail Cain

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