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Arts & Culture

‘Nextdoor Was My Family’: Meet the Artists Who Brighten Up the City’s Favorite Rant App

Written by Charlotte EhrlichPublished Aug. 28, 2022 • 7:00am
Illustration by Lu Chen

English

Nextdoor—the San Francisco-based platform for neighbors and their neighborhoods—is notorious for being a host of online complaints.

It’s safe to say that every San Franciscan has either used the platform to rant or knows someone who has. Yet hidden between the lines of stolen package reports, dog barking complaints and car break-in stories, there lies a hidden gem: local artists who take to this digital space to share and spread their photography, poetry and tales of San Francisco. 

Unlike their peers on Facebook Marketplace, eBay or Craigslist, these Nextdoor users don’t sell their work, even though the platform has a “For Sale and Free” page, and it lets small businesses promote themselves. And in contrast to Instagram and Twitter, seeing bird photos, elegiac poems and woven baskets on one’s feed is a rarity on Nextdoor, making these artists stand out on the platform.

The Standard selected four artists who—while hardly representative of the demographics of this diverse city—weave one common thread through their work: Beauty all around us, even amid the ranting and raving. 

Katherine Brennan

A self-proclaimed “eternal quitter,” Katherine Brennan, a San Francisco resident for more than four decades, has never quit the idea that words can save you.

Katherine Brennan sits during a portrait session in her home in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, August 15, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

She writes nearly every day from her apartment in Lower Nob Hill—or as she calls it, The TenderTop—to give back to her neighbors, especially the homeless population. She says if she had a business card to give out, it would list her name and contact information, but her job title would simply read “helper.”

“I write about the sights I see, the sounds I hear, the heartbreak, the injustice of it all,” Brennan says. “I find that it’s almost beyond empathy.”

Most of her poems are about the homeless community, a term she exchanges with “unsheltered” or “roofless neighbor” in her writing. Her poetry tries to humanize and individualize the issue, no doubt thanks to her proximity to the Tenderloin.

“In this gnarled horror show

this ‘destination city’

visitors cascading through her rotting corpse

‘O cool grey city of love’ some poet once exclaimed

perhaps then but no longer”

– excerpt from Elegy for San Francisco, 2018

She feels the San Francisco she came to decades ago doesn’t have the “magic sparkle” it once did, but acknowledges that all cities have problems.

All the same, she’s working line by line to revive that lost enchantment. Brennan’s poetry has been a throughline as she’s held writing job after writing job to make ends meet, while crafting her first novel.

Katherine Brennan poses for a portrait in her home in San Francisco on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Not only has Brennan made close friends and found doting fans, she’s been moved by the affirmations she’s received on Nextdoor. One comment on a poem, reading “This hit differently,” amazed her, she says.

Best of all, her work is exclusive to the platform, as she deleted other social media accounts three years ago due to burnout.

“Boy, to have some folks read my work and appreciate it? It’s the best feeling on earth,” Brennan says.

David Assmann

For David Assmann, the blue-footed booby was all it took.

He calls it his “spark bird,” a term birders use to identify the species that piqued their interest in the hobby.

David Assmann poses for a portrait in his home in San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Assmann estimates he has studied around 495 species of birds that have flown through San Francisco over the past 20 years, and now he’s using Nextdoor to not only share his bird photography but to educate his neighbors on birds both native and passing through the city.

“A lot of people don’t realize how full of bird life San Francisco actually is,” Assmann says.

He starts his day at one of many hot bird-watching spots, like the Presidio, Lake Merced and Golden Gate Park, with his camera in hand. Since birds fly quickly, photography was the only feasible way to capture these birds, though Assmann keeps only one out of 100 photos.

David Assmann watches and photographs birds during a portrait session at Fort Mason Community Garden in San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

No photograph can stand alone. Attached to each post is commentary on the bird of the day, often something like “For the past two days, there’s been a red-whiskered bulbul at Fort Mason. This bird is native to the tropical regions of Asia, but this bird is probably a local cage escapee.”

Many Nextdoor regulars should recognize his name, as he posted a new bird picture every day during the Covid pandemic until June 16, 2021. 

“When I stopped doing it as often as I did, I had people that commented, ‘I look forward to your photo every day, and I’m sorry you’re going to do it less,’” Assmann says. 

For him, birding is the ideal hobby—and since retiring in 2014, he doesn’t even have to leave his neighborhood or home to do it. 

Stuart Berman

By day, Stuart Berman collaborates with a team of senior executives to develop ways for companies to know how customers feel about them. But—since he works remotely—Berman occasionally travels as far as the Marin Headlands for a quick photo shoot early in the morning. His subject: the Golden Gate Bridge, which he says changes each time he photographs it. 

Stuart Berman poses for a portrait in his apartment in San Francisco on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

It all started when a work colleague said, “I want to see the world through your eyes.” Berman was then inspired to begin sharing his art. 

“I realized about seven years ago that people liked my pictures and that I could put a smile on the face of somebody that I’ve never met, which just blows my mind,” he says.

Despite publicity from outlets like Stanford Magazine and National Geographic, he still keeps up his Nextdoor page. He says seeing professional pictures is a rarity on the platform, which has worked in his favor.

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Stuart Berman takes a photo of the view from his apartment with his cell phone camera in San Francisco on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

“If I can share a picture and get the reaction I get, I’d rather get that kind of exposure than working on my website and selling one more print,” he says.

Photography has remained a constant, even after an owner move-in eviction five years ago. He decided his new apartment needed to have one thing: a great view of the bridge. Sometimes, he posts photos taken right outside his window.

Berman hopes his work is a reminder to Nextdoor neighbors that anyone can take photos. 

“Most of us have everything in our pocket that we need to capture beauty in the world,” he says. 

With one more message to his neighbors, he sees his work as a breath of fresh air amid the endless stream of negativity social media can encourage.

“I want to show everyone that all this stuff may be happening, but we happen to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he says. “It’s easy to forget that.”

Robert Starkey

Starkey boasts many titles: LGBTQ+ advocate, writer, photographer, traveler and dog lover. But online, he calls himself “Nextdoor in San Francisco,” and it seems that San Francisco would agree. His presence on the platform seemed to grow overnight.

Robert Starkey poses for a portrait in his home in Pacific Heights in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Starkey uses Nextdoor to post his photography and tell stories to his neighbors.| Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Starkey, a city resident for more than 40 years, joined Nextdoor to post photos he took of the sunrise and sunset from a park near his home in Pacific Heights. One photo collection he posted received more than 4,000 likes. 

“For Nextdoor, 4,000 likes is a lot,” he says.

Starkey dipped his toe deeper into the platform and discovered the world of online storytelling, documenting his life in a Nextdoor series called “The Story of Bob.” Chapter after chapter, his profile received more and more attention, until he reached number 64 this past June.

Robert Starkey walks in the Pacific Heights neighborhood during a portrait session in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Some of his chapters relive years spent traveling around Europe in the ’80s and ’90s, narrating memories like teaching yoga classes in a 13th-century Venetian castle on the island of Crete.

Yet Starkey is a Bay Area native at heart, and in most of his chapters, he relives tragic memories that only neighbors could understand—losing friends through the AIDS epidemic and watching towns burn during the 2017 fires in the North Bay, for example.

Robert Starkey poses for a portrait at Alta Plaza park in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Through storytelling, he’s connected with hundreds of neighbors. And when he was diagnosed with bone cancer in February 2019, he says, “Nextdoor was my family.” 

“Many people who follow me have cancer also and have gone through more than I have. We pass advice back and forth,” he says. 

He’s once received more than 25 get-well cards in one day from his Nextdoor neighbors. Although Starkey has spent 14 months in and out of UCSF San Francisco and a Sonoma nursing home, he brightens up the Nextdoor feed with weekly photos of the view from his chemo infusion chair—a habit that’s attracted support from hundreds of neighbors.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story to specify that Stu Berman’s eviction was the result of the owner moving into the unit, and to clarify the times of day when he pursues photography.

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