On the corner of Brannan and Embarcadero streets in San Francisco, California, an entire block is dedicated to what appears to be a Mediterranean-style condo complex.
I recently attended an Electronic Arts event there showing Crysis 3 and Battlefield 3: Close Quarters, and the unassuming architecture and building front had only one way in, through an electronic black gate. It took me a while of walking up and down the street to realise this was the entrance and the place.
It would be easy to pass by. And it would be normally safe to assume that wealthy, upper class people live the good life there. The valuable real estate faces the East Bay Bridge right across the street from the Embarcadero piers.
That assumption would be flat wrong.
The 600 Embarcadero Street address is home of the Delancey Street Foundation, a unique self-help organisation designed to turn around the lives of former substance abusers, homeless, ex-convicts, and gang members. "The Average resident has been a hard-core drug user and alcohol abuser, has been in prison, is unskilled, functionally illiterate, and has a personal history of violence and generations of poverty," states the site's FAQ.
And, it appears, it's an excellent location to demo video games.
"Delancey Street is a great venue," said Peter Nguyen, director of PR, EA Games Label. "There are only so many venues with theatres in San Francisco. There is Dolby, the Metreon, which is a big theatre but nothing else, and Delancey Street. We showed off Bulletstorm there about three years ago, and with Crysis 3, we wanted an intimate setting, easy access, and we needed that theatre setting. We have that at EA, but we wanted to spice it up."
Delancey Street started in 1971 with four people. For more than four decades, it has been an award-winning, widely acclaimed social organisation that's received hundreds of civic, social, and educational awards, as well as having appeared on The Oprah Show, The Discovery Channel, and in The New York Times, Hope Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. During its 40-year existence, more than 14,000 men and women have graduated from it to become lawyers, firemen, salespeople, truck drivers, mechanics, and realtors.
The unique social program takes in the disenfranchised and, in either a two- or four-year program, educates, trains, and graduates them back into mainstream society as functioning, non-violent, drug and alcohol free citizens. Graduates, many of whom cannot even repeat the alphabet, or are lifetime gang members and murderers, or have been reared as prostitutes over several generations, will earn a minimum high school equivalency degree (GED) and receive training in three marketable skills. Four-year graduates can earn an in-house B.A. achieved with accredited universities. Those accepted into the program live on the premises and work for free — and remain drug, alcohol, and crime free.
The "three marketable skills" comprise one interpersonal/sales skill, one clerical/computer skill, and one manual skill. There are current 15 vocational programs. They include accounting and bookkeeping; automotive and truck mechanical repair and painting; Christmas tree sales and commercial decorating; coach and paratransit transportation services; coffeehouse, art gallery, and bookstore retail; construction and property management; digital printing and banners, silk-screen, and framing; film screening; handcrafted wood, terrarium, iron works, and furniture work; moving and trucking; retail and advertising specialities sales; restaurant, catering, event and wedding planning; upholstery/sewing; warehousing, and welding.
This remarkable organisation mixes idealistic concepts with hard, realistic practices. But its social model — "each one teach one" — which focuses on self-reliance, family, and community, is what makes it run. Designed as an educational rather than therapeutic paradigm, Delancey is a life learning centre. People start from the bottom up and learn to work together as a unit. Each person must teach the other: older residents guide younger ones, and more experienced residents educate newer ones. For example, new residents are responsible for guiding the next new resident. Perhaps even more important — there are no paid staff members, and everyone works.
So just exactly how do former drug addicts, criminals and gang members live and work together peacefully? In addition to the "each one teach one" principle is another one: any act of violence, or threat of violence, is cause for immediate removal from the program. Over time, the facility starts early entrants in dorm-rooms and moves them up to their own apartment rooms.
Delancey Street's economic model is also impressive. Neither the residents nor the president of the foundation are paid. The group pools its resources and has never accepted government funds for its operations. Its 12 ventures, which range from the Crossroads Cafe, Bookstore and Gallery, its catering service, private car service, moving and trucking operations, landscaping, and screening room services — including the $US150/hour theatre we sat in — fund about 55-65 per cent of the operation.
About 25-35 per cent of funds come from corporate donations of product or services, and approximately 5%-15% of funds come from financial donations. The most recent audit shows 98.6 per cent of Delancey Street's expenditures were allocated to programs, with 1.4% to administration and funding.
It's hard to imagine such an idyllic place even exists — and just how many successes its founders and residents have experienced. The 400,000 square foot facility currently houses more than 500 residents, was built in 1990 in the south of Market Street area (known as SoMa), where then-Mayor Diane Feinstein dug the first shovel-full of dirt at the foundation's groundbreaking ceremony, and Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic Allen Temko has called it "a masterpiece of social design."
Since its humble beginnings of a $US1000 loan in 1971, Delancey Street has expanded its operations beyond San Francisco. It runs similar facilities in Los Angeles, New Mexico, North Carolina and New York. All this built on the idea of taking down-and-out people deemed unfit for society, and empowering them with a sense of community and family, giving them work — and a sense of dignity.
The screening room where we saw Crysis 3 — and where three years ago EA debuted Bulletstorm — is a 150-seat, THX certified screening room offering Simplex 35mm projectors and digital video projection, a stage, and a 24' X 11' screen. It's considered one of the three best screening rooms in San Francisco.
It's the the place where the Director's Guild holds monthly screenings, where the Academy of Motion Pictures holds screenings, and where singer Bonnie Raitt, director Ron Howard, and actors such as Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Dennis Quaid, and Charlize Theron have held private parties.
"I always knew about the [Delancey Street] restaurant because I used to live close to it," added Nguyen. "So when we started looking for places to show Bulletstorm [in 2010], we saw the great menu and their social cause. It's an added bonus. More power to them. We like working with them: they are very professional and accommodating."
I can tell you that learning about, and experiencing, the property and people at Delancey Street was touching. I'm generally a positive guy, but The Delancey Street experience inspired me to look into its amazing story. Every one of the people in the Cafe and in the theatre was positive and professional. It made me feel hopeful about humanity.
To my knowledge in this industry, only EA has used this venue to show off games. Compared to the dozens of often dirty, sticky, cramped bars and saloons in San Francisco, it's not only an ideal location due to its proximity to CalTrain and the Embarcadero piers, but spending money to better humanity — a theme similar to the many games themselves, despite the violent means of getting there — seems like the kind of good will we could all get used to.
Douglass C Perry, former EIC at IGN, is a freelance writer and journalist. You can tweet him @douginsano.