Surviving In A Sea Of Wealth: San Francisco’s Tenderloin Endures Change, Protects Housing, And Looks To The Future

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)— After the Great Earthquake and fire of 1906 through World War II, San Francisco’s Tenderloin was considered the ‘Paris of the West’. The centrally-located district, pocketed between several affluent neighborhoods like Union Square, Nob Hill and South of Market has seen drastic change since that time and has gained a less than savory reputation for open drug dealing, drug use and violent crime.

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, says the widespread perception is that if you’re low-income (like many of the district’s residents—According to guidelines, $50,000 a year is low-income for San Francisco), you have to live with a lot of crime and that low-income people don’t have nice neighborhoods.

“We’re sort of challenging that perception with the Tenderloin,” says Shaw who champions the working-class and diverse neighborhood. He’s also an attorney, community housing activist and the author of several books including his latest, ‘The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco’.

Surrounded by affluent areas, Shaw explains how this gritty pocket, now known for SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels, addicts and the homeless came to be and that the new Uptown Tenderloin Museum, opening July 16th in the heart of the district, will tell much of that story.

The museum, located in the Cadillac Hotel on Leavenworth and Eddy streets, is the site where boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman used to train at Newman’s Gym inside the hotel. Miles Davis used to frequent it in swankier days and later on, Grateful Dead member Jerry Garcia lived there (The band would also record their classic album, American Beauty, in a Tenderloin recording studio).

“The Cadillac served as the first non-profit residential hotel, an SRO, west of Chicago,” he says. But the history goes deeper; from its former reputation as a well-known gambling hub and its conspicuous name, the district has seen plenty of change.

“The Tenderloin has had economic troubles the last four or five decades. When the city was built after the 1906 earthquake and fire, in 1907 through World War II and into the ‘50s— the Tenderloin was one of the great neighborhoods in San Francisco.”

“We are America’s last Tenderloin, because of urban renewal,” Shaw explains. “There used to be Tenderloin Districts all over America. There’s obviously no more Tenderloin District in Manhattan anymore.”

He says the name came from a police officer in New York in 1869. “When ‘Clubber’ Williams found out he was being transferred to a heavy vice district, he said he’d been eating chuck, but now he’d be able to afford tenderloin— the highest grade of beef.”

Shaw talks of a time when people wore suits to restaurants and clubs (of course there were other [illegal] activities going on in the restaurant). “There’d be cordoned-off booths and after you finished your meal, you’d walk upstairs and have some companionship,” he says.

The district predated the roaring ‘20s with its anti-establishment nature and has a long history of being on the edge of conservative culture.

“There were brothels, but these were custom and part of the time.” He says the district had a history of independent working women who lived in the SROs in the 1910’s and that, that caused a backlash from the establishment. “They didn’t have private bathrooms, so unmarried women were sharing bathroom facilities with single men.”

Later, women would be banned from drinking alcohol in public unless they were accompanied by a man.

The end of gambling in San Francisco signified a decline for the district. Shaw says it was seen as a move to “modernize the city”.

Market Street started to go wayward by the ‘50s because television and suburban culture encroached on what had been movie house and theater territory. “Suddenly we no longer had anyone coming to the Tenderloin. [City Hall] took away the cable cars and that sent us on a descent.”

Instead of embracing and expanding upon legendary establishments like The Black Hawk Jazz Club and Original Joe’s, the district was seen as ‘in the way’ and complicated access to destinations like Union Square.

“Really from the late 1950s to early ‘60s until about five years ago, neither the Tenderloin, nor Mid-Market, had a clear function in the San Francisco economy.” But of course that all changed when Twitter moved in to the Mid-Market area.

Areas that have low-income and more affordable housing remain on the edge and outskirts of the city, but the Tenderloin is unique because it’s located right in the center of the city. Shaw explains how the area has survived, surrounded by a sea of wealth.

With Twitter opening the floodgates to another tech boom and the housing developments that have come with it, the neighborhood is now at a crux, trying to find a balance of fending off gentrification, but also trying to revitalize and create a safer space and image.

Shaw estimates that over one-third of the district’s housing is off the speculative market.

“The Tenderloin was very proactive in getting laws passed to protect its residential hotels.” Height limitations prevented office building and new tourist hotels. In addition, non-profit housing groups and religious organizations bought up a lot of the property. “We’re always going to have one-third, low-income, minimum. People like the Tenderloin the way it is, but it has to get better. We have too much crime, too much public drug dealing and we don’t have enough business investment.”

He suggests more restaurants, bars and things like the museum that would create what he calls positive foot traffic.

“The gentry like to own and we don’t really have ownership opportunities. We have one single- family home, built in the 1950s and very few flats.”

Despite the popular and massively expanding Philz Coffee moving into the neighborhood with two locations, Shaw says the Tenderloin will never be a “hipster place” that some people think it’s going to become and expects it to remain working class.

Over 409 of its buildings are protected and in the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s a place where people can afford to be, but the new challenge is to make it a place where people want to be. Some argue it’s a mess and that it should see “improvements” like other nearby neighborhoods such as Hayes Valley.

Shaw lauds Mayor Ed Lee and says the Tenderloin hasn’t had positive mayor involvement over the last 75 years, but that it’s Lee who wants to do positive things.

He says the common perception is ‘Gentrification is inevitable and you can’t do anything about it.’ “Well that’s not true, because how did the Tenderloin get saved?” he asks.

“It can be done, but you have to pass laws; anti-demolition laws. Don’t wait until projects are proposed under the standing laws. Look at the books and get the laws changed before it’s too late.”

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