The test of the Tenderloin

Pub date September 28, 2010

This is a story about love and money. Or a story about love, money, and location. — Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City (Verso 2000)

It’s a sunny day in the most maligned neighborhood in San Francisco. I’m walking down a busy sidewalk with an excited Randy Shaw, long-time housing advocate. He’s giving me a tour of his Tenderloin.

“There’s history everywhere you look here,” he notes as we rush about the dingy blocks of one of the city’s most densely populated, economically bereft communities. In a half-untucked navy button-down and square-frame glasses, Shaw reels off evidence of this legacy faster than I can write it down and still maintain our walking pace.

To our left, Hyde Street Studios, where the Grateful Dead recorded its 1970 album American Beauty. Across the street, a ramshackle building that once housed Guido Caccienti’s Black Hawk nightclub, where the sounds of jam-fests by the likes of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane would echo out onto the streets during its heyday in the 1950s. Throughout its history, the Tenderloin has been renowned for its nightlife: music, theater, sex work — and the social space that occurs between them.

Shaw came to the Tenderloin 30 years ago as a young law student and founded and built the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit agency that is now one of the largest property owners in the neighborhood and employs more than 250 full-time workers. Shaw has spent the last few decades fighting to improve conditions in the single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, once notorious for malfunctioning heating systems and mail rooms that would dump the letters for their hundreds of low-income residents into a pile on the floor rather than fit them into personal lock boxes (which now line the walls of THC’s lobbies).

But that activism isn’t the reason for this tour. No, today Shaw is showing me why tourism can work in the Tenderloin. The heavy iron gate of an SRO is quickly buzzed open as the doorman recognizes him. Inside, working-class seniors mill about aided by walkers — this particular property is an old folks’ home — but over our heads, affixed to a majestically high ceiling, looms a triple-tiered glass and metal chandelier, evidence of the area’s architecturally important past.

“When I show people this,” Shaw smiles at my amazement at this bling in a nonprofit apartment building, “they’re amazed at the quality of the housing.” Further down the road, we peep in at a vividly Moorish geometric vaulted ceiling and a lobby that once housed a boxing gym where Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali liked to spar. Both are now home to the inner city’s poorest residents.

Of course, it’s not just tours that we’re talking when it comes to Shaw’s plans for the future. Shaw has acquired a 6,400-square-foot storefront in the Cadillac Hotel on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets, where he plans to open the Uptown Tenderloin Museum in 2012. He says it will showcase the hood’s historical legacy as well as house a nighttime music venue in the basement. The increased foot traffic, he says, will do good things for public safety (a problem that has been identified as a high priority by the resident-run Tenderloin Neighborhood Association) and bring business to the neighborhood’s impressive collection of small ethnic restaurants.

An increased focus on the Tenderloin’s heritage and public image, Shaw says, will translate to more jobs and a better quality of life for the people who live here. “My goal is to have this be the first area in an American city where low income people have a high quality of life,” he says.

If Shaw is correct, it will indeed be a first. Many cities have attempted to transform low income areas with arts districts — and the end result has typically been the displacement of the poorer residents. Coalition on Homelessness director Jennifer Friedenbach described the process: “Gentrification follows a very specific path. First come police sweeps, then the arts, then the displacement. That’s the path that we’re seeing. Hopefully we’ll be able to avoid the displacement part,” she says.

It’d be great if the Tenderloin took the road less traveled — but will it?

Shaw’s best-case scenario seems unlikely, according to Chester Hartman, a renowned urban planning scholar and author of the numerous studies of San Francisco history and the activist handbook Displacement: How to Fight It (National Housing Law Project 1982). Hartman doubts the Tenderloin will remain a housing option for the city’s poor, given its central location and market trends. “The question is, what proportion will move and what will stay?” he said in a phone interview.

Earlier this summer, the National Endowment of the Arts awarded the SF Arts Commission $250,000 toward an arts-based “revitalization of the mid-Market neighborhood.” The area, which is adjacent to the Tenderloin, is considered by many to be the more outwardly visible face of the TL. In truth, the two neighborhoods share many of the same issues and public characteristics, including high density living and prominent issues with drugs.

Amy Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s director of neighborhood business development, said the Newsom administration is using the money “to implement arts programming that would have an immediate impact on the street. These activities would then build momentum for the longer-term projects.” At this point, plans for that “immediate impact” have started with the installation of lights on Market Street between Sixth and Eighth streets. Two other projects are also in effect: a city-sponsored weekly arts market on United Nations Plaza and an al fresco public concert series.

It’s hard to distinguish these moves from a general trend toward rebranding the image of the Tenderloin. These streets have already seen Newsom announce a historic preservation initiative that put $15,000 worth of commemorative plaques on buildings; it was also announced they would be added to the National Register of Historic Places, a move that allows property owners deep tax cuts for building renovations.

Cohen said her office has spent time trying to attract a supermarket (something the neighborhood, although flush with corner stores, currently lacks), but efforts seem to be faltering. “Grocery store operators and other retailers perceive that the area is unsafe and have expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers,” Cohen said. “The arts strategy makes sense because it builds on the assets that are there. Cultivating the performing and visual arts uses that are already succeeding will ultimately enhance the neighborhood’s ability to attract restaurants, retail, and needed services like grocery stores.”

These days, many of the small businesses in the area have window signs hyping “Uptown Tenderloin: Walk, Dine, Enjoy” over graphics of jazzy, people-free high-rises. Looking skyward, one observes the recent deployment of tidy street banners funded by the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District that pay homage to the number of untouched historic buildings in the neighborhood. The banners read “409 historic buildings in 33 blocks. Yeah, we’re proud.”

Figuring out who benefits from these new bells and whistles can seem baffling at times. Even the museum plan, which Shaw says will draw inspiration in part from New York’s Tenement Museum, has drawn criticism. A July San Francisco Magazine blog post was subtitled “An indecent proposal that puzzled even the San Francisco Visitors Bureau” and likened Shaw’s attempts to the “reality tourism movement” that takes travelers through gang zones in L.A. and poverty-stricken townships in South Africa.

This seems to be a misconstruction of what he’s attempting. “You know what no one ever calls out? The Mission mural tours, the Chinatown tours,” Shaw says.

And Shaw scoffs when I bring up that PR bane of the urban renewer: gentrification. He takes me through a brief rundown of the strict zoning laws in the Tenderloin, adding that many people don’t believe that poor people have the right to live in a high-quality neighborhood: “I haven’t been down here for 30 years to create a neighborhood no one wants to live in.”

Indeed, thanks to the efforts of Shaw and others, it would be hard for even the most determined developers to get rid of the SRO housing in the Tenderloin.

In the 1980s, community activists struggled to change the zoning designation of the neighborhood, which lacked even a name on many city maps. The area was zoned for high-rise buildings and was being encroached on by the more expensive building projects of tourist-filled Union Square, Civic Center, and the wealthier Nob Hill neighborhood. Their success came in the form of 1990s Residential Hotel Anti-Conversion Ordinance, which placed strict limits on landlords flipping their SROs into more expensive housing.

Hartman remains unconvinced of the efficacy of the protective measures activists have won in years past; indeed, even SRO rental prices have soared. According to the Central City SRO Collaborative, in the decade after the Anti-Conversion Ordinance, rental prices increased by 150 percent, not only pricing residents out of the Tenderloin but out of the city. “Where do they move?” Hartman asked. “It’s probably the last bastion of low-income housing in the city. That changes the class composition of the city.”

“The neighborhood has been changing slowly but steadily,” says District Six Sup. Chris Daly when reached by e-mail for comment on the Tenderloin’s future. He writes that rents in the neighborhood have been consistently rising and that several condo development proposals have crossed his desk. Daly has been involved in negotiating “community benefits” and quotas for low income housing in past mid-Market housing projects, but has been disappointed by subsequent affordable housing levels in projects like Trinity Plaza on the corner of Sixth and Market streets. In terms of the Tenderloin, he said, “it is untrue to say that the neighborhood is immune from gentrifying forces. It is shielded, but not immune.”

But some see the influx of art-based attention to the area as a possible boon to residents. Debra Walker, a San Franciscan artist who is running for the District 6 supervisor post, said she believes arts can be used “organically to resolve some of the chronic problems in the Tenderloin, street safety being the primary one in my mind.”

Though most of her fellow candidates expressed similar views when contacted for this story, western SoMa neighborhood activist Jim Meko said he thinks artists in the area are being used to line the pockets of the real estate industry. “The idea of creating an arts district is an amenity that the real estate dealers want to see because it makes the neighborhood less scary for their upper class audience” he says.

The area clearly has a rich legacy of nightlife, arts, and theater. The Warfield is here, as is American Conservatory Theater, the Orpheum, and the Golden Gate. So is the unofficial center of SF’s “off-off Broadway district,” which includes Cutting Ball Theater and Exit Theater. The Exit has been located in the TL since its first performance in 1983, held in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel, and sponsors the neighborhood’s yearly Fringe Festival. There are art galleries and soup kitchens, youth and age, and more shouted greetings on the streets than you’ll hear anywhere else in the city.

No one is more aware of this diversity of character than Machiko Saito, program director of Roaddawgz, a TL creative drop-in center and resource referral service for homeless youth. I met Saito in the Roaddawgz studio, which occupies a basement below Hospitality House, a homeless community center that also houses a drop-in self-help center, an employment program, men’s shelter and art studio for adults in transition.

Despite its being empty in the morning before the open hours that bring waves of youth to its stacks of paints and silk-screens, Roaddawgz is in a glorious state of bohemian dishevelment that implies a well-loved space. It could be a messy group studio if not for the load-bearing post in the center of the room covered with flyers for homelessness resource centers and a “missing” poster signed “your Mom loves you.”

We talk about how important it is that the kids Saito works with have a place like this, a spot where they can create “when all you want to do is your art and if you can’t you’ll die.” A career artist herself, she cuts a dramatic figure in black, safety pins, and deep red lipstick painted into a striking cupid’s bow. Her long fingernails tap the cluttered desk in front of her as she tells me stories from the high-risk lives that Roaddawgz youth come to escape: eviction, cop harassment, theft, rape.

The conversation moves to some of the recent developments in the area. Saito and I recently attended an arts advisory meeting convened by the Tenderloin Economic Development Corporation’s executive director, Elvin Padilla, who has received praise from many of the TL types I spoke with regarding his efforts to connect different factions of the community. Attendees ranged from a polished representative from ACT, which is considering building another theater, for students, in a space on Market and Mason streets, to heralded neighborhood newbies Grey Area Foundation, to Saito and longtime community art hub Luggage Store’s cofounder Darryl Smith. Talk centered on sweeping projects that could develop a more cohesive “identity” for the neighborhood.

I ask Saito how it felt for her to be involved with a group whose vision of the neighborhood might be focused on slightly different happenings than what she lives through Roaddawgz. She says she’s been to gatherings in the past where negative things about the Tenderloin were highlighted. Of Padilla’s arts advisory meeting, she says, “I think that one of the reasons I wanted to go was that it’s important [for attendees] to remember that there’s a community out there. Things can get really complicated. It’s hard to come up with decisions that affect everyone positively. If we’re going to say, ‘The homeless are bad; the drug addicts are bad; the business owners that don’t beautify their storefronts…” She trails off for a moment. “I don’t want to lose the heart of the Tenderloin.”

In yet another Tenderloin basement — this one housing the North of Market-Tenderloin CBD, an organization that is known for its work employing ex-addicts and adults in transition — Rick Darnell has created the Tenderloin Art Lending Library. The library accepts donated works from painters and makes them available for use by Tenderloin residents, many of whom have recently moved into their SRO housing and are in need of a homey touch.

Darnell is rightfully ecstatic at the inclusive nature of his library, but has been hurt over its reception at an arts advisory meeting he attended to publicize its creation. “Someone whispered under their breath ‘I would never lend anything to anyone in the Tenderloin,’ ” he tells me. The exclusion that Saito and Darnell sometimes feel highlights the reality that the definition of the Tenderloin might well vary, even among those who are set on making it “a better place.” The arts community appears to suffer from fractures that appear along the lines of where people live, their organizational affiliation, their housing status, and how they think art should play a role in community building.

Sammy Soun is one Tenderloin resident who would welcome an increased focus on art in the Tenderloin. Soun was born in a Thailand refugee camp to Cambodian parents fleeing the civil wars in their country. He grew up in the Tenderloin, where his family lived packed into small studios and apartments.

But he was part of a community, with plenty of support, and lives in the neighborhood to this day, as do one of his four siblings and his daughter. Soun paints, does graffiti, draws — he’s considering transferring from City College to the San Francisco Art Institute. He has worked at the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club for nine years, giving back to the kids he says “are the future. They’re going to be the ones that promote this place or keep it going — if they want to.” His sister, cousins, and uncles still live in the neighborhood. You might say he has a vested interest in the area’s future.

He finds the incoming resources for the Tenderloin arts scene to be a mixed bag. Soun has never been to the Luggage Store, although it’s one of the longtime community art hubs in the area. He can’t relate to the kinds of art done at the neighborhood’s recent digital arts center, Grey Area Foundation for the Arts, though he says the space has contacted him and friends to visit. His disconnect from the arts scene implies that future arts projects need to work harder on their community outreach — or even better, planning — with artists who call the Tenderloin home.

But Soun loves the new Mona Caron mural the CBD sponsored on the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue. Well-known for her panoramic bike path mural behind the Church Street Safeway, Caron painted “Windows into the Tenderloin” after dozens of interviews and tours of the neighborhood with community members. Its “before and after” panels are a dummies’ guide for anyone seeking input on ways to strengthen the Tenderloin community — though the “after” does show structural changes like roads converted into greenways and roof gardens sending tendrils down the sides of buildings, the focal point is the visibility of families. Where children were ushered through empty parking lots single-file in the “before” section, the second panel shows families strolling, children running, a space that belongs to them.

Our interview is probably the first time somebody has asked Soun where he thinks arts funding in the Tenderloin should go. “For projects by the kids in the community,he said.

Truth be told, more art of any kind can only make the Tenderloin a better place — but if you’re trying to improve quality life, focus needs to be on plans that positively affect residents of all ages — art can be a vital part of that, but it should be one part of a plan that ensures rent control, safe conditions, and access to services. After all, if you’re going to rebrand the Tenderloin, you might want to look at the painting on the wall.