I used to love the Tenderloin,
Till I made some tender coin…
San Francisco is my adopted city and as of this past September 9th I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than half my life.
For the past twenty years I’ve lived in the “country”, an hour north of the “city but I still consider San Francisco to be my home town. I spend less time there than I’d like to unfortunately. When we work there we tend to commute in and out. After reviewing the schedule for our gig this past week however we decided that based on the late nights and early mornings we’d spend those five days in the city just as we would for an out-of-town gig.
We stayed at the Hilton Hotel Downtown Union Square – which is neither located downtown nor in Union Square. The Hilton is on O’Farrell Street between Taylor and Mason in a neighborhood more commonly known as The Tenderloin. The marketing geniuses from the Hilton Corporation knew that they would not sell many rooms if they called it the Hilton Hotel Tenderloin. It would be akin to trying to sell rooms at the Hilton Hotel South Bronx or the Hilton Hotel South Central LA. Certain neighborhoods in certain cities have reputations that precede them and The Tenderloin is one of those neighborhoods.
The first morning I walked out the door of the Hilton I was approached by no fewer than five “street people” looking for spare change or a cigarette. Most people would feel uncomfortable at least, frightened at worst. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t feel uncomfortable walking the streets of the Tenderloin early that morning. I have been removed from it for twenty years. The last full-time job I held before starting my business was working right there in the heart of the Tenderloin for six years. I was the Administrative Assistant to the Vice President of Marketing for a small group of boutique hotels, four of the five in the Tenderloin.
For the last three years of my employment with this group I worked out of one of their Tenderloin properties, The Atherton Hotel. It was located at 685 Ellis Street, on the corner of Larkin. I remember well the challenge of marketing hotels in a dubious neighborhood. At one point it was suggested that we “rename” the area the hotels were located in to “Lower Nob Hill”. When my original boss left, the genius that took her place wanted to do a campaign surrounding Dashiell Hammett, one of the Tenderloin’s more notorious residents. Deceptively renaming a neighborhood and making an alcoholic author of pulpy detective fiction the center of an ad campaign was not going to sell rooms in a hotel whose front windows faced a sex shop that tirelessly advertised its sale of inflatable sheep in large letters on its marquis. Despite the relative film of hopelessness and despair that covered this neighborhood we managed to put heads in those beds. The hotels were clean and quaint, most rooms were renovated and they were priced at lower rates than their competitors in Union Square. Most important though, that seedy neighborhood is one of the most centrally located to all that San Francisco has to offer. Walk east a few blocks and you’ll be at the Powell Street Cable Car turn-around and the tony shopping of Union Square. Walk south and you’ll find yourself on bustling Market Street or at the Moscone Convention Center. Walk west and you’ll be at Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. If you are a fan of Asian food you’ll never go hungry here – hundreds of small noodle shops, Dim Sum parlors and Pho Houses each offering up yummy for the tummy delicacies under $10.00 per plate.
In all that walking around you will certainly come in contact one way or another with the neighborhood’s local color. The homeless, the residents of the myriad of SROs that line the streets, the hookers – transvestite and otherwise – they are all part of the scenery. Twenty years after I left the Tenderloin they are still there. In 1987 Mayor Art Agnos held a symposium addressing the homeless problem in San Francisco. It was there that I learned who exactly made up that population. Some were down on their luck folks, rendered homeless by some reversal of fortune. Some were alcoholics or drug addicts, panhandling one fix to the next. Some were mentally ill, released to the streets after Napa State Mental Hospital was closed down. The upshot of it all was there was little anyone could really do as two-thirds of the homeless population would accept the little help offered to them. They would wander the streets carrying on conversations with their invisible friends or yelling up into the heavens until they lay their head down on the concrete pillow of their choice, swathed in newspaper and cardboard.
Directly across the street from the Hilton is Glide Memorial Methodist Church and on this morning hundreds are lined up waiting for breakfast. In 1929 Methodist philanthropist Lizzie Glide purchased the property and construction of the church was completed in 1931. In 1963 a young minister by the name of Cecil Williams came to Glide and transformed the church into a safe haven for its community, welcoming all through its doors for worship and comfort. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s Reverend Williams spearheaded programs that included the free meals program, recovery programs for addicts and alcoholics and outreach programs for HIV and AIDS patients. Glide is the cornerstone of this neighborhood, serving the disenfranchised, the poor and the suffering of San Francisco right at the bleeding heart of it all.
The Tenderloin will never change, despite the efforts to shine it up a bit. Some of the crosswalks have been the beneficiary of a paving project that is underway. There are more boutique hotels neighboring the funky old SROs closer to Market Street than there were twenty years ago, and with them a few more “uptown” style eateries. The neighborhood where the Atherton sat is now known as “Little Saigon” and those old noodle shops and Pho Houses have a fresh coat of paint and a shiny new sign. Newer, trendier Asian restaurants have opened in that area as well and have managed to keep their prices down low enough that it is the spot where the young and hip can grab a good meal before heading out to a show at the Great American Music Hall or the Warfield Theater. The tranny prostitutes are gone as well and the Atherton is now a gayly painted youth hostel. The Essex Hotel across the street is now a registered historic landmark and has a bright new neon sign to show for it.
As I walked up Eddy Street in a particularly nasty stretch of abandoned and boarded up buildings I caught out of the corner of my eye a banner hanging a-top the street sign post that read:
409 Historic Buildings
The Uptown Tenderloin Historic District
In 33 Blocks
Now, this was something new to me. The “Uptown Tenderloin” was designated a national historic district in 2009. The means to this end were actually begun in the 1980’s but halted for a time so that land-use measures preventing gentrification were in place. The efforts to put these measures in place were spearheaded and completed by an organization now known as The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and they saved 176 buildings, mostly SROs – a total of 18,000 homes – through these efforts.
With city funding architectural historian Michael Corbett was hired to do the research and paperwork necessary to apply for the application. Fueled by the designation and funded by grants from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development a historic district plaque project began with building owners. Today 73 buildings have participated in this project.
I have never looked at the Tenderloin through these eyes before. Those old funky SROs were just that – hotels with sparse furnishings, thin sheets and a shared bath for the floor, smelling like urine and bug infested. While that might still be the case in many of those buildings, their walls had a living, breathing history. The ghosts of Frank Capra, Dashiell Hammett and Jerry Garcia walked those hallways stepping over the nodding out junkies. So I gave myself my own little walking tour of the Tenderloin, seeking out the places those ghosts go, the places that were previously invisible to me.
The Ambassador Hotel is a six-story 134 room SRO built in 1911. Science fiction and true crime author Miriam Allen de Ford lived there from 1936 until her death in 1975. It has been owned by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development (TNDC) since 1999 and its rehabilitation was completed in 2003.
The Hotel Bristol apparently was the home to Richard Ramirez, better known as the Night Stalker Serial Killer as well as Valerie Solanis, the failed assassin of Andy Warhol who died there in 1983.
Frank Capra was living at the Drake Hotel in 1921 when he was hired to direct his first film, “The Ballad of Fischers Boarding House”.
One of the dominating businesses back in the day in the Tenderloin were the film exchange businesses and most of those were located on the 200 block of Hyde Street in what were known as the Film Exchange Buildings. The place was steps away from the Cinema Houses on Market Street. It was in one of those buildings that Wally Heider opened his recording studio in 1969. The first work released from that studio was the Jefferson Airplane’s album “Volunteers”. Throughout the 1970’s the studio flourished, laying the tracks for rock n’ roll greats such as the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Today it is Hyde Street Studios and continues the tradition of recording the masterful works of music giants such as Bonnie Raitt, Tupac Shakur, Spearhead and Chris Isaak.
Plaques, pavement, paint and historic district aside, it is the residents of the Tenderloin that give the neighborhood its unique charm. Combined with an active movement to prevent gentrification, the continued good works of Glide and the ongoing efforts of the TNDC these residents are not going anywhere anytime soon. The role of organizations such as Glide and TNDC work tirelessly to improve the lot of the city’s worst off.
When the TNDC was founded in 1981 they decided that property needed to be bought, rehabilitated and preserved as affordable housing forever. Their tenants are the working poor, single parent families, the disabled, folks transitioning from public assistance to the workforce and people are simply trying to put their lives back together after being put out on the street due to fire, personal tragedy, addiction or unemployment. 70% of their tenants have incomes less than $14,000 per year – 50% rely on fixed monthly stipends, mostly from SSI.
The TNDC has a staff of twenty social workers that deal with the myriad of issues facing their tenants. They have an after school program providing literacy programs, sports activities and field trips for children aged 5-17. Their mission is to create a sense of community among the residents of each building they own and operate.
I never knew this organization existed in the six years that I worked in the Tenderloin. In looking at the neighborhood with new eyes though I can see where they have made in-roads in their uphill battle. I saw more people walking out the front doors of freshly painted buildings as opposed to people sleeping in the doorways of crumbling SROs. I saw more Moms and kids walking together to school. I saw street art adorning the old brick walls, gardens and overall a sense of pride in the neighborhood in general. It is a neighborhood that will never change and will remain the home for the city’s invisible citizens.
I’ve been high,
I’ve been low.
I’ve been yes,
And I’ve been oh, hell no!
I’ve been rock n’ roll,
I’ve been disco…
Won’t you save me San Francisco.