In Defense of the Tenderloin: Truths About SF’s Sketchiest Hood

| June 28, 2013
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Each of us who are lucky enough to live in San Francisco are all too aware that we live in a world-class city. Museums, restaurants, theaters, historical landmarks, stunning views, and tourists all over the place, this city it the real deal. I knew all of this before I made the move from the East coast but what I was never made aware of was the hot mess smack dab in to middle of all this beauty: The Tenderloin.

A site for sore eyes

A site for sore eyes

Honestly, it shocked me. I’d never before seen so many people so down on their luck or without homes or mental stability or, even more shocking, selling and buying drugs in the middle of the day as conspicuously as possible. It hurt my heart, but as my time here wore on and I eventually found myself visiting the TL on the reg, I discovered it wasn’t as scary as it appears.

After a year of living in a Mission apartment with my friends (during their first year of marriage), I decided it was time to venture out on my own. Like many desperate shelter seekers in this fair city, I found myself signing the lease to a studio in the Tenderloin (I even have my own bathroom, guys!). My apartment is awesome. It’s spacious, sunny, comes complete with a walk-in closet and I got it for under a grand a month. This blows people’s minds (though still sounds crazy to me because I could have a whole house in Philly for that much) and most people congratulate me, until I tell them my cross streets and am immediately scoffed at. It happens literally every time. I understand why, I live in the juiciest part of the Tenderloin, certainly not for the faint of heart. But the truth of the matter is, it’s not very scary to live here. Do I see unpleasant things daily, yes, I do, and I know that’s not for everyone, but I’ve also noticed that this neighborhood offers a whole lot more than just wayward souls.

Welcome to the Tenderloin

Welcome to the Tenderloin

For starters, the Tenderloin is rich in seedy and fascinating history. Yes, it’s always been home to the wild ones, the gamblers, hustlers, prostitutes and bootleggers; why mess with a good thing, right? The TL has been a residential neighborhood since shortly after the Gold Rush and boasted a bustling nightlife in the 19th century. Notorious madam Tessie Wall opened her first brothel on O’Farrell Street in 1898. As with most things in SF, the entire neighborhood was destroyed by fires after the earthquake in 1906. Shortly after, the city rebuilt the Tenderloin district and constructed our now infamous single room occupancy hotels. This affordable housing helped continue to usher in new immigrants and provide a roof for young couples and single people. After the Vietnam War, the TL’s SROs served as shelter for a large number of Southeast Asian refugees. Today, we have the world’s largest collection of single room occupancy hotels, way to go SF!

A sunny afternoon in the Loin

A sunny afternoon in the Loin

Before the Castro emerged as the city’s gay haven, Turk and Taylor Sts were the hot spots. In fact, and unfortunately, this neighborhood was also the site of numerous historic confrontations with police on the subject of sexuality. Some of these historic gay bars, like Aunt Charlie’s, still exist today.

In the arts, too, the TL is rich. Academy Award wining director Frank Capra lived as a starving young director at the Drake Hotel in the 1920s before making it big. The Cadillac Hotel, built a year after the 1906 earthquake and fires, served as training ground for Mohammed Ali and was home to Jerry Garcia as well.

Actually, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded albums at what is now Hyde Street Studios. And in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the infamous jazz club The Black Hawk (located at Hyde and Turk) played host to the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Gary Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. All of whom recorded live albums for Fantasy Records at this club. In other words, this hood’s always been hoppin’.

Live music brunch at Farmer Brown's never disappoints

Live music brunch at Farmer Brown’s never disappoints

In fact, when they were excavating the land to build the Civic Center BART station in the 1960s, archeologists discovered the remains of woman, which is said to be some 5,000 years old. Apparently people have been enjoying this area for thousands of years, without exaggeration.

If the history isn’t enough to get you to brave the streets of the TL, maybe some modern attractions will do the trick. Those of us who live here know the many gems the Tenderloin holds. So as a noob to the hood, I spoke to two of my favorite long-time TL residents, Joe and Michael, to get the scoop on what’s to love about the Loin.

First of all, “it’s super central. Work, the ballpark, the Mission, and most other neighborhoods I want to travel to, are all within walking distance (2 miles),” Joe declares.

Secondly: “It’s cheap. In a city where the average 1 BR apt costs close to 3 grand? It’s a steal! And it’s not only rent, some of the city’s cheapest eateries are here.”

You want awesome Indian food? You got it. Just travel to the heart of the TL and dig in (favorites include Lahore Karachi, Darbar and Chutney, among others. Plus the “Little Saigon” portion of the neighborhood has “more bahn mi and pho than you can shake a stick at!” Joe recommends Saigon Sandwich, when the mood strikes.

Octopus chandelier by artist Adam Wallacavage at The Shooting Gallery

Octopus by artist Adam Wallacavage at The Shooting Gallery

The Tenderloin is home to a number of fresh art galleries, including White Walls, Ever Gold Gallery, Space Gallery and the cleverly named Shooting Gallery. The TL is also host to a myriad of murals-adorning the outside walls of old buildings, pretty-ing up the place. Speaking of buildings, the Tenderloin has a high concentration of excellent architecture, so don’t forget to look up. Needless to say, a stroll through the TL is never boring.

If you’re game for a laugh, Michael recommends hitting up the San Francisco Comedy College on Post St for open mic. Now, if you’re really feeling frisky, check out Thursday night standup at 800 Larkin, it’s a trip, trust me. Oh, music’s more your thing? Well you came to the right place because the TL houses one of the best show spaces in all the land, The Great American Music Hall. “It’s hands down, the BEST,” Michael affirms.

Both Joe and Michael (and me, and most of my other friends) love the broad spectrum of bars here. “The fact that places like Bourbon/Branch, Rye, and Jones are tucked between places like the High Tide, Nite Cap, Brown Jug and 21 Club is why going out in the TL can be so much fun,” Joe says.

He’s right. The TL really has it all and with 30,000 people living with 60 sq blocks, you’re bound to always encounter something interesting here; it’s real city. Joe asserts, “When Lee Ving said ‘I love livin’ in the city,’ he certainly wasn’t talking about somewhere like the Outer Richmond.” I can’t disagree.

Curry Without Worry feeding those in need in the Tenderloin

Curry Without Worry feeding those in need in the Tenderloin

I know it ain’t easy on the eyes. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to see so many people living in the streets. I mean the TL is the only place I’ve witnessed someone defecating on the street, brazenly tying off their arm to inject drugs at lunchtime, and I’m fairly certain I’ve now inhaled secondhand crack smoke on my morning walk to work, but the TL is also a source of tremendous human kindness. Believe me. It is here that I’ve seen more people willing to help one another, feed one another and look after one another than anywhere else. You’ll find beauty here if you’re willing to see it.

I don’t expect you to throw away your Marina address to slum it in the Loin, I’m simply suggesting this neighborhood has more to offer than meets the eye. The Tenderloin gives us grit. Unlike some other huge cities on the East Coast who have cleaned up their acts (ahem, New York, ahem), San Francisco can still claim that true “city” vibe with this unpolished neighborhood.  It’s part of our multi-faceted personality as a city–let’s embrace it.

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About the Author ()

Natalie Grace Sweet is a writer and rock n' roller working hard to maintain her East Coast sass while residing in the Narnia-like paradise of San Francisco. An unapologetic lover of ice hockey and acrylic nails, Natalie spends much of her free time perfecting her one-liners and planning nutritious meals.
  • OwenRay

    I agree that the TL isn’t exactly scary–you’re more likely to get mugged in the Mission. But it only made sense to when you could still get a studio there for less than a grand. Now you are looking at like $1,500+ a month to live in the armpit of hell. Forget it. One of many signs that San Francisco is over.

  • Lisa St.Claire

    Thank you for this thoughtful and appreciative look beyond the gritty underbelly of the Tenderloin. As with so many places and things, there is far more there than meets the eye. Thanks for the historic context as well.

  • elvin

    “The Tenderloin gives us grit.” As a Tenderloin resident, and someone who grew up in a Tenderloin, I can say I don’t care about giving you your voyeuristic thrill of grit.

    Nice message about their being beauty here if you look for it because that’s very true. But San Francisco needs to get off the “grit” and “keeping it real” and “wow it’s just like ‘The Wire’ on HBO!” bullshit. We’re not here for your dose of keeping-it-real gritty humanity while you head back to your artisan, single-origin, fair-trade olive oil tastings lives. We’re here struggling to live healthy lives after all manner of traumatic experiences, to raise our families, to live with dignity and in peace.

    Why don’t you ask Tenderloin residents their opinion about our neighborhood being used to provide bourgeois progressive San Franciscans “unpolished” street cred. We’re here for you to claim superiority over New York? Why don’t you take your children to the child care center on Leavenworth & Golden Gate where all day long grown men urinate and sell drugs in front of our kids? Why don’t you all truly join us? Then let’s see what you truly “embrace.”

    Your nod to the richness here is appreciated, but is undermined by your failure to see the whole picture. Then again, most San Francisco don’t want to even try. Caring, progressive, enlightened San Francisco wants to “defend” the Tenderloin at the expense of the poor people struggling here. Not keeping it real.

    • tobymarx (upfromthedeep.com/)

      You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head, Elvin. I would only add that blind hypocrisy is nonetheless hypocrisy. I hope everyone who reads this article also reads what you have written.

  • elvin

    Support this youth campaign to get their take on this story: http://igg.me/p/437527

  • michaelqlarson

    Nice article, great photos! I run through the Tender Loin every morning, including often the 6th and Market “homicide hotspot”. I don’t think it’s all that bad, but my brother, who lived in some of the rougher parts of LA, claims its worse than those places.

  • johansantana16

    The Tenderloin may give SF “grit”, but it’s the only neighborhood in the city close to being rough. New York has way more neighborhoods that are much seedier and have more poverty than the Tenderloin (ex: Lower East Side, Harlem, Washington Heights, half of Brooklyn, South Bronx, etc). To say it doesn’t is a little ignorant.

  • Kevin Coleman

    So the Tenderloin is a gem of a neighborhood waiting to be discovered by scared white people? If you’re choosing between the Marina and the Tenderloin for a nice dinner, please choose the Marina because the Tenderloin does not need to be “discovered” by yuppies/hipsters/techies/frat boys, etc. And also, FYI, rent in the Tenderloin is not cheap. If you think it’s cheap then that means that you have money and you have choices about where you live. For many people in the Tenderloin rent takes up the majority of their income, no matter how low it may seem to you, and therefore it is not cheap to them. I do appreciate they way that you portray the “seedy” elements of the Tenderloin as a positive. Some people like seedy, honey!

  • http://www.mobileappaddict.com/ John Defahl

    The TL is the last real neighborhood in SF. I hope it never changes, even though I am watching it change before my eyes. I support all the drug dealers and prostitutes on my block, because these hard working individuals are the ones keeping my rent down! Where else can I live for a grand a month, in my own studio, with a 10 minute walking commute to work! Hipsters, we eat you for lunch here. so watch yourselves.. ;)

    • the decider

      gotta love an unabashed gentrifier