Chronicle Owes Tenderloin An Apology

by Randy Shaw on May 6, 2004

Having worked in the Tenderloin for nearly 25 years, I have become accustomed to misleading media accounts of the neighborhood. But yesterday’s front-page San Francisco Chronicle marks a new low. A neighborhood that saw rents sharply rise and crime dramatically fall in the past five years was falsely described as unchanged, and a 49 block residential neighborhood was defined by the problems surrounding a single block of city-owned land. The Tenderloin became merely a backdrop to the Chronicle’ s ongoing portrayal of Mayor Newsom as a white-hatted savior riding into town armed only with innovative ideas and a commitment to break from the past.

Ilene Lelchuk’s May 5 story, “Newsom takes his turn at trying to clean up Tenderloin,” is actually not a story about the neighborhood. While the story claims to be describing the Tenderloin, it focuses only a single block, which happens to be occupied by the city-owned and managed Boeddeker Park.

Now the area around Boeddeker is among the worst spots in the Tenderloin. But Lelchuk’s thesis is that the Tenderloin “has remained that way for years, resisting each mayor or group of community leaders who said they would clean up the drugs, prostitution, and other crime in the area.”

Nothing’s changed? But there is now a police station across the street from Boeddeker Park! Lelchuk never mentions the station, a shocking ommission considering her story is about crime in the area. Not surprisingly, the police station has in fact reduced drugs, prostitution and crime in the area.

Had Lelchuk talked to any longterm residents about the station’s impact, she would have learned that Eddy Street west of the Park has become one of the quietest and safest streets in the city. But that fact goes against her thesis that the Tenderloin has “resisted” improvements.

Nothing’s changed? The hotels around Boeddeker Park have switched in the past five years from havens for criminal activity to housing run by nonprofit housing groups and social service agencies. Lelchuk’s article failed to quote any of these groups, whose employees would have painted a far different picture of the neighborhood.

Nothing’s changed? Five years ago drug dealers dominated Leavenworth Street from Turk to Eddy. As a result of a campaign launched by Adopt-a-Block Founder Nevio Mosser, tenants, merchants and owners unified to file lawsuits that effectively cleaned up the entire area. I’d like the Chronicle editors to come down and tell these folks that they have failed to “resist” the problems in their community.

Nothing’s changed? That’s news to apartment owners. Studios in the Tenderloin largely comprise working people paying monthly rents of $900 and up. One-bedrooms typically start at $1200. As recently as 1994, tenants could get studios for $425 per month. If only Lelchuk’s thesis that nothing has changed were true!

Who’s to blame for the problems at Boeddeker Park? Start by asking who controls it—the city. Lelchuk should have asked why year after year passes without the city taking responsibility for its property instead of charging Tenderloin owners, merchants and residents with failing to “resist” crime.

Lelchuk describes the recently started “Tenderloin Scrubdown” as a “new” operation and a “different approach” to the neighborhood’s alleged problems. The plan is for street sweeping, sidewalk steam cleaners, a police “crackdown,” homeless outreach services, and a children’s rally to “take back” Boedekker Park.

None of these plans are new, and some, like the police crackdown, are proven failures (I discuss the ineffectiveness of police crackdowns in the Tenderloin in The Activist’s Handbook.) Steam cleaning, street sweeping and outreach workers are great but we’ve had these in the Tenderloin for years.

As for rallies to take back the Park: I led a huge anti-crime march and rally through the streets of the Tenderloin with Dianne Feinstein as far back as 1985. We’ve had many “take back the Park” rallies since then, which makes the city’s refusal to take care of its own property so frustrating.

The journalistic standards in the Tenderloin article are appalling. For example, Lelchuk states “The Tenderloin is described in most tourist guides as the worst neighborhood in San Francisco.” Really? Since the Chronicle provided no some supporting quotes from these guides, I did some checking on my own. I found that such European guidebooks as Le Guide Michelin and Le Guide Du Routard recommend that tourists stay in the Hotel Verona, located in the heart of the Tenderloin at Eddy and Leavenworth.

I also found the following quote about the Tenderloin’s Hotel Verona in the travel guide website, gayot.com: “The neighborhood is relatively safe, with a police station nearby.”

It sure does not look like the Chronicle did much research before it defamed an entire neighborhood.

If the Chronicle truly wanted to assess the Tenderloin’s progress over the years, the reporter could have interviewed people like Brad Paul, who worked in the Tenderloin in the early 1980’s, has remained connected to the community, and who now works for the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Richard Livingston of the Tenderloin’s Exit Theater, Cadillac Hotel owner Leroy Looper, and property owner Paul Boschetti also have been involved in the neighborhood for over two decades and could have brought perspective to the story.

But the Chronicle was not interested in a serious story on the Tenderloin. Its goal was to again portray Mayor Newsom as a white-hatted savior riding into town armed only with innovative ideas and a commitment to break from the past. It does not matter that Newsom is not seeking to play such a role in the Tenderloin— once the Chronicle myth-makers get started, they are convinced that nobody will challenge them on the facts.

The Chronicle has long had fun denigrating the Tenderloin, and its charge that the neighborhood resists improvement is an insult to the thousands of people who have successfully worked to improve the community. The Hearst Corporation owes these owners, merchants and residents an apology.



Residents of the Pacific Bay Inn, a Tenderloin SRO, enjoy a tenant organized food pantry
Residents of the Pacific Bay Inn, a Tenderloin SRO, enjoy a tenant organized food pantry

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