Tenderloin Game Changer

by on May 11, 2015

The arrival of the fabled 826 Valencia writing center into a key corner in San Francisco’s Tenderloin is a game changer. It boosts a long underutilized retail space, enhances the community’s image, and sends a powerful message of confidence about the Tenderloin’s future.

826 Valencia deserves enormous credit for expanding into the Tenderloin.

When a program with successful operations across the nation decides to open in a neighborhood, it makes a powerful statement. Any neighborhood would welcome the creative spirit and commercial success of 826 Valencia. That makes its leadership’s selection of the Tenderloin such a strong vote of confidence in the neighborhood.

How it Happened

As the SF Chronicle’s JK Dineen noted in his wonderful story on 826’s Tenderloin expansion, I sent an email to the group’s leader in November 2013 urging 826 Valencia to bring its acclaimed services to the Tenderloin. I hoped that 826 would operate a couple nights a week out of the Tenderloin Museum.

When I showed 826 Director Bita Nazarian the future museum space and gave her a brief neighborhood tour, she quickly agreed that 826 could offer writing programs at the museum. But she was so impressed by the Tenderloin’s authenticity, collaborative spirit and strong sense of community that she soon decided to apply for funding to obtain fulltime organizational space in the neighborhood (this collaborative spirit was demonstrated by Cadillac Hotel owner Kathy Looper offering 826 rent-free use of her office to facilitate their Museum programs).

Once Nazarian secured the grant funds, the hunt for space was on. In my view, there was an obvious choice: Paul Boschetti’s building at 172 Golden Gate. Leavenworth is the main traffic gateway to the Tenderloin, and if 826 could find a home there it would go a great way in improving perceptions of the neighborhood.

Boschetti was also the perfect landlord for 826 because he would be willing to put the neighborhood’s interest ahead of maximizing profit. We needed to get 826 a below-market rent and that required an owner with a bigger vision of the Tenderloin’s needs.

Santino Derose, his real estate agent, was tasked with getting the 826 Valencia deal done. And while it took a lot longer than anyone expected (there were some complicated construction issues), last Friday’s beautiful event with Mayor Lee, Dave Eggers, most of the Tenderloin’s nonprofit leaders and many more at 826’s future home, showed it was all worth while.

At every step, Amy Cohen of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development was there to help make this deal happen. As Nazarian acknowledged, the mayor’s office support made a huge difference.The same can be said for many projects in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market since Ed Lee became mayor.

826 Valencia in the Tenderloin is further evidence that the Mayor’s Invest in Neighborhood program, headed by Joaquin Torres, is fulfilling its mission.

Other Game-Changers

826 Valencia is not the only game changer for the Tenderloin.

As I describe in my new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, the Tenderloin has seen more private investment (excluding nonprofit housing) in the past three years than in the preceding thirty. Investment is bringing positive change even to the Tenderloin’s worst pockets, such as lower Turk Street.

In 2011, I co-authored a study, Take Back Turk Street, showing that Lower Turk Street’ violent crime rate was 35 times the city average and eight times above any other Tenderloin block. Today, the block is likely the single most transformed area of San Francisco in the past two years.

Key credit goes to CounterPulse theater and dance venue, which decided in 2013 to pursue relocating to then troubled Lower Turk. CounterPulse  is using foundation and federal support to transform a longtime porn theater at 80 Turk Street into a destination arts venue.

When 2014 began, the Warfield Hotel at the NE corner of Turk and Taylor was a longtime haven for drug dealers. Its bad housing conditions triggered private and city attorney lawsuits, and its commercial spaces fueled the drug trade.

In late 2014, the same Boschetti-Derose team that brought 826 Valencia to the Tenderloin took control of the Warfield. They have abated all housing code violations and brought in a new operator who will undertake renovations and carefully screen tenants (which means not taking rent in cash, which is how drug dealers typically pay). Boschetti and Derose refused to renew the lease of the notorious King Grocery, and will use that space for an expanded bar connected to the former 21 Club. The Warfield’s drab exterior  will also be restored to its historic splendor.

Across the street on the ground floor of the beautifully renovated Grand Apartments, renown chef Daniel Patterson’s new healthy fasst-food restaurant is undergoing renovations. Landlord Neveo Mosser gave Patterson a below-market rent to attract a quality business, something Mosser has done throughout his Tenderloin properties.

Add in the December 2014 opening of the improv/bar/restaurant Piano Fight at the former site of Original Joe’s next to the Warfield Hotel, Farmer Brown’s expansion to offering lunch, the new Bulldog Bath dog resort at 130 Turk and you have a major rejuvenation of a block many had given up on only two years ago.

Leroy Looper believed when he bought the rundown Cadillac Hotel in 1977 that the Tenderloin could return to its days of being one of the city’s great neighborhoods. With 826 Valencia’s expansion, the transformation of lower Turk, the opening of the Tenderloin Museum on June 17, new housing developments and businesses moving forward throughout the neighborhood, and a strongly supportive mayor, Looper’s faith in the community is finally being fulfilled.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. If you want to learn about the Tenderloin’s wild history, pick up his new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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