The Tenderloin’s Unseen World

by on November 17, 2016

“The Tenderloin – so what’s to like?… What’s to like is the action, the struggle to survive on one’s own terms, the togetherness of losers and loners…” – Herb Caen

The Tenderloin Museum helped recover the lost history of a great American neighborhood. Once the part of San Francisco identified with the “Paris of the West,” the Tenderloin went from serving dinners to the elite to providing free food to the hungry and homeless.

Now the Tenderloin Museum is going deeper into the neighborhood’s past with a new selection of photographs, banners and ephemera that few have ever seen. Left out of the permanent collection for lack of space, they comprise the museum’s first major temporary exhibition since its opening in July 2015.

The Unseen World of the Tenderloin: Rare Historic Photographs, 1907-71 highlights both historic neighborhood scenes and the intimate spaces familiar to its inhabitants. Rare photos of backstage dressing rooms, streetscapes, legendary clubs, and daily hangouts together form a kaleidoscopic view, showcasing the diversity and energy that the neighborhood is still known for today.

The Tenderloin is where San Francisco kept its secrets – home to underground gay bars, illicit nightclubs, and the core of the vice industry. Sometimes these secrets were revealed, as in the classic 1939 book, Where to Sin in San Francisco (check out its description of Turk and Jones).

It’s also where everyday people have lived, worked, and made art for generations. Over the decades, these unlikely neighbors have created one of the city’s most tightly-knit communities, wrought by the Tenderloin’s dynamism, chaos, and unique beauty.

Exhibition Highlights

To give a flavor of the new exhibition, it includes the most detailed photos of lower Turk Street and the 400 block of Eddy ever seen. The photos reveal a 1940’s Tenderloin of bustling streets and sidewalks, and of bars, clubs and restaurants filling every space. They also reveal the Tenderloin as one of the few urban neighborhoods in the United States that have blocks of buildings almost unchanged since the 1930’s.

The exhibition also shows how in the 1950s’ city policies began subordinating the Tenderloin’s interests to the demands of Union Square. One photo shows the Jones Street cable car tracks being pulled up across from Hibernia Bank. These tracks were removed because City Hall felt that cable cars slowed car travel to Union Square.

Another photo shows a beautiful historic apartment building with an underground gay club on the corner of Taylor and O’Farrell.  This scene is followed by a photo showing the buildings demolition and replacement by an Airporter bus terminal to get tourists from the airport to Union Square.

The final photo in the set shows the next development at Taylor and O’Farrell: a Hilton Hotel, later joined in a fourth photo by the Hilton Tower. That’s how Mason Street was severed from the Tenderloin after its first two blocks.

Efforts to expand Union Square into the Tenderloin were killed by neighborhood residents in the early 1980’s. The neighborhood’s boundaries have since remain unchanged. That’s why recent misguided efforts to rename half of the Tenderloin “Union Square West” have no chance of success.

The exhibit shows President Lyndon Johnson visiting the Tenderloin in 1964 and the first wave of businesses that made the Tenderloin the “porn capitol of the USA.” And visitors can read the first major news coverage of “the Patels,” a group the San Francisco Chronicle described in the title of Marshall Kilduff’s 1975 article as a “Clan that runs cheap hotels.”

If you haven’t yet visited the Tenderloin Museum, here’s another major reason to go. And for those who have seen the permanent collection, you will not want to miss the special exhibition. It runs through December.

Randy Shaw is on the Board of the Tenderloin Museum. He chronicles the Tenderloin from 1907 through today in 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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