Today is the release date for my new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. The book comes during my 35th year working in the Tenderloin, and amidst high hopes for the neighborhood’s future.
The Tenderloin’s path to survival as a primarily low-income, ethnically diverse community in a city of vast wealth has been rocky at times. The neighborhood is still battling to improve public safety and attract new businesses. But the many residents and activists who fought to preserve the Tenderloin’s historic character should be proud of their accomplishment. And all of San Francisco should take pride in the neighborhood’s over 100-year history of pushing the envelope of cultural, political, and artistic norms.
A neighborhood surrounded by the upscale areas of Union Square, Hayes Valley, Nob Hill and SOMA was supposed to gentrify long ago. But the Tenderloin defied this fate.
The transformation of once affordable working-class neighborhoods into upscale enclaves is said to be “inevitable” in urban America. But in the Tenderloin, long-term tenants can work for neighborhood improvements knowing that its low-income housing stock will remain.
My book explains how the Tenderloin beat the odds and remained a primarily low-income neighborhood. The Tenderloin’s success offers important lessons for other neighborhoods across the nation battling gentrification and displacement.
The Tenderloin’s Rich History
Before I began this book I thought that the land use battles of the 1980’s “saved” the Tenderloin. But I soon learned that prior generations going back a century waged fights to stop the Tenderloin’s transformation. Had those battles been lost there would not have been a low-income Tenderloin to preserve in the 1980’s.
The Tenderloin in the early 20th century was known as the “Paris of the West.” It was rebuilt after the 1906 quake and fire into one of America’s great neighborhoods. Not everyone felt so positively about the post-1906 Tenderloin. Religious and civic leaders were upset at the newly independent working women who had left their families to live in Tenderloin SROs. The struggle of these women was joined with that of the “women of the underworld,” and resulted in an all-out campaign to close the Tenderloin down in 1917 (headlines from this battle are among the book’s 118 photos).
The Tenderloin survived that threat, and then thrived during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Its gay bars grew in popularity during WWII and then in the 1950’s and 1960’s grassroots activists helped spawn the city’s gay and lesbian civil rights movement (Vanguard, said to be the nation’s first gay liberation group, began in the Tenderloin).
The Tenderloin was doing well until George Christopher’s election as mayor in 1955 proved disastrous for the neighborhood. Christopher had a personal grudge against the Tenderloin and sought to punish the neighborhood. It has taken us over fifty years to get the two-way streets back in the Tenderloin that Christopher removed, one of the many actions the mayor took that furthered the Tenderloin’s decline.
Even as its economy faltered, the Tenderloin proved to be fertile artistic ground for the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Dashiell Hammett and other cultural icons. The legendary Blackhawk jazz club and Wally Heider Studios were in the Tenderloin. So was Newman’s Gym inside the Cadillac Hotel, where Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Robinson and other world champs trained.
For over a century, Tenderloin residents —independent working women, gay men, “screaming queens,” activist SRO hotel tenants, and many others — fought various plans to transform the neighborhood.
And usually won.
My book relays these victories and defeats. As cities seek to maintain economic diversity, San Francisco’s Tenderloin remains a striking case study of how this goal was achieved in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. ( I describe in my recent Op Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times how the Tenderloin offers lessons for opposing gentrification that other cities and neighborhoods can follow.)
I arrived in the Tenderloin as a law student in 1980. In the 1980’s, Tenderloin residents and activists felt that in addition to halting gentrification and displacement; the Tenderloin needed to become a place where low-income residents wanted to live.
By that measure the Tenderloin is still a work in progress. Residents still confront public drug dealing that would not be accepted in more affluent neighborhoods. There is a lack of quality neighborhood serving businesses, the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, and inadequate lighting (the latter is being addressed). This is despite having the highest density of children of almost any area of San Francisco.
I discuss in the book how past reports and plans for the Tenderloin found that the issues complained of 25 years ago are not that different than today’s top concerns. Nearly 25 years ago, Tenderloin stakeholders sought to bring outside customers into the neighborhood, realizing that no neighborhood business can survive without such patronage.
The stakeholders 25 years ago recognized that the Tenderloin had never thrived as a community of exclusively low-income people. Its long heyday was as a mixed-income neighborhood, where people from across the city and tourists came to Tenderloin bars and restaurants to spend money.
Those days are now coming back.
Those who cry “gentrification” every time a new restaurant or bar opens do not understand the neighborhood’s history. The Tenderloin has protected residents from displacement by taking over 25% of the housing off the speculative market; this plus the zoning restrictions, bans on SRO conversions, and citywide rent and eviction controls demonstrate residents power to preserve the primarily low-income nature of the community.
Tenderloin residents have done something very special in San Francisco history, and offer a positive model for other urban neighborhoods in the United States. My book is designed to tell their story, and to give credit where credit is due to a community whose history has largely been forgotten.
Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron. His book can be ordered from AK Press , Amazon and from bookstores and other online retailers. Many copies are available at Books Inc. at Opera Plaza, where Shaw is doing a reading on June 3.Mid-Market / Tenderloin