Uptown Tenderloin History Museum: Reclaiming SF’s Forgotten Past

by Randy Shaw on February 23, 2009

In the wonderful book on San Francisco’s once thriving Fillmore District, co-author Elizabeth Pepin notes that she was surprised that “something so magical could vanish with hardly a trace within just a few decades.” The Uptown Tenderloin has an even bigger problem: much remains unknown about its post-1906 to 1970’s past. But this will soon change. As a result of a generous grant from the Fifth Age of Man Foundation and the donated services of the architectural firm of Perkins + Will, the Uptown Tenderloin History Museum is on track to open by 2011-12. A longterm lease to house the museum under the historic Cadillac Hotel has been secured, and a collection of exhibits is being identified and assembled. The Museum will preserve for posterity the years when the Uptown Tenderloin was a venue for upscale hotels, bars and restaurants, nationally known jazz musicians, and assembled the nation’s largest collection of SRO’s. The Uptown Tenderloin’s cultural resources shaped San Francisco’s history, and their preservation at the Museum enables the community’s rich history to propel a brighter future.

During the past year, while state and federal agencies were processing the application to create the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, I have been working with architects from the firm of Perkins + Will to create an Uptown Tenderloin History Museum. It will be located at the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth Streets under the Cadillac Hotel. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic (publisher of Beyond Chron) has a thirty-year lease for the space, and is using it for administrative offices until construction of the museum commences in either 2010 or 1011.

Forging the Museum

Some may wonder how we could afford the services of an international architectural firm whose clients include the New York Stock Exchange, Crate & Barrel, and Time Warner, and which designed the successful Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.

The answer: all services are donated.

In 2006 Perkins+Will launched its Socially Responsible Initiative (SRI), encouraging its 21 offices worldwide to undertake projects aimed at improving their communities and society on a pro bono basis. As part of its mandate to craft “Ideas + buildings that honor the broader goals of society,” the firm joined the Public Architecture 1% program, which encourages architecture and design firms to commit 1% of their staff’s time to pro bono service projects.

The firm treats its pro bono projects as typical jobs, and has already provided significant guidance in all aspects of the museum’s creation. Perkins + Will has also brought in the pro bono services of Andy Kramer of West Office Exhibition Design , which has designed museum interiors in projects from Wyoming to China.

I soon discovered in my meetings with Scott Williams and Seth Meisler of Perkins + Will that they could not design the museum prior to our identifying the collection. They explained that museum designs must spring organically from the objects, which meant that identifying the objects that would comprise the Museum—beyond the photos, postcards, and ephemera we already knew about—became a precondition for our moving forward.

The Fifth of Man Foundation

Because the Tenderloin’s post-1906 past remains undiscovered, and information is particularly lacking on the historic Blackhawk jazz club at Turk and Hyde, we needed a curator who could both identify exhibits and engage in an archaeological dig. And this meant finding money, not exactly easy in the current climate.

But a small foundation in the Mission District had expressed interest in our work, and I contacted them about funding a curator. The Fifth of Man Foundation (formerly the Matt Ross Foundation) was originally funded by a Russian immigrant who moved to San Francisco and made good, which parallels the many Southeast Asian immigrants (including the owners of the Sugar Bowl Bakery) for whom the Uptown Tenderloin was their first stop on route to financial success.

The Fifth of Man Foundation not only expressed a willingness to fund a curator position, but, thanks to Annag Rose Chandler, its Director, we were able to get the funding started within weeks. In the meantime, Museum consultant Andy Kramer had referred me to Sarah Wilson, who not only had ample museum experience but was a professional trumpet player who was thrilled that we were uncovering the Blackhawk’s history.

Reclaiming the Uptown Tenderloin

Since jazz enthusiasts around the world know the Blackhawk, it has great potential to attract tourists to the museum. In less than a month, Wilson has reached many of the remaining musicians who played at the Blackhawk, connected with the daughter of the club’s former owner, talked with the person who recorded music there, and found a video of Dave Brubeck playing live at the Blackhawk.

Johnny Mathis got his start at the Blackhawk, Clint Eastwood used to attend shows there, and Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, Cal Tjader and other luminaries recorded albums there.

The Museum will highlight the Uptown Tenderloin’s historic role in the jazz world, which included other venues.

Grateful Dead, Creedence, Santana

The New York Times recently described how American Beauty was the quintessential Grateful Dead album. That album was recorded across the street from the Blackhawk at the Hyde Street Studios.

So was every Creedence Clearwater Revival album after Green River, and Santana’s legendary Abraxis. Keith Richards recorded there, along with stars too numerous to name.

Little known to most San Franciscans is that the Uptown Tenderloin has an incredible legacy in the history of rock and roll. The Museum will highlight this.

SRO’s, Restaurants and More

The museum will provide a visual history of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District from 1906, through the arrival of the Southeast Asian and Indian immigrants in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Here in San Francisco we take SRO’s for granted, but many tourists will be as eager to see how people live in rooms without bathrooms or kitchens as they have been to visit the recreated tenements of the Lower East Side.

Contrary to the massive negative disinformation dispensed about the neighborhood, the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District was a high quality area for decades and really only fell into decline—along with much of the rest of the city—in the 1960’s. The fact that the community has taken a longer time to recover does not alter the luminosity of its pre-1960’s past.

Objects Wanted!

If you have material from the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District that you think would fit into the museum, or know someone who does or have leads on such, please use this contact form.

We are particularly eager to get diaries/letters from Southeast Asian immigrants in the 1970’s through the mid-80’s describing their new life in the Tenderloin. We hope to have an entire wall of such writings in the museum.

The Uptown Tenderloin Historic Museum will get tourists to walk into, rather than around, the neighborhood. This will bring money into the area to boost local businesses, and is one of many new projects highlighting the community’s rich history and bright future.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic

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