100 Years After Shutdown, SF’s Tenderloin Thrives

by on February 14, 2017

Art by Sylvester

Tenderloin Wins Big Victory on Eve of 100th Anniversary

On February 15, 1917, San Francisco’s elite finally succeeded in their long struggle to shut down the Tenderloin. 208 businesses were closed and once bustling Mason Street was “as quiet as a village thoroughfare after curfew.” Those behind the closure predicted the Tenderloin would no longer attract residents committed to freedom and liberation, but would instead become a traditional middle-class neighborhood.

They were wrong. The Tenderloin of independent women, pool halls, bathhouses, brothels, bars and fine dining  soon came back bigger than ever. And remarkably, the Tenderloin of 100 years later has defied all predictions by remaining a primarily working-class neighborhood of historic single room occupancy hotels (SROs) and large apartment buildings.

Residents and nonprofit groups will celebrate the Tenderloin’s survival with a march through the neighborhood Wednesday at 11am. After meeting at the Tenderloin Museum the group will walk through the community handing out thank you cards  to residents and businesses who have kept the Tenderloin alive. Fittingly, the cards were designed by a Tenderloin SRO tenant and artist, Sylvester (see accompanying photo).

1917 was the only time the city actually closed down the Tenderloin, but it  was not the last attempt. Elites did not appreciate a neighborhood often decades ahead of its time in terms of social values. Thanks to resident resistance, San Francisco’s efforts to transform the Tenderloin into a conventional chain-store filled middle-class neighborhood have failed to this day.

Prohibition Saves the Tenderloin

Prohibition saved the Tenderloin after the 1917 closure. Here’s why. In 1917 the city forcedTenderloin businesses to close by passing laws denying single women the right to buy a drink. But once Prohibition made drinking illegal for men as well, men and women could jointly break the law in reopened Tenderloin bars and restaurants.

After Prohibition, the Tenderloin faced a new threat. After newspapers rebuked city officials for allowing gambling and other vice activities in the Tenderloin, in 1935 the Board of Supervisors allocated the equivalent of $1 million in today’s dollars for a complete investigation. That they spent so much money in the heart of the Great Depression shows how badly some wanted to bring the Tenderloin down.

Many thought the end of Tenderloin good times was near. But as I describe in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, clever lawyering and a citizenry who enjoyed “sinning” in the Tenderloin kept the neighborhood alive.

Post-War Prosperity

San Francisco faced major challenges from the rise of suburbia after WW II. This might have forced the Tenderloin to become more conventional to economically survive, but the neighborhood instead double downed on its now favorite industry: gambling. If you wanted to bet in San Francisco you  came to the Tenderloin—current Governor Jerry Brown’s grandfather ran a poker club on lower Turk Street in the 1930’s and his father—former Governor Pat Brown—helped his dad with gambling through the decade.

Instead of suburban competition putting the Tenderloin economy at risk, it was Mayor George Christopher. He was hellbent on closing down the non-comformist Tenderloin. He killed its gambling industry in 1956 and further weakened the neighborhood’s economy by eliminating its cable cars and turning its two way streets into one way thoroughfares.

The Tenderloin was building a growing market for gay bars, which the mayor and official San Francisco did everything including violate the constitution to shut down. Had the city had the foresight to support gay bars in the Tenderloin, the neighborhood’s decline might never have occurred.

Christopher is best known as the mayor who brought us wind-swept Candlestick Park (through a sweetheart deal with a campaign donor) and who tore down the historic Fox Theater. He is less known for sending the Tenderloin spiraling into a multi-decade steep decline.

Cecil Williams Transforms Glide

By the mid 1960’s the Tenderloin was so down in the dumps that much of the neighborhood was closed to business. Glide Church had only 35 members in 1963 and was so desperate for revival that it took a chance on a young African-American minister from Texas named Cecil Williams.

Williams pursued a curious strategy for reviving Glide: outreach to the still largely hidden gay and lesbian community, particularly queer youth. Williams, Janice Mirikitani, and others at Glide turned the church into a place of freedom and liberation for those whose race, poverty or sexual orientation caused them to be scorned in other cities.

In other words, Glide became a microcosm of a Tenderloin neighborhood George Christopher and his predecessors in 1917 and 1935 had tried to suppress. By the time Williams left his fulltime work at the pulpit, Glide’s membership has risen from 35 to over 10,000.

Looper’s Buy Cadillac Hotel

The Tenderloin’s next step toward revival happened in 1977 when Kathy and Leroy Looper bought the Cadillac Hotel. That was an historic game changer on so many levels that there is insufficient space to describe here (see my 2011 story, “How Leroy Looper Forever Changed San Francisco.”), The Cadillac’s revival triggered renewed faith in the Tenderloin, halting the nearly two decade decline in the community’s fortunes.

I got involved in the Tenderloin in 1980. That was the year Tenderloin residents organized around the message “The Tenderloin is a Neighborhood,” a fact that those across the political spectrum had forgotten. Organizers uncovered a network of longtime tenants and future community leaders that enabled the Tenderloin to evade its “inevitable” fate as San Francisco’s next gentrified community.

Flash forward to today. Tenderloin SROs now have more longtime tenants than at any time since 1980 and likely well before then. Residents live in far better conditions in a much safer neighborhood, though much more needs to be done.

The Tenderloin Museum has preserved the neighborhood’s lost history, reclaiming the past of a great American community.

On February 13, Tenderloin residents turned out in force to protect a community deal creating 68 affordable housing units at 180 Jones, of which half will be “step up” apartments for those currently living in SROs. I have seen f Tenderloin tenants coming out to City Hall to assert their rights more times than I can remember, and in the vast majority of cases it has produced legislative success.

The struggle to improve the quality of life in the Tenderloin continues, but the community is on the rise. That’s what people will be celebrating on February 15.

A century after February 15, 1917 the Tenderloin is thriving, and its future looks bright.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of 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's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior 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. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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