Little Saigon Fights to Survive

by on January 16, 2024

Photo shows the Tenderloin's Little Saigon pre-Covid
The Tenderloin's Little Saigon pre-Covid

New Homeless Drop-in Center Threatens Little Saigon Businesses

San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood has faced many challenges since COVID began in 2020—-and now may face its largest: the survival of its once thriving and historic Little Saigon commercial section. The San Francisco Health Department is funding a program that will replace a longtime restaurant space with a homeless drop-in center. Nearby small business persons stated at a January 11 meeting with the nonprofit that this use will worsen already tough conditions in the area and deter customers they need to survive.

What was the policy analysis that led the nonprofit San Francisco Community Health Clinic to seek to open a use clearly inconsistent with a thriving retail sector? Why did it decide to expand its services to a street long known for its Southeast Asian cuisine along with clothing and jewelry stores?

Did it solicit input from its neighbors? No. Did it talk to Planning and OEWD about their plans? No. Did it let Mayor Breed or her top policy staff know of their plans? No, they did not (the Mayor’s staff sided with the community at the January 11 meeting, saying that the mayor did not currently support the nonprofit’s plans for the site).

The nonprofit chose the site because it currently has a space nearby and its Executive Director is friends with the people selling the building. That’s how a decision to undermine historic Little Saigon was made.

My staff has learned that another restaurant sought to purchase the space. But the sellers got an all cash deal from the nonprofit whose program is funded by the city.

The Legacy of Little Saigon

As I describe in my book on the Tenderloin (The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco), the influx of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970’s and 80’s forever transformed the neighborhood. The Tenderloin went from having few kids to the most children per capita of any community in San Francisco.

The immigrant influx radically changed the Tenderloin’s entire streetscape.  Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian restaurants opened everywhere. Many found homes on one of the few Tenderloin blocks that has solid retail: Larkin Street between Eddy and O’Farrell. As that area filled with Southeast Asian restaurants, it became known as Little Saigon (the official name was not bestowed until 2004).

Prior to COVID Little Saigon was booming. A new market rate condo project just opened with a Thai dessert café that attracted people from across the city. The Cova Hotel was planning to build a new hotel on its parking lot bordering Larkin. The Tenderloin Museum-produced Compton’s Cafeteria Riot production was set to open in June 2020 in the Cova’s restaurant (it sold out its entire 2018 run).

Tourist hotels in the area were thriving. San Francisco Rec and Park worked with La Voz Latina and the Central City SRO Collaborative to revamp long troubled Macaulay Park at Larkin and O’Farrell; the TLCBD park captain program brought over 100 seniors and families to the park each day, adding to Little Saigon’s positive street vibe.

But COVID stopped and then reversed this positive momentum (See “While City Hall Fiddles, Little Saigon Falls,” November 13, 2023)

Now the Planning Department, OEWD, and the Mayor’s Office are trying to get it back. The Compton’s play found a new site at O’Farrell and Larkin and will open in June. A proposal that the vacant to vibrant program be brought to Little Saigon has drawn support. Food trucks are coming to the area to attract visitors and to restore the feeling that Little Saigon is a happening place. New string lighting was installed along Larkin to encourage evening diners.

That’s why efforts to open a homeless drop in center for 100 people a day in Little Saigon raises such alarms. Businesses are trying to revive Little Saigon to again attract customers; a homeless drop in center bringing the unhoused from across the city to Little Saigon is the wrong strategy.

There are for sale signs on retail and office spaces across San Francisco. Owners are desperate to sell. There is no reason to open a homeless drop in center on the two block stretch of Little Saigon.

Boosting Tenderloin Businesses

A report last week found the Tenderloin suffered the biggest drop in sales tax revenue of any San Francisco neighborhood from 2019-23. Much of this reflects the steep decline in business in Little Saigon.

The national Uptown Tenderloin Historic District has a unique design compared to most urban neighborhoods because it has so few retail spaces. Large apartment buildings and SRO hotels were built with little or no retail. The two biggest retail areas are Larkin between Golden Gate and Geary which includes Little Saigon and the 800 block of Geary.

822 Geary was originally a supermarket. It then housed Goodwill. Both brought lots of customers to the block. But that changed when the Health Department bought the Goodwill site for a mental health facility (it was originally justified as a Safe Injection Site). The city didn’t think twice about eliminating this historic retail site on an otherwise thriving retail block in the Tenderloin. That’s another reason why this effort to convert Little Saigon into a social services hub has met such steep resistance.

The Planning Commission will hold a Conditional Use hearing on the 645 Larkin project. Should the project get approved my plan is to work with at least four supervisors on a November ballot measure to save Little Saigon. The measure would revoke all city funding for the project at 645 Larkin.

We owe it to all those Southeast Asian refugees who worked tirelessly to improve the Tenderloin to protect their neighborhood namesake. We must not let their history be erased.

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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Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin