The Tenderloin Deserves More Intentional Community Planning

by Barbara Lopez on October 13, 2010

On the 200 block of Turk, as mothers, mostly Latina, wait to pick up their children from school at the bus stop(s) or the childcare center, dozens of people-young and old engage in the sale of prescription medication. On the same block, scores of Asian elders stand in line for a food pantry and SRO residents of all colors crowd the self-help center seeking just that … help. The one factor that ties all residents of the Tenderloin is that of poverty.

And while these populations live side by side, it isn’t without issue. When we last surveyed 35+ Tenderloin families on a Friday night, 0% felt safe walking in the neighborhood with their children. One mother told me she’s used to pushing her baby carriage on the street to avoid people on the sidewalk who often respond negatively. Many of our agencies/businesses serve different populations but we often have not had discussion of how one impacts another or how our members and residents often collide into each other’s lives.

It is no surprise that Guy Forte, from Seattle, choose to open a new pharmacy on the 200 block of Turk street. From his accounts, he sought the area with the highest density of medi-cal patients. Critics, such as Sean Morgan, manager of 285 Turk Street apartments, wonders about the location-the known spot in San Francisco for the illicit sale of prescription medication or “pill hill.”

Last Wednesday, the Board of Appeals upheld an appeal to stop the opening of the pharmacy until a full decision would be rendered tonight at City Hall. The room was packed mostly with neighbors in opposition to the project. More than 80 families on the block or adjacent to it, signed a petition expressing concern. Over a dozen families came to the hearing along with seniors and others. Rosie, a mom who walks that block every day and witnesses violent fights over drugs, stated, “if it’s bad now, how is a pharmacy going to make it better?”

Even with a promised security guard, most question the ability of any pharmacy to control the sale of prescription drugs, a booming business in the Tenderloin. One mother, Norma, on the 201 Turk tenant council said to me, “I get the need to have medication available to those with HIV. I have a heart, but how are they going to make sure that other medications are not sold on the street? All of the murders here are related to drugs. Don’t they have a responsibility to us?”

The Board of Appeals meeting was hostile with a member from the pharmacy group threatening to call “INS” on one of our mothers who testified. The CPMC hearing was equally hostile with suits weaving in and out SRO residents concerned over the lack of community benefit. Who asks residents, particularly families, how to plan their neighborhood? Who asks them their vision? Do we just allow any business to open shop in the Tenderloin? How we make determinations of what is best for such a diverse community?

The anger over proposed recent projects such as the 281 Turk pharmacy and even the CPMC Cathedral Hill hospital stem from the fact that residents on those very blocks were never told in their respective language about these projects. They are distrustful and have every right to be. The 281 pharmacy could lead to increased drug dealing and the hospital build is a traffic hazard. Instinctually they question the placement of businesses that may potentially be good, but have a fatal flaw: lack of community input that could lead to the projects causing more harm than good.

It is clear that the Tenderloin needs an inclusive, multi-lingual community planning process, particularly around types of businesses/agencies that deal with the “vices” or any large project. Dozens of needs assessments have take place over the years but what comes about? Where is the strategic planning? Can’t we also have some mechanisms in place in the planning process that allow for residents to have the time and space to review projects in a more meaningful and intentional way? Whatever happened to prioritizing a grocery, a free youth center, and open space for seniors?

This isn’t about stopping every nightclub, pharmacy, or even dog-grooming establishment, it’s about creating and building for a community and that requires direction, intention, and most of all, dialogue. It means dialogue among agencies and residents and a re-visioning for how we do planning for San Francisco’s most blighted neighborhood.

Bobbi Lopez currently works for La Voz Latina, a project of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a part of Glide Family Resource Center.

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