The New York Times ran the article “San Francisco’s Unlikely Tourist Stop – The Tenderloin,” yesterday and as this neighborhood is about 5 blocks from me I really had the urge to comment.
The Tenderloin in short is the most run down area of San Francisco. It is also unfortunately the first view of the city that many visitors will get if they come in off the 6th street exit and head towards Market St. When I first heard the name I thought it very strange and although there are competing theories regarding the origin of the name I go with the location which would be “the soft underbelly” of the city.
In the NY Times article they talk about the Tenderloin as a possible location for tourists for it’s historic value and celebrities that stayed and entertained there such as Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane etcetera. I support this idea simply because it would be good for this area of the city and ANY new idea would help.
Yet, it would not be a tour that I would want to sign up for if I were a tourist. They quote Don S. Falk, the executive director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (who I’ve met at business functions) and who has done a lot of excellent work as saying “I think a lot of San Franciscans appreciate the Tenderloin.” It is particularly this that I would like to comment most on.
But before I do let me relate my credentials. I live in an area affectionately referred to as “The Tendernob.” This area would be dramatically described as right between heaven and hell. “Heaven” being the top of Nob Hill and the most expensive/exclusive area of the city at the top of the hill and ‘Hell” being the Tenderloin at the bottom. To further understand the geography one must realize that San Francisco is so tightly compact that simply crossing the street can put you in a completely different neighborhood so it is not as strange as it seems having these two neighborhoods so close together. Almost everyday I walk down from my apartment into the Tenderloin where I park my car at a local hotel and drive through that neighborhood.
I’m sure most San Franciscans have many different views of the Tenderloin all up and down the scale from “appreciate” to “detest.” Those that appreciate it probably do so for it’s historical value but also in that it is a direct reflection of the Liberal policies this city advocates. San Francisco would be the most “socialist” (not using this in a bad way) or perhaps a better word “European” than any other city in the USA. The safety nets for the lowest earners of the city is pretty generous and these people have had many laws enacted to help protect them such as:
1. Free Heathcare
2. Public Housing
3. Free Cash (changed to “Care not Cash) after it did not work well
4. Homeless Shelters
5. Soup Kitchens
6. Various outreach groups
Therefore, it is a ready example of “walking the walk” and not just “talking the talk” in regards to the realities of their policies. The neighborhood has also been protected from “gentrification” which was and remains a big fear in that it is prime real estate and should developers be allowed in the prices of rent/housing would quickly skyrocket 5000%.
One would think this area dangerous but I would partly disagree. My image of a dangerous neighborhood are more like the run down areas in Ohio where you will find nothing but poverty. These neighborhoods are also a bit isolated and therefore if there is trouble, nobody is going to be there to help you. Yet, the Tenderloin has such a diverse mix of residents which a huge hardworking immigrant population that are not engaged in crime but rather setting up businesses, restaurants and diluting any “dangerous people” to such a large degree that getting into trouble during the day is very rare.
Yet, I would definitely not recommend visiting this area at night but again it is not that they are going to rob you. The Tenderloin has a HUGE drug problem and it is at night that it really gets into full swing. The danger is not drug deals and guns but rather those that take the hard drugs and go berserk. Sometimes these folks do walk up the hill to the extreme outer-perimeter (my area) and begin to yell which wakes me up once or twice a week. They really don’t use any violence but I tell you it probably really freaks the tourists out.
I have also driven through this area around 3:30am when we are going on a weekend trip and man, people are out in the streets, convulsing and generally are going crazy. I try not to linger.
The article also mentioned that The Tenderloin is one of the most densely populated areas in the USA. At first glance, one would think this is because of poverty but that is not necessarily so. ALL of San Francisco is densely populated and I tell you when the ambulance drives down my street at night they are probably waking up thousands of people with their sirens. Again, San Francisco is a VERY compact city so population density would be high anywhere.
The highlights of The Tenderloin are many such as the ethnic restaurants that offer very affordable prices and Glide Memorial which I would consider the crowning jewel. Glide used to be an all black church but changed over time as the character of the city changed. Now, it would be considered a church that also “walks the walk” (sometimes to an extreme) in taking care of the poor and really including everyone and I mean everyone! This is the church that was shown in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith.
Their services are really something else and the opposite of what you would expect from a “traditional mass.” The main attractions are the social messages which to me are simply spot on without mincing words and the choir talent is top notch. To hear some of them sing is usually something that people have to pay money for and they also often have high powered political speakers such as the mayor or even state representatives.
One interesting point that many people may not know is that they also have ties to Warren Buffet. I don’t know much about the personal affairs of Mr. Buffet but apparently his ex-wife attended Glide and really liked what she was hearing. She and Mr. Buffet did not have a falling out but from what I understand he enjoyed the Midwestern life and she was more of a “free spirit” and really identified with San Francisco. Therefore, it was not a bad breakup but just two completely different personalities which caused them to separate. As they were still on good terms he was persuaded to help Glide out and they have a fundraising event in which the largest donor gets to have a lunch with Mr. Buffet. You can imagine that the well heeled financiers of this city pay over $100,000 for the privilege which really works out for Glide.
In closing, I hope their plan to make it a tourist destination works out for them as again, any idea would be a step in the right direction. Turning that place around without effectively relocating the entire population is a herculean task but is a very honorable undertaking.