Tendencies in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that polarizes.

My first blog post in San Francisco is atypical (if anything about this blog topic could ever be considered typical), but it’s probably a significant one given the socioeconomic context. The wealthy core to one of the richest regions in the country—probably among the wealthiest in the world—San Francisco is also the only city I’m aware of that can still claim a neighborhood as memorably named as The Tenderloin. Incidentally, it was at one point in time a common term to describe red-light districts in America; Manhattan had a generous cut for a Tenderloin, though the name (not the cut) has since completely fallen out of favor…everywhere except in SF. I don’t believe it is common knowledge that “tenderloin” was at one time a generic term for vice districts, still used up to and including the early 20th century. I wasn’t aware of it until the research for this blog. Most people, if they hear “Tenderloin” in reference to a place, will think of the San Francisco neighborhood, if it’s even a familiar term at all.

To this day, the densely populated neighborhood makes for an unlikely face to that head-shaped peninsula (the nation’s second most densely populated major city), since it’s among the poorest and most economically deprived districts of any major city in the developed world. Certainly its contrast with the surrounding neighborhoods in San Francisco—let alone the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood (barely a 10-minute walk away) makes it a hot point for considerations of the yawning socioeconomic chasm between the rich and poor in the Bay Area in general. Though less associated with brothels today than in 1918, the Tenderloin still no doubt boasts a concentration of vice-related activity that is to the right of the bell curve, but its broader notoriety for homelessness, gangs, open narcotics use, and—most recently—human defecation no doubt overshadow some of the more traditional, predictable moral failings. And even among those who aren’t living on the street, a disproportionate percentage of the housing in the Tenderloin consists of “hotels”: multifamily residences called single-room occupancy (SRO) units, where individuals can rent a small room furnished with a bed and a desk for a fixed rate per week or month, while using shared restroom or kitchen facilities down the hall. In expensive cities, SROs have long served as a resource for individuals who, most likely, would otherwise face homeless shelters or outright homelessness. In San Francisco, they remain most heavily concentrated in the Tenderloin.

It’s a rough neighborhood, to be sure, but also one that, like most dense, mixed-use areas in San Francisco, contains a variety of small businesses, distinctive restaurants, eccentric retailers, and a burgeoning art scene. Those aspects are, no doubt, what these banners scattered throughout the Tenderloin intend to celebrate:Banners in the Tenderloin neighborhood, SFI only captured these two examples, but they’re everywhere. Such banners have proven a common practice in various large cities to help accentuate the identity of certain neighborhoods; I’ve blogged about their strategic use in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District not too long ago. And I certainly don’t begrudge organizations like the Tenderloin Community Benefit District for seeking new ways of accentuating the positive for a neighborhood that, in the eyes of many San Franciscans, has not shaken its negative associations.

Unfortunately I didn’t think ahead to get photos of any of the other banners, but this link captures quite a few of them. They all feature a winsomely simplistic illustration of a resident, coupled with a sentence that begins with “Around here we tend…” So we encounter the following:

“Around here we tend to support our business owners.”

“Around here we tend to improve with age.”

“Around here we tend to nurture our families.”

And, I remember one, which I’m probably somewhat misquoting, but it went something along the line of “Around here we tend to express ourselves boldly.” (I’ll correct this if someone helps me here.)

This is all fine and good, and I respect the efforts of the Community Benefit District at this attempt to foster pride and an improve perception of the Tenderloin. And I suspect the use of the verb “tend” is a syllabic pun. But “tend” also suggests inconsistency—that these aren’t always characteristics embraced by the community—only sometimes—and it begs the further question: aren’t these statements that just about any neighborhood would claim for themselves? And it doesn’t necessarily matter if its true: I, for one, suspect that the “nurturing our families” is a bit weaker in the Tenderloin than elsewhere. After all, a neighborhood dominated by SROs, homeless assistance nonprofits, and other scattershot individuals seeking the most centrally located reprieve from San Francisco’s exorbitantly high rents is not likely to claim an abundance of families. (We can certainly hope not—a growth in families would likely be a negative social indicator for a neighborhood like the Tenderloin.) It may actually have one of the lowest percentages of nuclear families of any census tract in the country, though I admit that I assert this without engaging in the research. And childlessness already generally characterizes San Francisco—the one large American city with the single smallest proportion of its households that include kids.

In the end, I’m just not confident these image-boosting banners offer a great deal more than deflection—a condition obvious to any visitor who sees a reality on the street that doesn’t comport with these banners.

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At any rate, the comparative scarcity of children does reduce the need for child-friendly censorship, giving more justification for people “to express [themselves] boldly”. Which they’re doing, and leaving the evidence on the sidewalks. At least the banners capture an optimism and idealism that continues to define this region of such pronounced socioeconomic extremes.

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5 thoughts on “Tendencies in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that polarizes.

  1. AvatarBrian M

    Actually, there is (or was) a large population of Southeast Asian (Vietnamese and Cambodian and Laotian) families residing in the Tenderloin.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Indeed, there’s a Little Saigon within a certain four-block stretch of the Tenderloin, and if I had been aware at the time, during my 45 minutes of strolling through the area with a suitcase, I probably would have tried to visit.

      After seeing an article like this one (https://hoodline.com/2016/04/new-tenderloin-art-installations-street-banners) and this one (https://www.sfchronicle.com/restaurants/article/Tenderloin-s-Vietnamese-restaurant-core-faces-6682446.php?t=578740781c003780d9&cmpid=twitter-premium), which suggest that the SE Asian businesses–and, perhaps, the residents–are beginning to depopulate Little Saigon due to high rents and the worsening issues long associated with the Tenderloin. Apparently, the two blocks of Larkin Street that form Little Saigon’s spine have received a separate series of art installations to distinguish the area, which is exactly what they should be doing. It’s ironic, though, that one of the most challenged areas in this phenomenally expensive city is also one of the most conveniently located; I guess it could only fend off the gentrification for so long.

      I certainly don’t want to suggest I have a problem with trying to inject optimism in a long-troubled area that is gentrifying economically while likely forcing more people into the living conditions that always have made it SF’s Skid Row. But I also try to approach these areas by pretending I’m as clueless as a tourist who might have stumbled there unintentionally. And, if I separate my empirical experience from my prior knowledge of the area, I have to admit that the banners flying overhead don’t really seem to align with what’s taking place at the street and sidewalk…not even a tiny bit!

      Reply
  2. AvatarChris B

    NPR story yesterday, “San Francisco’s Storied Transgender Community Now Has An Official Home”:

    Quote from the story: “The most common sound in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood these days is the sound of construction. New cafes, condos and experimental art spaces are popping up in a neighborhood once flush with gay bathhouses and bars.

    “But with the cost of living in San Francisco becoming increasingly out of control, the city is at risk of losing the storied transgender community that has long called the Tenderloin its home.

    “The city is looking to cultural districts as a possible solution to this problem. Traditionally, these districts — zoned areas within specific neighborhoods — have existed to stimulate economic development in neighborhoods with a distinct heritage or history, like the Filipino enclave in the South of Market Neighborhood, or the Latino area around 24th street in The Mission.

    “Now San Francisco has created the nation’s first official transgender cultural district to keep gentrification in check”

    So, more banners at Turk and Taylor?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I’m going to trust that you took the salient excerpts from that NPR article and not bother to find the whole thing, Chris. It’s not that I have any problem with cultural districts, especially if they’re organically derived, which most are. (An exception being former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s wish to create a Chinatown for Indy, which only manifested his tone-deafness on this concept, however well-intentioned–since Indy already had a mild Koreatown at Pendleton Pike near Lawrence, and, these days, it basically has a Little Rangoon on Madison Avenue near Southport.)

      The thing is, the Tenderloin cultural district still uses a dishonest, ahistoric basis for its attempt to build memes. Try as the creators might, it can’t use the concept of families, small businesses, or self-expression as distinguishing features for the Tenderloin, either because plenty of other places in San Francisco have them just as much, or because the Tenderloin doesn’t really have them to any great degree. It makes the conceivers of these banners as tone-deaf as Mayor Ballard.

      As for transgenderism, I can’t help but wonder if some in the community would find this “celebration” to be equally disingenuous. Tenderloin remains one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the entire city. Not affordable, but less unaffordable. Being perfectly honest, it was probably the go-to neighborhood for Transgendered people because they were so broadly rejected, even in SF, that it was one of the few areas they could both afford and be themselves with little repercussion. Being even more painfully honest, their lack of acceptance forced many transgendered individuals to resort to the sex trade to earn a living, and the Tenderloin has always been particularly tolerant of sex workers, just as, in 2018, it’s tolerant of open heroin users.

      If the Tenderloin is gentrifying, its among the last places in the city to do so, and I still expect it will remain a respite for the city’s reprobates. If the transgendered community in Tenderloin is thinning, it’s probably only partly due to gentrification and probably mostly due to greater acceptance of transgendered individuals in general–such that they can now successfully participate in white-collar work and live comfortable lives, particularly in an atypically tolerant city like SF. The retreat of a transgendered cultural district broadly echoes the decline of gay bars throughout the early 2000s. They aren’t around as much anymore because gays have become largely assimilated, at least in most reasonably sized cities.

      Besides, how would asserting a cultural district keep gentrification at bay? If anything, it will help brand the Tenderloin in much the same way other gay districts that are far more posh receive this branding: probably like Castro (not familiar with it) and definitely like North Halsted in Chicago or Chelsea in NYC. If anything, this NPR article and the attempt to make a transgender district in an area where transgendered people were long forced to live is a symptom of trendy signaling of virtues more than an actual desire to help. Kind of like needle exchange programs, I guess. In each of these cases, they just didn’t think the idea all the way through. They are a solution still swatting around, hoping to smack down on a discrete problem.

      Reply

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