A New Museum in a Changing Tenderloin

A new museum opened Thursday in downtown San Francisco.

The Tenderloin Museum sits on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth Street in the middle of one of San Francisco’s most economically and socially challenged neighborhoods. The airy new 3,200 square foot museum cost $3.5 million to build. It stands out against the backdrop of Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) hotels and drug rehabilitation clinics.

Randy Shaw, the director of the neighborhood community development organizations Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Uptown Tenderloin, helped to spearhead the development of the new museum. Shaw hopes the institution will help change negative perceptions of the area, bring pride to residents and make the Tenderloin a more desirable neighborhood in which to live.

“The Tenderloin has a perception problem," Shaw says . "We have the highest percent of children of any neighborhood in San Francisco. We have over 409 historic buildings and it’s a walkable neighborhood and a very diverse neighborhood.”


The museum focuses on the Tenderloin’s influence on counterculture going all the way back to the 1906 earthquake. It has exhibits on the neighborhood's ties to Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual (LGBT) movements, housing activism and gambling.

“If you wanted to gamble, the Tenderloin was where you came," Shaw says. "We were the gambling capital of the bay area." He attributes the fall of the Tenderloin to gambling being outlawed. “After that, we had no economic purpose,” Shaw says.

The museum also offers walking tours of the Tenderloin. Along the way, guides will point out architectural gems, infamous bars and places where historic events occurred, like the location where the Grateful Dead recorded the seminal album American Beauty.

As rents rise in San Francisco, those who once avoided the neighborhood are edging in. Technology companies like Twitter have been quick to snatch up properties along Market Street. Cultural institutions are also getting closer. The American Conservatory Theater launched its new performance venue, The Strand,  on the fringes of the neighborhood last month. Galleries have also been popping up in the area and more are on the way.

Although he is attempting to make the neighborhood a desirable place to live, Shaw believes that the Tenderloin will remain a low-income neighborhood.

“We have so much property off the speculative market," Shaw says. "Nearly a third is either owned by non profits or privately subsidized. We don’t have Ellis Act evictions or owner move in evictions. This community has a history of activism battling the establishment and we’ve passed so many laws to protect all of our housing.”

Elvin Padilla, a Tenderloin community organizer and economic development consultant, hopes the extra foot traffic will help clean up the neighborhood.

“The city uses the neighborhood as its containment zone," Padilla says. "If it’s no longer a containment zone because other people are coming in to do positive things, like going to a theater show or a museum, then the city is forced to pay more attention to public safety considerations."

But not everyone sees the appearance of the new museum in such a positive light.

"You know, me and my roommates, we joke about it, like, oh what are they going to do, have a big picture of a needle?” Tenderloin resident Chloe Brubaker says.

Shaw and his team are working to change such impressions.

The Museum will be free to Tenderloin residents once a month. It has also hired guides who live in the local SROs to lead the walking tours.

The Tenderloin Museum is open to the public 10-5 Tuesday through Sunday.