In Defense of the Tenderloin: Truths About SF's Sketchiest Hood

Each of us who are lucky enough to live in San Francisco are all too aware that we live in a world-class city. Museums, restaurants, theaters, historical landmarks, stunning views, and tourists all over the place, this city it the real deal. I knew all of this before I made the move from the East coast but what I was never made aware of was the hot mess smack dab in to middle of all this beauty: The Tenderloin.

A site for sore eyes
A site for sore eyes

Honestly, it shocked me. I’d never before seen so many people so down on their luck or without homes or mental stability or, even more shocking, selling and buying drugs in the middle of the day as conspicuously as possible. It hurt my heart, but as my time here wore on and I eventually found myself visiting the TL on the reg, I discovered it wasn’t as scary as it appears.

After a year of living in a Mission apartment with my friends (during their first year of marriage), I decided it was time to venture out on my own. Like many desperate shelter seekers in this fair city, I found myself signing the lease to a studio in the Tenderloin (I even have my own bathroom, guys!). My apartment is awesome. It’s spacious, sunny, comes complete with a walk-in closet and I got it for under a grand a month. This blows people’s minds (though still sounds crazy to me because I could have a whole house in Philly for that much) and most people congratulate me, until I tell them my cross streets and am immediately scoffed at. It happens literally every time. I understand why, I live in the juiciest part of the Tenderloin, certainly not for the faint of heart. But the truth of the matter is, it’s not very scary to live here. Do I see unpleasant things daily, yes, I do, and I know that’s not for everyone, but I’ve also noticed that this neighborhood offers a whole lot more than just wayward souls.

Welcome to the Tenderloin
Welcome to the Tenderloin

For starters, the Tenderloin is rich in seedy and fascinating history. Yes, it’s always been home to the wild ones, the gamblers, hustlers, prostitutes and bootleggers; why mess with a good thing, right? The TL has been a residential neighborhood since shortly after the Gold Rush and boasted a bustling nightlife in the 19th century. Notorious madam Tessie Wall opened her first brothel on O’Farrell Street in 1898. As with most things in SF, the entire neighborhood was destroyed by fires after the earthquake in 1906. Shortly after, the city rebuilt the Tenderloin district and constructed our now infamous single room occupancy hotels. This affordable housing helped continue to usher in new immigrants and provide a roof for young couples and single people. After the Vietnam War, the TL’s SROs served as shelter for a large number of Southeast Asian refugees. Today, we have the world’s largest collection of single room occupancy hotels, way to go SF!

A sunny afternoon in the Loin
A sunny afternoon in the Loin

Before the Castro emerged as the city’s gay haven, Turk and Taylor Sts were the hot spots. In fact, and unfortunately, this neighborhood was also the site of numerous historic confrontations with police on the subject of sexuality. Some of these historic gay bars, like Aunt Charlie’s, still exist today.

Sponsored

In the arts, too, the TL is rich. Academy Award wining director Frank Capra lived as a starving young director at the Drake Hotel in the 1920s before making it big. The Cadillac Hotel, built a year after the 1906 earthquake and fires, served as training ground for Mohammed Ali and was home to Jerry Garcia as well.

Actually, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded albums at what is now Hyde Street Studios. And in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the infamous jazz club The Black Hawk (located at Hyde and Turk) played host to the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Gary Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. All of whom recorded live albums for Fantasy Records at this club. In other words, this hood’s always been hoppin’.

Live music brunch at Farmer Brown's never disappoints
Live music brunch at Farmer Brown's never disappoints

In fact, when they were excavating the land to build the Civic Center BART station in the 1960s, archeologists discovered the remains of woman, which is said to be some 5,000 years old. Apparently people have been enjoying this area for thousands of years, without exaggeration.

If the history isn’t enough to get you to brave the streets of the TL, maybe some modern attractions will do the trick. Those of us who live here know the many gems the Tenderloin holds. So as a noob to the hood, I spoke to two of my favorite long-time TL residents, Joe and Michael, to get the scoop on what’s to love about the Loin.

First of all, “it's super central. Work, the ballpark, the Mission, and most other neighborhoods I want to travel to, are all within walking distance (2 miles),” Joe declares.

Secondly: “It's cheap. In a city where the average 1 BR apt costs close to 3 grand? It’s a steal! And it's not only rent, some of the city's cheapest eateries are here.”

You want awesome Indian food? You got it. Just travel to the heart of the TL and dig in (favorites include Lahore Karachi, Darbar and Chutney, among others. Plus the “Little Saigon” portion of the neighborhood has “more bahn mi and pho than you can shake a stick at!” Joe recommends Saigon Sandwich, when the mood strikes.

Octopus chandelier by artist Adam Wallacavage at The Shooting Gallery
Octopus by artist Adam Wallacavage at The Shooting Gallery

The Tenderloin is home to a number of fresh art galleries, including White Walls, Ever Gold Gallery, Space Gallery and the cleverly named Shooting Gallery. The TL is also host to a myriad of murals-adorning the outside walls of old buildings, pretty-ing up the place. Speaking of buildings, the Tenderloin has a high concentration of excellent architecture, so don’t forget to look up. Needless to say, a stroll through the TL is never boring.

If you’re game for a laugh, Michael recommends hitting up the San Francisco Comedy College on Post St for open mic. Now, if you’re really feeling frisky, check out Thursday night standup at 800 Larkin, it’s a trip, trust me. Oh, music’s more your thing? Well you came to the right place because the TL houses one of the best show spaces in all the land, The Great American Music Hall. "It's hands down, the BEST," Michael affirms.

Both Joe and Michael (and me, and most of my other friends) love the broad spectrum of bars here. “The fact that places like Bourbon/Branch, Rye, and Jones are tucked between places like the High Tide, Nite Cap, Brown Jug and 21 Club is why going out in the TL can be so much fun,” Joe says.

He’s right. The TL really has it all and with 30,000 people living with 60 sq blocks, you’re bound to always encounter something interesting here; it’s real city. Joe asserts, “When Lee Ving said 'I love livin’ in the city,' he certainly wasn't talking about somewhere like the Outer Richmond.” I can’t disagree.

Curry Without Worry feeding those in need in the Tenderloin
Curry Without Worry feeding those in need in the Tenderloin

I know it ain’t easy on the eyes. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to see so many people living in the streets. I mean the TL is the only place I’ve witnessed someone defecating on the street, brazenly tying off their arm to inject drugs at lunchtime, and I’m fairly certain I’ve now inhaled secondhand crack smoke on my morning walk to work, but the TL is also a source of tremendous human kindness. Believe me. It is here that I’ve seen more people willing to help one another, feed one another and look after one another than anywhere else. You’ll find beauty here if you’re willing to see it.

Sponsored

I don’t expect you to throw away your Marina address to slum it in the Loin, I’m simply suggesting this neighborhood has more to offer than meets the eye. The Tenderloin gives us grit. Unlike some other huge cities on the East Coast who have cleaned up their acts (ahem, New York, ahem), San Francisco can still claim that true “city” vibe with this unpolished neighborhood.  It’s part of our multi-faceted personality as a city--let’s embrace it.