The Tenderloin, more than meets the eye [San Francisco]

“The Tenderloin? Don’t go!”

This is what you can read on most websites and in most guidebooks. It is true that the neighborhood looks pretty dodgy despite its 433 (!) historical buildings. However, it has been on the vanguard of sweeping social changes for over a century…

April, 18, 1906 changed everything in the Tenderloin. Before, it used to be a quiet and residential area. Then the destructive earthquake happened. With the fires that followed 80% of San Francisco that was mostly made of wood, got destroyed. The 31 blocks encompassed in the Tenderloin – called “Downtown” back then – were rebuilt with larger, taller, and sturdier structures of bricks and concrete on bigger lots as housing was desperately needed. As early as in 1907 inhabitants were already moving in. Many of these buildings still stand today.

Not only do these buildings stand, 433 of them have been classified as historical landmarks and preserved as residential single-room occupancy hotels (SRO’s). They used to host both male and female white-collar workers at the beginning of 20th century. Bathrooms were shared and kitchens inexistent. The neighborhood became very lively: restaurants and bars were needed and they flourished side by side with entertainment venues. Women could work there and emancipate.

While the rest of San Francisco was being cleaned up like the infamous Barbary Coast district, the brothels, drugs and lawlessness moved to the Tenderloin in 1913. The lucrative vice economy was there to stay: the prohibition of 1920 made it a hotspot. Jazz clubs, billiard halls, boxing clubs, bars, parlor houses and gambling dens were thriving! The district was prosperous. The police merely overlooked crime: bribes allowed law enforcement officers to afford the finest beef steaks. The tenderloin has found its nickname!

During WWII, it is the dollars of soldiers on their way to the frontlines in the Pacific that fueled the economy of the Tenderloin. This is also when many gays and lesbians discovered its nightlife and called it home. “The United Nation was founded at Sally Stanford’s [high-class] whorehouse” more than at the War Memorial as put by a journalist back then during the United Nation Organizing Conference of 1945.

In the mid-1950’s the ambient modernism converted the Tenderloin into a throughway to downtown and shut down the thriving gambling industry. The once vibrant and booming neighborhood changed drastically and became home to low-income residents, the elderly and the disabled.

In 1970, the US porn was born there with a “documentary” by Alex de Renzy, actually the first feature length X-rated film legally shown in the US… in the Tenderloin of course! This opened new opportunities in the neighborhood with theaters, strip clubs, massage parlors and porn bookstores setting up shops.

In the wake of the Vietnam War new tenants moved in attracted by the vacant flats and cheap rents of the fading neighborhood: refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. For the first time in decades, several generations were sharing the hood including many kids while their hardworking parents brought a new vibe with their shops and storefronts.

Walking its streets today, the neighborhood looks worn down and maybe even a bit dodgy at times – so why should you bother?

There is much more to the Tenderloin than its nefarious reputation and its hobos roaming the streets. This neighborhood has been the hotspot for waves of social activism over the decades:

  • Back in the early 20th century the emancipated women of the Tenderloin started standing up for themselves and became the catalyst for women voting rights in California.
  • Later the closing down of brothels jeopardized the livelihood of many women who were selling their bodies to financially support their children as their otherwise lower wages would not allow them to meet months end. This triggered a fight for higher wages for women.
  • In the 1950’s the Tenderloin became the first queer neighborhood of San Francisco and many gay right organizations find their roots in the 1960’s in this neighborhood. It is also in the Tenderloin that the first queer uprising took place: in 1966 a transgender resisted arrest by a cop by throwing a hot coffee cup at his face at Gene Compton’s cafeteria – the meeting place for people who were different. Another 50 to 60 joined in fighting the police with their heavy handbags and spike-heeled shoes. This was three years before Stonewall in New York City.
  • Unions have been headquartered in the Tenderloin, fighting for better wages, shorter hours and greater safety for workers.
  • Over the decades its melting pot with first Irish, Italians and Greeks, then Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and South East Asians, and more recently Russians, Middle Easterners and Mexicans, has made the Tenderloin one of America’s most ethnically diverse district.
  • Today gender non-conforming people seem to be paving the way. Local activists are also calling for shoot up rooms in which drug addicts could be taken care of better than in the street.

The Tenderloin remains a beaten up area where everything that is taboo elsewhere is ok here. In a city that has gentrified so much than San Francisco this neighborhood provides a shelter for non-conformists and this why its inhabitants are so passionate about it and want to protect it so much. This is where generations have been fighting for civil rights leading the way for the state, the nation, and the world to follow.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • To grasp a bit of the Tenderloin, make sure to visit the excellent Tenderloin Museum and join a walking tour.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

 

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