The test of the Tenderloin

Can a low-income neighborhood become more livable — without gentrification?

Lack of development in the neighborhood has left the Tenderloin one of the city's best-preserved historic areas

This is a story about love and money. Or a story about love, money, and location. — Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City (Verso 2000)

It's a sunny day in the most maligned neighborhood in San Francisco. I'm walking down a busy sidewalk with an excited Randy Shaw, long-time housing advocate. He's giving me a tour of his Tenderloin.

"There's history everywhere you look here," he notes as we rush about the dingy blocks of one of the city's most densely populated, economically bereft communities. In a half-untucked navy button-down and square-frame glasses, Shaw reels off evidence of this legacy faster than I can write it down and still maintain our walking pace.

To our left, Hyde Street Studios, where the Grateful Dead recorded its 1970 album American Beauty. Across the street, a ramshackle building that once housed Guido Caccienti's Black Hawk nightclub, where the sounds of jam-fests by the likes of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane would echo out onto the streets during its heyday in the 1950s. Throughout its history, the Tenderloin has been renowned for its nightlife: music, theater, sex work — and the social space that occurs between them.

Shaw came to the Tenderloin 30 years ago as a young law student and founded and built the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit agency that is now one of the largest property owners in the neighborhood and employs more than 250 full-time workers. Shaw has spent the last few decades fighting to improve conditions in the single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, once notorious for malfunctioning heating systems and mail rooms that would dump the letters for their hundreds of low-income residents into a pile on the floor rather than fit them into personal lock boxes (which now line the walls of THC's lobbies).

But that activism isn't the reason for this tour. No, today Shaw is showing me why tourism can work in the Tenderloin. The heavy iron gate of an SRO is quickly buzzed open as the doorman recognizes him. Inside, working-class seniors mill about aided by walkers — this particular property is an old folks' home — but over our heads, affixed to a majestically high ceiling, looms a triple-tiered glass and metal chandelier, evidence of the area's architecturally important past.

"When I show people this," Shaw smiles at my amazement at this bling in a nonprofit apartment building, "they're amazed at the quality of the housing." Further down the road, we peep in at a vividly Moorish geometric vaulted ceiling and a lobby that once housed a boxing gym where Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali liked to spar. Both are now home to the inner city's poorest residents.

Of course, it's not just tours that we're talking when it comes to Shaw's plans for the future. Shaw has acquired a 6,400-square-foot storefront in the Cadillac Hotel on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets, where he plans to open the Uptown Tenderloin Museum in 2012. He says it will showcase the hood's historical legacy as well as house a nighttime music venue in the basement. The increased foot traffic, he says, will do good things for public safety (a problem that has been identified as a high priority by the resident-run Tenderloin Neighborhood Association) and bring business to the neighborhood's impressive collection of small ethnic restaurants.

An increased focus on the Tenderloin's heritage and public image, Shaw says, will translate to more jobs and a better quality of life for the people who live here. "My goal is to have this be the first area in an American city where low income people have a high quality of life," he says.

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