The test of the Tenderloin - Page 3

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

Figuring out who benefits from these new bells and whistles can seem baffling at times. Even the museum plan, which Shaw says will draw inspiration in part from New York's Tenement Museum, has drawn criticism. A July San Francisco Magazine blog post was subtitled "An indecent proposal that puzzled even the San Francisco Visitors Bureau" and likened Shaw's attempts to the "reality tourism movement" that takes travelers through gang zones in L.A. and poverty-stricken townships in South Africa.

This seems to be a misconstruction of what he's attempting. "You know what no one ever calls out? The Mission mural tours, the Chinatown tours," Shaw says.

And Shaw scoffs when I bring up that PR bane of the urban renewer: gentrification. He takes me through a brief rundown of the strict zoning laws in the Tenderloin, adding that many people don't believe that poor people have the right to live in a high-quality neighborhood: "I haven't been down here for 30 years to create a neighborhood no one wants to live in."

Indeed, thanks to the efforts of Shaw and others, it would be hard for even the most determined developers to get rid of the SRO housing in the Tenderloin.

In the 1980s, community activists struggled to change the zoning designation of the neighborhood, which lacked even a name on many city maps. The area was zoned for high-rise buildings and was being encroached on by the more expensive building projects of tourist-filled Union Square, Civic Center, and the wealthier Nob Hill neighborhood. Their success came in the form of 1990s Residential Hotel Anti-Conversion Ordinance, which placed strict limits on landlords flipping their SROs into more expensive housing.

Hartman remains unconvinced of the efficacy of the protective measures activists have won in years past; indeed, even SRO rental prices have soared. According to the Central City SRO Collaborative, in the decade after the Anti-Conversion Ordinance, rental prices increased by 150 percent, not only pricing residents out of the Tenderloin but out of the city. "Where do they move?" Hartman asked. "It's probably the last bastion of low-income housing in the city. That changes the class composition of the city."

"The neighborhood has been changing slowly but steadily," says District Six Sup. Chris Daly when reached by e-mail for comment on the Tenderloin's future. He writes that rents in the neighborhood have been consistently rising and that several condo development proposals have crossed his desk. Daly has been involved in negotiating "community benefits" and quotas for low income housing in past mid-Market housing projects, but has been disappointed by subsequent affordable housing levels in projects like Trinity Plaza on the corner of Sixth and Market streets. In terms of the Tenderloin, he said, "it is untrue to say that the neighborhood is immune from gentrifying forces. It is shielded, but not immune."

But some see the influx of art-based attention to the area as a possible boon to residents. Debra Walker, a San Franciscan artist who is running for the District 6 supervisor post, said she believes arts can be used "organically to resolve some of the chronic problems in the Tenderloin, street safety being the primary one in my mind."

Though most of her fellow candidates expressed similar views when contacted for this story, western SoMa neighborhood activist Jim Meko said he thinks artists in the area are being used to line the pockets of the real estate industry. "The idea of creating an arts district is an amenity that the real estate dealers want to see because it makes the neighborhood less scary for their upper class audience" he says.

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