The test of the Tenderloin - Page 4

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

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

The area clearly has a rich legacy of nightlife, arts, and theater. The Warfield is here, as is American Conservatory Theater, the Orpheum, and the Golden Gate. So is the unofficial center of SF's "off-off Broadway district," which includes Cutting Ball Theater and Exit Theater. The Exit has been located in the TL since its first performance in 1983, held in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel, and sponsors the neighborhood's yearly Fringe Festival. There are art galleries and soup kitchens, youth and age, and more shouted greetings on the streets than you'll hear anywhere else in the city.

No one is more aware of this diversity of character than Machiko Saito, program director of Roaddawgz, a TL creative drop-in center and resource referral service for homeless youth. I met Saito in the Roaddawgz studio, which occupies a basement below Hospitality House, a homeless community center that also houses a drop-in self-help center, an employment program, men's shelter and art studio for adults in transition.

Despite its being empty in the morning before the open hours that bring waves of youth to its stacks of paints and silk-screens, Roaddawgz is in a glorious state of bohemian dishevelment that implies a well-loved space. It could be a messy group studio if not for the load-bearing post in the center of the room covered with flyers for homelessness resource centers and a "missing" poster signed "your Mom loves you."

We talk about how important it is that the kids Saito works with have a place like this, a spot where they can create "when all you want to do is your art and if you can't you'll die." A career artist herself, she cuts a dramatic figure in black, safety pins, and deep red lipstick painted into a striking cupid's bow. Her long fingernails tap the cluttered desk in front of her as she tells me stories from the high-risk lives that Roaddawgz youth come to escape: eviction, cop harassment, theft, rape.

The conversation moves to some of the recent developments in the area. Saito and I recently attended an arts advisory meeting convened by the Tenderloin Economic Development Corporation's executive director, Elvin Padilla, who has received praise from many of the TL types I spoke with regarding his efforts to connect different factions of the community. Attendees ranged from a polished representative from ACT, which is considering building another theater, for students, in a space on Market and Mason streets, to heralded neighborhood newbies Grey Area Foundation, to Saito and longtime community art hub Luggage Store's cofounder Darryl Smith. Talk centered on sweeping projects that could develop a more cohesive "identity" for the neighborhood.

I ask Saito how it felt for her to be involved with a group whose vision of the neighborhood might be focused on slightly different happenings than what she lives through Roaddawgz. She says she's been to gatherings in the past where negative things about the Tenderloin were highlighted. Of Padilla's arts advisory meeting, she says, "I think that one of the reasons I wanted to go was that it's important [for attendees] to remember that there's a community out there. Things can get really complicated. It's hard to come up with decisions that affect everyone positively. If we're going to say, 'The homeless are bad; the drug addicts are bad; the business owners that don't beautify their storefronts..." She trails off for a moment. "I don't want to lose the heart of the Tenderloin."

In yet another Tenderloin basement — this one housing the North of Market-Tenderloin CBD, an organization that is known for its work employing ex-addicts and adults in transition — Rick Darnell has created the Tenderloin Art Lending Library. The library accepts donated works from painters and makes them available for use by Tenderloin residents, many of whom have recently moved into their SRO housing and are in need of a homey touch.

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