Touring the Tenderloin
San Francisco has many neighborhoods with unusual names. We cover them in our feature, The Source. Comedian Dave Chappelle also talked about one of them when he came to the city to film a comedy special in 2004.
DAVID CHAPPELLE: Went to that Tenderloin. Nothing tender about that motherf#@# at all! That sh#$ was rough! The opposite of tender. I had never seen crack smoked so casually before!
The Tenderloin District certainly wears the mark of homelessness, drug abuse and poverty that comedian Chappelle mentions. But the Tenderloin also has a rich history and notoriety beyond its current, gritty street scene.
And that’s what inspired community organizer Randy Shaw to say that what the Tenderloin currently needs is not another clinic or shelter what it needs is a museum.
So what would visitors to a proposed Tenderloin Museum see, or do? KALW’s Steven Short talks with Shaw about some of the possibilities.
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STEVEN SHORT: Randy Shaw is the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and right now, he’s a historian, tour guide and museum booster.
RANDY SHAW: The idea is on the ground floor. On the right, you have the performance space, café, museum store.
Shaw is walking through what he hopes will be the lobby of a future Tenderloin History Museum
SHAW: It hasn’t been finalized, but just a lot of talk to give people walk in and immediately feel they’re in a different place.
Shaw is in the former lobby of the Cadillac Hotel at Eddy and Leavenworth Streets in San Francisco. Built the year after the 1906 earthquake, the Cadillac was home to wealthy visitors in the first part of the 20th century. Today, approximately 160 tenants in subsidized housing call it home.
As Shaw mentioned, the museum is still conceptual at this point, but one of his favorite ideas has already been scrapped.
SHAW: If you want to make some money – cause you have to make money off the venues – is, you know, have a boxing ring, and have it like a fight club. Cause we have Newman’s Gym. But you know, the insurance issues. People in Pacific Heights would love to come box in the Tenderloin Friday nights. Probably not gonna happen.
A little too interactive.
SHAW: Yeah, a little, like, “Are your crazy? The insurance costs for that?” Yeah.
Residents of Pacific Heights coming to the Tenderloin to punch each other does sound crazy! But for many years, professional boxers did just that in the hotel’s former Grand Ballroom. As Shaw mentioned, it was the home of Newman’s Gym. Name a famous boxer, and he probably punched a bag at Newman’s: Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray – both Robinson and Leonard.
SHAW: People don’t known that we had Muhammad Ali training in Newman’s Gym in the Cadillac Hotel, where the museum will be.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Look at me now. Don’t tell me that ain’t a perfect specimen of a man!
Then, there was the Tenderloin's music scene...
SHAW: Jerry Garcia lived at the Cadillac in 1961, the Grateful Dead’s very first live album was at the Great American Music Hall here in this neighborhood, so I don’t – people, when they think of Grateful Dead in San Francisco, I think: Haight-Ashbury, Panhandle. They don’t realize that this is where the music was recorded, when they really made the next step to the higher level of success.
Shaw says that in the early 1970s, Wally Heider’s recording studio on Hyde Street was the best in the Bay Area.
SHAW: So this is where you’d want to record. And there was some great cross-fertilization, because Crosby Stills and Nash is playing in one room, Grateful Dead in another, Credence – they’re all there at the same time, on site, hangin’ out for hour after hour, recording.
The rise of the San Francisco Sound in rock corresponded with the decline of another music scene that had been vibrant in the Tenderloin throughout the 1950s and early sixties.
SHAW: Most people do not know that the Blackhawk jazz club, of which the time – Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Cal Tjader, Anchor, Dave Brubeck – the jazz greats of the era, were recording live albums here, in the Blackhawk, at Turk and Hyde. There’s a famous photo by the late photographer Jim Marshall of Miles Davis at Newman’s Gym in 1971. He used to like to box in the Tenderloin.
In fact, photographer Jim Marshall captioned that photo of Miles Davis: “Don’t hit me in the mouth. I gotta play tonight.”
Today, of course, the Tenderloin has a reputation for vice. And let’s be honest now – that’s a part of history that many people find alluring.
SHAW: This was a place, where it’s been said, where you could always go into a restaurant and make book. Underground speak easies, card games, including those involving the Chief of Police, at times. So the Tenderloin had this kind of bar/restaurant/fun kind of atmosphere.
And that’s about as far as Shaw will go on that part of the Tenderloin history. He doesn’t dwell on current neighborhood crime, other than to say he thinks most of it is caused by non-residents. It probably won’t be featured in the museum and doesn’t have to be: it’s right there on the street for everyone to see. So who does Shaw think will come to the Tenderloin, to learn about it?
SHAW: We think European tourists are really going to be interested in this neighborhood. They like the grittiness. They’re not into the Fisherman’s Wharf scene as much. Uh, they want to see something that’s more authentic.
Shaw’s research on the topic surprisingly doesn’t blame current crime and homelessness for lack of visitors to the area. He says it’s because there’s no focus, no center, no place for anyone to find what the area is about. That would be the purpose of the proposed museum and performance space.
The museum would also offer walking tours of the 1930s buildings in the neighborhood, most of which have all of their original architectural elements. Shaw takes me into one, which was built as a YMCA hotel.
SHAW: This looks like a European Renaissance palace or something with the top of this.
SHORT: Yes! It’s very Venetian in the…
SHAW: That’s the word!
SHORT: Color scheme.
SHAW: Venetian. Yes. Yes. Yes.
SHORT: It’s criss-cross of geometric patterns, the sort of borders you’d have on an illuminated manuscript. And its just part of the ceiling!
SHAW: That’s a great description of that.
Today the building is one of the many Single Room Occupancy hotels, or SROs, in the Tenderloin. Shaw thinks this type of architecture could be another attraction. But isn’t it going to be, well, creepy, going up and knocking on someone’s door to see their single room home?
Shaw says a lot of reports have depicted the project in this manner.
And he says these reports are totally wrong.
SHAW: One reporter said to me, "Well, gee, are you going to have people come to this neighborhood and gawk at people? And I said – I said, "What’s very interesting about that is, Chinatown markets itself to tourists for 40 years and I’ve never heard anyone saying, 'Why are you bringing whites in to gawk at Chinese?'" I’ve never heard that. I’ve never heard anyone say, "Don’t come to the Mission where you’re staring at Latinos." That is the weirdest thing. So there’s a bizarre standard somehow the Tenderloin is not allowed to play by the same rules as other neighborhoods.
While it’s true that people may enjoy seeing and learning about the architectural gems of the Tenderloin, at the same time, it’s equally true that tourists are going to have to walk around spilled trash bags on the sidewalk, while dodging people who can barely stand up in the middle of a weekday morning as I did on Shaw’s tour. And that situation does not invite you to stop and linger.
Yet, the simple act of having people come through with an admiring eye can have it’s own benefits. You know how when you see someone looking up, other people start looking up, too? It happened to us while Shaw was showing me around…
JOSEPH CHARLESTON: Well, my name is Joseph Charleston. And uh…
SHORT: You live here, in town?
CHARLESTON: Yeah, born and raised here. Grew up in Ingleside District.
SHORT: So, we were pointing out the buildings…
CHARLESTON: I was trippin’ off you all. And you guys caught my attention. And so, uh, I noticed the buildings. Cause nobody looks up, if you notice, in this neighborhood. A region like this? Tenderloin? Nobody looks up. Everybody’s looking down. Or, you know, they’ve got tunnel vision, cause the drugs, the prostitution, everything else that goes on here.
Charleston wouldn’t consider tourists to be gawkers. He, too, sees them as potential agents of change.
CHARLESTON: San Francisco, I might be talkin’ to a millionaire. He might walk by! Or she. All they’re not going to allow this to continue.
And that, says Shaw, gets to the core of this project.
SHAW: The core issue is this: just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you have to live in an unpleasant, drug-filled, crime-ridden environment with a low quality of life.
It’s going to take more than tourists experiencing the “gritty urban realism” of the Tenderloin to change it. Much more! But, if that causes a few more people to start looking up, well, it couldn’t hurt.
SHAW: Yeah! Yeah! That’s right, exactly right. It couldn’t hurt. That’s right.
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.