Trees take root in the Tenderloin
The Tenderloin is not exactly known as a tender place to live. It’s the densest neighborhood in San Francisco – home to roughly 30,000 people. That’s about 750 people per square block, and many are low-income immigrants and families living in tall apartment buildings, homeless shelters, or single room occupancy hotels. Some – with nowhere else to go – live right on the street.
You’re more likely to hear police sirens than birds or other wildlife in the Tenderloin. That’s partly because this is an area of high crime, but also, because there’s very little green space here. But that hasn’t stopped some Tenderloin residents who’ve invited nature into their lives in the most unexpected of places. KALW’s Ali Budner takes us to a place known to residents at the Tenderloin National Forest.
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DARRYL SMITH: Right now we’re standing in front of a more arid desert feature.
ALI BUDNER: The street sounds don’t let you forget that you’re in the heart of the Tenderloin, but as soon as you set foot in this park, you know you’ve walked into a unique space.
SMITH: There’s the hummingbird.
That’s Darryl Smith, my tour guide.
SMITH: I’m co-founder/director of the Luggage Store Gallery with my partner, Laurie Lazer.
Together they founded this place, the Tenderloin National Forest. It’s off of Ellis Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. And let’s be real – it’s still a concrete alley sandwiched between tall brick buildings. But, if you let yourself zoom in on what’s in here, it really can feel like a verdant oasis. Trees and plants of all colors and sizes surround us.
A water fountain filled with bright orange fish bubbles in one corner. A neon sign hangs over a shed with a living grass roof. It reads in cursive script: “Tell your stories here.” An earthen oven. Giant colorful murals on every wall. My favorite touch is the arrowhead-shaped greeting sign that looks a lot like the traditional National Forest logo.
FRANKIE MADISON: It’s comforting. It’s very, very comforting and very serene.
That’s Frankie Madison. He comes here to relax.
MADISON: And in this chaotic city now it’s nice to have a little quiet place to be. Especially here in the Tenderloin, everything is so upside down and backwards that to step through that gate and to come in here is you just transcend to a different place. You’re not in the Tenderloin anymore.
But if you had peered into this alley 15 years ago or so, you would have seen a very different picture. Again Darryl Smith.
SMITH: Back then, yeah, it was all asphalt. It was a classic inner city alleyway. There was a lot of garbage, lot of excrement, drug paraphernalia. Kind of, you know, it had its own story.
Which is in part, the story of the Tenderloin itself.
BEN GRANT: It was a very dense and very mixed part of the city from a very early on, without a lot of provision for open space.
That’s Ben Grant. He works with SPUR – an urban planning nonprofit in San Francisco. He can think of only one substantial public park in the Tenderloin – Boeddecker Park – built in the mid-‘80s. But it has tall metal fences and iron benches. It’s not that welcoming.
GRANT: I think the contrast between Boeddecker Park and the Tenderloin National Forest really reveals the importance of local stewardship and community advocates especially in a district that has significant problems with homelessness, with substance abuse, and with social issues.
So how did they do it? How do you create green space where there’s practically none?
In the 1980s, artists Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer were living and working in the Tenderloin, right near this alley. Then it was called Cohen Place. And at that time, Smith say the alley received an average of a thousand police calls a year. So in the early ‘90s they began a public art series there. They called it “Performance in the Gutter.”
SMITH: We’d clean up and then we’d do installations and have performances go on here. Just to kind of give a sense of what could be, of what the possibilities could be if we could kind of turn it around.
But they couldn’t do it right away. First, they reached out to their neighbors for ideas and support. Then they went to local nonprofits that helped them with research, planning, and connections so they could approach city government. A decade later, the city agreed to lease them the space for a dollar a year. Then they knew they could really build something. But they started small.
SMITH: So this redwood that we call “Mama Tender” was the first tree that we brought here to live…
And that’s how it started: with one tree, which is now four stories tall, by the way. And as it grew, so did their vision. One day they laid out a blanket of grass for an event. When they were about to pack it up...
SMITH: Somebody in The Senator Hotel just kind of whispered out the window like, “Keep it.” You know like, I was like, “Wow.” That planted the seed really.
And that’s when the alleyway really started to change.
SMITH: Garbage collector trucks didn’t come in here anymore.
And when there was an emergency...
SMITH: The fire department said you know, “We’ll just bring in hoses and ladders. We don’t need to pull a truck in.”
These changes allowed the alley to flourish. Today, there’s all kinds of trees: pine, maple, lemon, olive, gingko, and not one, but two redwoods. From cacti and succulents to bamboo and ferns – sage, rosemary, lavender, and mint – the diversity of plant life in this small space is astounding.
Anne Thomas was caught by surprise when she first saw the forest.
ANNE THOMAS: I was walking really fast and I was really upset because I had to search for a bed. I seen this place and I stopped and I moonwalked back and I said, “Oh my gosh!” And the gate was open – I walked in and I was like, “Oh how beautiful!” Everything is so cute. I wish I could bake something in that oven! You can bake food here. It’s just gorgeous and I thank god that this place is here.
Founder Darryl Smith says the neighbors have really embraced the forest.
SMITH: The neighborhood’s over the years gotten much more involved in it, like taking care of it, watching over it.
But the park’s most frequent visitors are the hummingbirds.
SMITH: The hummingbird is kind of a magical bird…
It’s the only bird that can fly backwards and it has the largest heart in the animal kingdom, relative to its size. But also...
SMITH: It’s the link from green pocket to green pocket. Like, how does it get here? There’s a series, a whole system of green pockets that it ties together in its flight pattern. So they started coming here after we began greening the alley.
During my visit, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds flickered in. They’d hover for a sweet moment, then flicker away. Kind of like the neighbors who wander in and out of this space. For now, it’s forest enough.
From the Tenderloin National Forest, I’m Ali Budner for Crosscurrents.