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.


Only one TL resident appears to be sourced for this piece?

Perhaps if the residents of the TL were allowed self determination over their neighborhood instead of being objects for the out of neighborhood nonprofiteers' enterprises, then proposals for the TL might reflect TL residents' aspirations?

Seriously, the TL has astronomical rates of un and underemployment, yet few if any of the nonprofit workforce live in the TL. Many commute in from the East Bay where it is less expensive to live. How about as an economic development strategy, the City mandates that 4/5 of the nonprofit workforce that receives City funding make the sacrifices to stay in the City?

Randy Shaw is the poster scamster for the problem. Shaw lives in a six room mansion in the Oakland hills. His salary has doubled to $140K over the past decade while the subsidies received by TL residents have remained flat or fallen. Shaw's portfolio is not limited to storefronts and master lease SRO operations. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic also operates beyondchron, employing another non TL resident as shin kicker for Shaw by publishing a blog that is designed to reward supporters and punish opponents, all to bring in more money to the THC.

The main reason why the TL is mired in disgustingness is because the job opportunities for commuter nonprofiteers would dry up were the problems solved. Job one of the white liberals is to monopolize positions of relative power in that low income queer community of color.


Posted by marcos on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 7:26 am

Sammy Soun, Rick Darnell, his colleagues at NOM-CBD, and other sources I didn't directly quote, but interviewed for this piece like Elvin Padilla and Kai Wilson, president of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Association are all residents of the neighborhood and all contributed information for the article.

"Mired in disgustingness" is an interesting response to the story that's told in the article, which talks about a lot of positive stuff going on in the neighborhood.

I think it's probably attitudes like that that keep SF residents from other parts of the city out until flashy, big budget projects are built to tell them it's okay to venture into the TL.

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 7:42 am

Or maybe it's the filth, public defecation, panhandling, open-air drug use and screaming mentally ill wandering the streets that I see everytime I'm in the Tenderloin.

Posted by JR on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

I believe this idea that a neighborhood can be shaped to ones own designs is completely misguided. What Randy doesn't say is that all this rich history he's so proud of was not created during the current reign of non-profits controlling development in the TL. It once was a place that played host to a wide variety of entertainment, businesses, and yes... vice. It was a time when SRO's played a valuable part in housing what was once a very diverse transient population. Shipyard workers, musicians, entertainers, and roustabouts of all types once contributed to the vibrancy of this neighborhood.

Take a walk around Taylor, Eddy, and Turk and you'll notice that storefronts that once housed viable businesses are either boarded-up or have become offices for non-profits. Randy's own organization was involved in the eviction of long-time business (McDonald's Books) from a space on Turk Street in order to make way for his own storefront office where he keeps the blinds drawn 24 hours a day.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 30, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

Caitlin, we have two lower income communities, SoMa and the TL that are separated by Market Street. Corporate SF wants to permanently divide these two communities with an "arts district" so as to conquer them.

The commuter nonprofiteers see disgustingness as an affordability strategy in the TL just as the commuter nonprofiteers see disgustingness as an affordablity strategy here in the Mission.

Residents of the Mission and the TL do not like plodding through human shit, piss and trash, seeing crumbling human lives splayed out on the streets and sidewalks (not to be construed as supporting Prop L which I oppose vigorously) as we go about our lives. And I'd wager that the only reason why some of the business supported "beautification" proposals have legs is because the progressive nonprofits have adopted no compelling alternative. We can't fight something with either nothing or more of the same failed policies.

District Six in general and the TL in particular host the lions' share of nonprofits and takes in the lion's share of city funding for nonprofits. Most all of the workers in these agencies are commuters from elsewhere. Yet our district has astronomical levels of under and unemployment.

If it is okay to suggest that cops and firefighters live in the City, then it is okay to suggest that nonprofiteers live in the City and more importantly, because nonprofits tend to be designated stakeholders before City agencies, in the communities they are empowered to speak for.

A real economic development strategy would be one of self determination where district residents with roots in the community take those jobs from commuters, so that the political agendas for our communities are organic and native. The TL and Mission would do well to capture those nonprofit public dollars into the local neighborhood economy.

A real political development strategy would be one of self determination as well. There are reasons why residents are consistently marginalized in San Francisco's low income communities. And the outcomes of such an approach leave much to be desired. Perhaps you really believe that Oakland Hills mansion dweller Randy Shaw or a well off condo owner like Puffington Ho-Garth speak accurately for the TL?

I'm sure that we can count on Tim and Bruce to give gentrifiers some op-ed space following Adachi and Illig to present their side of the story to Guardian readers. Fair and balanced, you know the drill. Anything but listening to the people directly impacted by these policies.


Posted by marcos on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 8:41 am

You'll find our central thesis is actually that Randy does not speak for the TL on these issues, and CERTAINLY not condo owners. Our premise is that proposed changes might actually push out the low income residents there now, and that "developments" need to be residents-based and driven to make them beneficial for the TL community.

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 8:54 am

Caitlin, there are reasons why the TL finds itself in its current predicament. The nonprofiteers lost the Mission as it was rezoned.

There is no indication that the nonprofits which currently hold the cards and represent the neighborhood are going to see any sort of different outcomes in the TL.

Developments cannot be resident based until the political calculus of the Tenderloin is determined by residents. Otherwise, we've seen this time and again, the price point of the nonprofits will be identified and met, the community will be sold out again, and we'll fall further behind.

As it stands, we see nonprofiteers fail upwards like Carly Fiorina the way that Randy Shaw's salary has doubled, the way that Eric Quezada has fallen upwards into positions of increasing responsibility after blowing Eastern Neighborhoods, and we will see Tim Redmond wringing his hands about how bad it all is but that it is all we've got so we're going to grudgingly support it.

Seen this movie several times before, didn't like the endings. Let's have the residents write a new one!


Posted by marcos on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 9:44 am

when are you going to stop talking about the buildings and start talking about the people that Randy Shaw houses?

because no amount of window dressing is going to hide the blight, caused by people, not buildings

Posted by jeff on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 10:05 am

Jeff is correct that the THC warehouses those who need in depth services. But those services are minimal yet are used as political chits to keep Newsom's power base happy. Nonprofits provide a very small percentage of all services needed, but are so dependent upon city contracts that they will sell out possibilities for increasing the slice of the pie for services just so they can keep on providing theirs. This means no net increase in services while problems continue to mount.

THC is part of Newsom's power base in the TL as Jeff correctly notes, as the THC reaps the benefits of Care Not Cash.

But the human blight is being preserved in the Tenderloin by paternalistic nonprofits that have no interest in solving problems, and by the SFPD which contains the poor in a crescent running from the TL, through SoMa and into the North Mission.

Most residents of the TL are sane, functionally sober and housed. Yet the nonprofiteers look nothing like the TL residents. One activist with a housing nonprofit actually responded to my critiques with the question "if we don't have nonprofits, then how will activists find jobs?"

This self centeredness and economic conflict of interest is what is keeping the crescent as a refuge for the City's problems, keeping funding for social services static and keeping professional activists unaccountable and employed.


Posted by marcos on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 11:04 am

To Marcos: feelin your comments, and would love to have you over for tea and conversation at the Faithful Fools, a community center where I live (yeah, live! ;) and work in the TL (234 Hyde). If you're interested, we've got a little no-on-L action planned for October that we'd love to have more folks join. Call us at 415-474-0508 and ask for Katie! :)

Posted by Katie Loncke on Sep. 29, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

The media continues to feed the community the bs about Randy Shaw visions for the TL, who lives in the Berkeley Hills, close to Scenic St. Please! Please let's hear from the people who live in the Tenderloin.

Posted by Guest Robert on Sep. 30, 2010 @ 11:11 am

I have to strongly agree with the many previous posters who called a hard foul on Randy Shaw. He does not legitimately speak in any sense for the Tenderloin.

But -far- worse, he recently wrote in an editorial in his pet online paper that the decision the Board of Supervisors made to support the Candlestick Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment project with the criminal Miami based developer Lennar corporation was.. courageous...

That decision was a travesty and will likely result in hundreds of people dying of cancer, mesothelioma, and asthma over the next century.

The only reason that a supposed 'liberal' like Shaw would support such a vile outcome is that it means big developer dollars from Lennar will go to nonprofits like his own and ACORN (now ACCE) and the SF Labor Council, the latter two of which brokered the Hunters Point travesty moving forward.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 30, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

Shaw is Newsom's bitch.

When Newsom says jump, Randy will or else Newsom will eliminate the Master Lease Program. Problem solved!


Posted by marcos on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 9:03 am

Federal authorities should be called in to investigate exactly what is going on in the tenderloin. My suspicion is that there is massive collusion, fraud, and civil rights violations occurring in this district. My background: SF native, economist by degree, currently living in the tendernob, employed as a federal contractor (DHHS).

No one finds it odd that we just went through the largest property bubble in the history of the modern western world (not an exaggeration), in a city at the forefront of obscene housing pricing (again, not an exaggeration), and a non-profit is able to become the largest owner of residential buildings in the district?

The problems here are many but the cause is singular: SROs are being used to warehouse those deemed untouchable by the city's politicians. Everyone always references those SRO's filled with the elderly and hardworking/earnest folks who are down one their luck and working to better their lives. I have nothing admiration for them and those helping them; but, these building are the minority.

The typical SROs are not referenced by the feel-good articles of the day. These are the SROs that house the crack-heads who sell drugs directly out of their windows or the chronic drunks who are belligerent by 8 am and use their subsidized room as a home base for all day drinking binges. Where are the articles about how the corner stores in this district all receive payoff money from drug dealers so that they can use their stores as hideoutes when the police arrive and use their registers as change order machines, how some have scanners to help give head's up so that people can change their description as the 911 calls are being radioed out to the police, how all the homeless here have 'credit' accounts with the corner stores to exchange food-stamps for alcohol and cash. How police are on a first name basis with the regular vagrants who are responsible for 90% of the noise (deranged yelling) for each block but don't do anything because all their arrests are thrown out or not pursued. How 'non-profits' receive government section 8 subsidies while maintaining roach motels and drug dens. How Sunset Scavenger has received a waiver somehow so that they can collect regular garbage at 10pm (we're talking the huge garbage bins that require a truck to empty and make an enormous amout of sound) and then come again to pickup recycling at 630am (again, extremely noisy) that residents are constantly running on ~5/6 hours of sleep. How there are 500+ units of housing with 4 corner stores on every block--yet still not classified as a residential neighborhood.

If gentrification is defined as an influx of those with higher standards and higher income potential, then I am all for it. There is no way to improve an area dominated by drug dealers, addicts, and the mentally unstable without bringing in 'normal' people. The 'non-profits' are in name only--they are actually part of the problem and serve to maintain the status quo. That guy's been 'working on' (not living in) the Tenderloin for 30 years and has amassed a portfolio of buildings and a 6 figure salary....non-profit my ass. That guy has a business model and it seems to be working well for his finances.

As a native of this city I have been forced to realize that the liberal vs conservative dynamic is a false choice. This is the only rational choice left after seeing countless well-meaning but misguided people come to this city to try and change the world only to realize that they're trying to reinvent the wheel. After 30 years - it's time to try something else. Instead of creating a district where people HAVE to live here (subsidized SROs) why not try opening up the district to people who WANT to live here (aka - start selling the properties individually--to exclude developers--to people who live and work in the city).

Posted by Guest on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 8:57 am

Leftie nonprofiteers believe that anyone better off than abject poor is rich and will gentrify. Their concern is not ill placed, just too rigid. How do we make space for working people amidst lower income communities in a way that prevents displacement?

There is no nonprofit percentage in answering that question, so we can count on the nonprofiteers to revert to their "four legs good, two legs bad" chants.


Posted by marcos on Oct. 01, 2010 @ 10:24 am

The most disgusting place in SF is the Tenderloin. Why don't you vote for a supervisor who will make a change for the better because jane Kim isn't doing anything and Chris Daley was terrible too

Posted by Guest on Jul. 07, 2011 @ 10:25 am

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