The test of the Tenderloin - Page 5

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

Darnell is rightfully ecstatic at the inclusive nature of his library, but has been hurt over its reception at an arts advisory meeting he attended to publicize its creation. "Someone whispered under their breath 'I would never lend anything to anyone in the Tenderloin,' " he tells me. The exclusion that Saito and Darnell sometimes feel highlights the reality that the definition of the Tenderloin might well vary, even among those who are set on making it "a better place." The arts community appears to suffer from fractures that appear along the lines of where people live, their organizational affiliation, their housing status, and how they think art should play a role in community building.

Sammy Soun is one Tenderloin resident who would welcome an increased focus on art in the Tenderloin. Soun was born in a Thailand refugee camp to Cambodian parents fleeing the civil wars in their country. He grew up in the Tenderloin, where his family lived packed into small studios and apartments.

But he was part of a community, with plenty of support, and lives in the neighborhood to this day, as do one of his four siblings and his daughter. Soun paints, does graffiti, draws — he's considering transferring from City College to the San Francisco Art Institute. He has worked at the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club for nine years, giving back to the kids he says "are the future. They're going to be the ones that promote this place or keep it going — if they want to." His sister, cousins, and uncles still live in the neighborhood. You might say he has a vested interest in the area's future.

He finds the incoming resources for the Tenderloin arts scene to be a mixed bag. Soun has never been to the Luggage Store, although it's one of the longtime community art hubs in the area. He can't relate to the kinds of art done at the neighborhood's recent digital arts center, Grey Area Foundation for the Arts, though he says the space has contacted him and friends to visit. His disconnect from the arts scene implies that future arts projects need to work harder on their community outreach — or even better, planning — with artists who call the Tenderloin home.

But Soun loves the new Mona Caron mural the CBD sponsored on the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue. Well-known for her panoramic bike path mural behind the Church Street Safeway, Caron painted "Windows into the Tenderloin" after dozens of interviews and tours of the neighborhood with community members. Its "before and after" panels are a dummies' guide for anyone seeking input on ways to strengthen the Tenderloin community — though the "after" does show structural changes like roads converted into greenways and roof gardens sending tendrils down the sides of buildings, the focal point is the visibility of families. Where children were ushered through empty parking lots single-file in the "before" section, the second panel shows families strolling, children running, a space that belongs to them.

Our interview is probably the first time somebody has asked Soun where he thinks arts funding in the Tenderloin should go. "For projects by the kids in the community," he said.

Truth be told, more art of any kind can only make the Tenderloin a better place — but if you're trying to improve quality life, focus needs to be on plans that positively affect residents of all ages — art can be a vital part of that, but it should be one part of a plan that ensures rent control, safe conditions, and access to services. After all, if you're going to rebrand the Tenderloin, you might want to look at the painting on the wall.

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