Millions of tourists traipse through San Francisco’s streets each year, making pilgrimages to Alcatraz and leaning out of cable cars. Strolling through the Tenderloin, however, is most likely not on the average vacationer’s itinerary.
But that could change: a vision germinating in The City’s most famously seedy neighborhood could help transform the neighborhood — currently best known as a terminus for drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes — into a travel destination.
Last month, the State Historical Resources Commission granted 33 blocks of the Tenderloin a National Historic District designation, providing economic incentives to property owners to renovate buildings and credence to neighborhood advocates who say the Tenderloin has much more to offer its residents and visitors than vice.
Tenderloin leaders say the designation, coupled with plans for a Tenderloin museum, walking historical tours and art projects may help boost the morale and image of the downtrodden neighborhood and also encourage economic activity.
As it stands, the neighborhood has dozens of empty storefronts and one of the highest crime rates in The City — though only about 15 percent of that crime is perpetrated by people who live there, said Tenderloin Police Station Capt. Gary Jimenez. As of July, the Tenderloin had seen about 3,500 arrests. The area is one of five San Francisco neighborhoods where police have boosted manpower to curb violent crime.
But there’s far more to the neighborhood than its crime rate, argues Elaine Zamora, manager of the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District: Its community of immigrants, artists and working poor sits at the civic hub of San Francisco.
The Tenderloin’s post-colonial history dates to the Gold Rush and its architecture has been preserved, said historian Michael Corbett, who surveyed the district for the state commission. The neighborhood was first nominated as a historic area in the early ’80s, but the designation was defeated by concerns that it would lead to gentrification.
This time around, no such concerns were raised. Once property owners learned that the designation wouldn’t make it more difficult to renovate the buildings, there was very little opposition, said Don Falk, of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Visions of a Tenderloin history museum are also taking shape: Randy Shaw, executive of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic is forming a nonprofit to raise money for a Tenderloin museum. A large mural by artist Mona Caron has also been commissioned, which Zamora hopes will be the anchor of an art tour.
Jimenez said tourism could help transform the neighborhood into the “wholesome” neighborhood he believes it could be.
“Tourism would bring business to the merchants, so the merchants can in turn contribute more to the front of the premises. And then people wouldn’t feel like walking their kids to the park was like running the gauntlet,” he said.
Randy Shaw’s vision for the Tenderloin History Museum is akin to New York City’s Tenement Museum — “only better,” he said.
“The Tenement Museum shows the way immigrants lived in the early 1900s. We have actual, working, living residential hotels. In 2008, we still have people living in single-room-occupancy buildings,” he said. “I think tourists would be very interested in seeing that.”
Shaw, the longtime executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, is forming a nonprofit to raise money for the Tenderloin museum. He said the group has already taken out a 30-year lease on a building on Leavenworth Street, in the heart of the historical but vice-ridden neighborhood.
He said the nonprofit’s goal will be to raise enough money to open the new museum in two years.
The museum would document the neighborhood’s colorful and unique history, which was recognized Friday by the State Historical Resources Commission when they designated 33 blocks of the neighborhood as a National Historical District.
Don Falk, executive director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, said he’s enthusiastic about the
“I love it,” he said. “The Tenderloin is a neighborhood that has a very rich history. It’s not just the physical structures that make it a historical neighborhood. The neighborhood tells such an important story about San Francisco and about low-income people. The way the Tenderloin has evolved really reflects the wider world.” — Katie Worth
33: Blocks of the Tenderloin approved for historical district designation
3,500: Arrests in the Tenderloin district so far this year
9: Homicides in the Tenderloin in 2007
29,100: Population of the Tenderloin
4,000: Children in the Tenderloin
70 to 100: Empty storefronts in the Tenderloin
29: People per acre, San Francisco
122: People per acre, Tenderloin
65: Percent renter population, San Francisco
99: Percent renter population, Tenderloin
Sources: Tenderloin Community Benefits District, Census 2000, San Francisco Neighborhood Market DrillDown, Urban Solutions Field Data 2000, Tenderloin Economic Development Project, San Francisco Police Department