As a child growing up in the Tenderloin, Cyntia Salazar felt like her only respite from the dense, concrete-filled streets was the poorly maintained playground at the corner of Turk and Hyde streets.
Two decades later, Salazar, now 30, works five days a week at the intersection of O’Farrell and Larkin streets, the location of Sergeant John Macauley Park. She picks up trash and offers visitors health and harm reduction supplies and information about local resources. She also provides a watchful eye over dozens of children who visit the park daily.
Overseen by the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, Salazar’s role as park captain is just one of the ways neighborhood residents are working to reimagine public space in the Tenderloin. Many say there’s growing momentum to bring parks to the neighborhood, as the pandemic underscored the important role open space plays in a neighborhood’s ability to thrive.
A June 2021 report from the Trust for Public Land put numbers to what residents of the Tenderloin have long felt. It concluded that while San Francisco has the sixth best park system in the country, those who live in low-income neighborhoods continue to have 56 percent less access to these spaces.
“We deserve nice things, too,” Salazar said.
The Tenderloin feels this inequity deeply.
Its median family income is about $36,000, compared to $104,000 citywide, according to the most recent American Community Survey based on census data. Many San Franciscans write it off as a corner of The City best avoided, a bastion of violence, drug dealing and uncleanliness. But the Tenderloin is also one of The City’s most diverse neighborhoods with large concentrations of immigrants, seniors, children and individuals with disabilities. It also has a rich history of activism and culture.
“I think there’s space for addressing both of those realities in the neighborhood,” said Hunter Franks, Director of Inviting Space at the TLCBD. “Beauty and joy have an important role to play in addressing the challenges in the neighborhood, and also have an important role to play in showing what success and joy in public space could look like in the Tenderloin.”
‘Failure of imagination’
When San Franciscans think of a park, they’re likely to think of lush, spacious destinations such as Golden Gate Park, the Presidio or Dolores Park.
No such park is possible in the Tenderloin, where crowded streets with speeding cars cut through the neighborhood and grass is all but impossible to find. But accepting this as the status quo reflects a “failure of imagination,” says Kasey Asberry, executive director of environmental nonprofit Demonstration Gardens.
Advocates point to ways that the pandemic has forced The City to repurpose public space in the Tenderloin as proof that atypical parks can have a great impact on the community.
Take the recently unveiled Safe Passage Park on the 200 block of Turk Street. It converts a portion of the pavement into an area protected from traffic where children can play safely and residents can gather.
Simple approaches like this one can be replicated neighborhood-wide to promote engagement, advocates say, suggesting public art installations, turning vacant lots and or retail into community space, the addition of tables and chairs to public spaces and filling once-dodgy alleyways with lighting and greenery.
“While spaces may look a little different here, they are just as, if not even more, valuable and appreciated by folks who are in the neighborhood,” Franks said.
All the imagination in the world means nothing if there are no resources.
Public space advocates argue that the Tenderloin’s crowded conditions and high proportion of vulnerable residents actually demand more investment in order to create much-needed open space. They say the pandemic has compelled The City to more robustly address the lack of vibrant open space in the Tenderloin, but that this need should be considered a high priority from both a public health and equity perspective.
“There’s a sense that it’s good enough for the Tenderloin. In other words, it’s good enough for the poor, Black and Brown people.” Asberry said. “It’s an unexamined bias that we really need to take a look at and needs to be confronted.”
She added that this funding should flow through numerous types of grassroots organizations to ensure a wide variety of needs are met.
Resources are financial, but they’re also investments of time, energy and creativity that can activate the space. Ideas include movie nights and open mic events at La Cocina or traffic closures on Larkin Street to make room for outdoor dining.
Lena Miller, who runs the local nonprofit Urban Alchemy, wants to see coffee service and board games and other “wholesome” activities made available to the public at parklets to invite people into the space.
“I’m not saying this from a Pollyannish point of view. There’s nothing naive about me,” she said. “But I still think people enjoy [these] activities and they don’t have to have any fear, and there’s not an edge all the time.”
Many say this approach promotes positive behavior and intrinsically mitigates some of the illegal activity often associated with the Tenderloin such as drug dealing or drug use.
Chief to any successful project in the Tenderloin, though, is making sure the project stems from a grassroots process as opposed to a top-down one. Local officials often tell the neighborhood what’s good for it, as opposed to listening to residents who know best what they need in their own backyards, residents say.
Community input has been central to the parklet design process for La Cocina, a food hall in the Tenderloin that helps women of color launch their own businesses. It plans to open a parklet later this year that will be open to the public, not just customers, and prioritize its role as a gathering place for all residents, as opposed to just a dining location.
Naomi Maisel from La Cocina shares her blueprint: focus groups with community-based organizations; working with neighborhood stakeholders to distribute surveys; and hosting listening sessions to solicit input on what people want to see.
The feedback has informed the tentative design, which includes easily movable furniture to make room for community activities, lots of wall space for local muralists, greenery to add nature to the concrete-ridden neighborhood and lighting to create a space to gather safely after dark.
“I see this as really fertile ground for ideas, action and connection in the Tenderloin,” Maisel said.
Public safety measures
Nobody denies the Tenderloin has unique challenges around creating safe and healthy spaces. While The City is working to increase its investment via compassionate public safety efforts, many would like to see that continue to grow.
Urban Alchemy leads that effort. It clears street corners, green spaces, parklets and other open spaces of illegal activity while also providing resources to people who might need support or services.
“We make it look easy, but it is not easy,” Miller said of the team, most of whom are formerly incarcerated or formerly homeless.
Its presence on Tenderloin streets has given many the sense that it might be possible to strike a balance between guaranteeing people the right to gather fearlessly in their own neighborhood without punishing those experiencing mental health issues, crisis, substance addiction or poverty.
“It’s easy to say there are two camps: NIMBY folks who want all people out, and the people who want it to be open season,” Maisel said. “I don’t think that’s accurate. That’s a misrepresentation of what I see day-to-day. We’re all here to care for one another and our neighbors.”
Many who live in the Tenderloin think this oversimplification hinders efforts to effectively combat challenges in the neighborhood.
“I believe that we’re really trying to make sure that everyone gets the services they need while still creating a safe, vibrant and inviting space for everyone,” Salazar said. “I feel like the goal at the end of the day is to create more open spaces for everyone to use.”