SF artists’ last stand emerges in the gritty Tenderloin

Every year, it is becoming more and more expensive to live in San Francisco. This

economic truth does not appear to be changing, yet the faces of many of The City's beloved neighborhoods are.

As the forces of development and venture capitalism shake the very core of The City's identity, some of its more creative denizens may seem more like a dying breed than part of a burgeoning art movement.

Take the Tenderloin. It's one of San Francisco's most culturally rich neighborhoods that is also a national historic landmark. The tiny triangular neighborhood bordered by Market Street to the south, Van Ness Avenue to the west and Geary Street to the north is one of The City's densest. Many homeless people take shelter there, drug dealers visibly transact sales on sidewalks, and petty crime is disproportionately high.

But the Tenderloin also possesses what may be The City's last frontier of an artist community, which thrives on the blocks upon blocks of the gritty urban life.

As every corner of San Francisco has felt the squeeze of economic pressure — exponential growth in rents and cost-of-living triggered by the fast climb out of the Great Recession due to a flourishing technology industry — the hard-to-define art community of the Tenderloin is concerned about its own future.

The neighborhood has by no means escaped the intensifying economic pressures, but perhaps has yet to undergo the more dramatic gentrification witnessed in other areas like the Mission, another community with a rich artistic history.

As that threat looms, one nonprofit has embarked on a project to identify the artists living and working in the community, along with their hangouts and art galleries. The Wildflowers Institute hopes this information will more smartly inform the debate over the future of the Tenderloin.

To date, the organization has identified about 50 artists, but it has been estimated that there are hundreds more.


Artist David Young, aka D Young V, 36, has lived in the Tenderloin for about 11 years. The New Jersey transplant has a studio apartment at a Geary and Leavenworth Street building in exchange for being the property manager and ekes out a living through art sales and odd jobs.

The art scene in the Tenderloin is “getting a lot smaller with the rising costs of rent and a lot of businesses getting kicked out,” Young said during an interview outside of Angel Cafe, kitty-corner from his home. “Two or three years ago, it was a lot more flourishing. Now, it's just a lot smaller.”

Young said there remains an existing and vibrant community of artists and gallery space, like the screen-printer the loin on Larkin Street near Geary Street, but new artists aren't moving in.

“They'll probably move to Oakland or L.A. or something,” he said.

There's no secret why. It's the housing shortage and high rents.

Depending on the block, median rents for a one-bedroom in the Tenderloin range from $1,771 to $2,295, according to data from Trulia, an online residential real estate service.

Citywide, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rent for $2,897 a month on average and two-bedroom units average $3,898, according to Rentjungle.com.

If it's a small dwelling, artists usually need to rent extra workspace that can cost another $500.

“Most artists can't afford that,” Young said.

Still, Young said the Tenderloin is “the last one left” when it comes to finding a lower-priced apartment.

“If you look at the Mission, that's been completely gentrified for the most part,” Young said. “There aren't a lot of neighborhoods where art can flourish here anymore.”

Iraq War veteran Colby Buzzell, a writer and photographer, moved back to the Tenderloin this year after being away three years.

“I was barely lucky to end up where I am when I moved back — I almost ended up in Oakland,” Buzzell said. He's paying more than he did before and for a space that's “smaller than a prison cell.”

“Artists always need cheap rent and odd jobs,” Buzzell said. “The Tenderloin is cheap I guess for San Francisco, but it's still astronomical.”

Buzzell's latest endeavor is a zine called TL that he creates by taking photos with his cellphone of the neighborhood's street scenes.

“I have to be doing things to lift my spirits up,” he said.

Buzzell said that some people see San Francisco as a “perfect tech-geek-saturated city. Then you have this one neighborhood [the Tenderloin] that is hell on Earth.”

Buzzell may call it hell on Earth and the place you go when you hit rock bottom, but “it's the only neighborhood I feel like I fit in. The Tenderloin feels like home to me.”

That's how it was for artist Hugh Leeman. Nine years ago, he was on a layover and found an apartment for several hundred dollars in the Tenderloin at Golden Gate Avenue near Market Street.

In the beginning, he had no shower curtain and survived on a ramen noodle diet. But Leeman fell in love with the heart of the Tenderloin — that is, the lower-income people. He began sketching those he saw living on the street, offering them $5 to model. He started the T-shirt project, an effort that involves printing his street art on T-shirts to benefit those in the neighborhood. He speaks of strong ties he forged with residents there.

“The City has been good to me. I've done well here,” Leeman said.

It was nine years ago that Leeman moved to the Tenderloin, and he is philosophical about the changes he sees around him. But he acknowledged that if he came to San Francisco on a layover today, it would be just that — a layover. And Leeman said that while he would like to spend another nine years in San Francisco, he will likely have to move on.

“I do think it's not sustainable for me,” Leeman said.


Despite the challenges facing artists in the area, a number of galleries opened in the past two years, said Jenny Darland, gallery director of the Shooting Gallery.

Darland described the special atmosphere of the creative spirit in the neighborhood.

“The art community of the TL is unique in that the neighborhood itself is so unique — all walks of life live and work in the neighborhood and serve as inspiration to many artists,” she said. “The area has a gritty feel about it that residents and visitors alike thrive on, and these same residents, including its pigeons, are often seen in artwork.”

Darland said rents have reached a point where “artists aren't able to move to the neighborhood right out of school, or move here from elsewhere to pursue their artistic goals.” She said those living there now are threatened by the increasing sales of properties and major building renovations.

Rents can threaten art-related businesses as well. Screen-printing business the loin, which collaborates with local artists and shows their work, was facing a rent hike, but was able to find a space on Larkin Street just blocks away from its Eddy Street location, manager Jarred Hand said.

“What's going on here is pretty awesome,” Hand said of the art scene there, “and I dig it.”


Hanmin Liu, president of the Wildflower Institute, said that once the mapping of artists is complete, the focus will shift to policy efforts, art commissions and recognition of artists.

“If we capture the reality — there is really interesting underground work happening in the Tenderloin — then we know if that is being threatened or not,” Liu said. “There's huge emotion around this issue. We've heard a lot of different individuals in the community very concerned about the displacement. And the other side of it, the need for improvements.”

Darland suggested The City should have “incentives for creatives to live here and help them to stay.”

“Just as companies are offered incentives to move [to] and stay in San Francisco, individuals should [be] as well if they provide important cultural contributions to our city,” she said.

There may be a chance to preserve the existing artist community, but some believe the economic forces will prevail in decimating it — and by design.

Young said the rise in costs has created a pervasive negativity.

“When you hang out with artists or you go to a bar or an art show, the one main topic of conversation is how expensive it is to live here now and how everything is changing,” Young said. “It's the same story. It has happened a thousand times over. Now it's just happening here.”

If San Francisco wants an artist culture, it has “to work with the budget of artists,” Young said, suggesting more below-market-rate housing, work spaces and other incentives. The benefits are that it could keep “The City interesting. It keeps the culture alive.”

“When you have more of a cultural drive, it takes people's interests and puts it towards other things outside of just money or their career or this sort of sterile thought,” Young said.

Buzzell has taken a more fatalistic outlook about where the Tenderloin is headed.

“It's all being plotted right now to be gentrified,” he said. “I'm going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, but it's going to die soon.”

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