Any outsider who wanders into today’s Tenderloin neighborhood without having specific business there would presumably be arriving by accident. The neighborhood between upscale Union Square and Nob Hill is a gritty, downtrodden home to an uneasy mixture of about 29,000 working-poor residents — mostly immigrant families — coexisting with transient drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes, plus a sprinkling of struggling artists.
Dozens of storefronts sit vacant and many of those open for business are mini markets offering beer, cheap wine and tobacco. The Tenderloin accounted for about 3,500 arrests so far this year and is one of five San Francisco neighborhoods where police are stationing extra officers to curb violent crime.
Despite all this, the Tenderloin has visionary advocates who are convinced the rundown area can be transformed into a cultural destination. Their cause won a major boost last month when the State Historical Resources Commission designated 33 Tenderloin blocks as a National Historic District, which opens attractive tax incentives to property owners for renovating their classic buildings.
Historic District status also bestows credence on those community leaders who have been actively promoting a Tenderloin revival. Their efforts already encompass raising money for a proposed Tenderloin museum, commissioning a large outdoor mural to encourage arts activities and organizing historical walking tours. The overall goal is to boost the morale and image of this hard-knocks neighborhood as a way to encourage small-business economic activity that, in turn, could lead to more investment confidence for property upgrades.
The Tenderloin’s neighborhood history dates back to the Gold Rush and has always been somewhat raffish, after the style of the Barbary Coast. It was rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and its retro architecture has remained largely unchanged for decades. The neighborhood was first considered for a historic designation in 1983. But the effort was knocked out by fears that gentrification would drive out low-income occupants and that property owners would face excessive interference in renovating their buildings.
Those worries seem to be less of an issue this time around, probably because the main organizers of the newest Tenderloin revival drive are neighborhood activists — not developers with big-money dreams of razing the old buildings and putting in flashy high-rise condos. Everyone involved appears fully aware of the “elephant in the room” and expresses determination not to repeat the shameful mass dislocations of The City’s flawed Fillmore redevelopment.
Ideally, the Tenderloin’s 1920s-era apartment buildings would have their classic exteriors refurbished and their interior facilities fully modernized, funded by locally-obtained investments that protect the existing residents and businesses from being forced out. The admirable dream of restoring the Tenderloin as a family-friendly and tourist-welcoming San Francisco jewel must not be accompanied by another rampant expulsion of the working poor.