The Tenderloin is the last bastion of affordability for working-class and low-income San Franciscans. (Cindy Chew/2013 S.F. Examiner)

We will not be gentrified: In defense of the Tenderloin

By now, many of you may have read about the controversy surrounding plans to change the name — and fabric — of our beloved Tenderloin neighborhood. The commercial real estate firm JLL wants to rebrand the Tenderloin as “Union Square West” to attract new investment, new consumers and new people.

In a far more aggressive posture than the often more insidious ways of gentrification, JLL wants to create a 16-square-block shopping district in the heart of the Tenderloin so companies like Ralph Lauren, West Elm and The Container Store can relocate to our side of downtown.

This isn’t new to our beloved neighborhood; we’ve seen many attempts by newcomers, yuppies and capitalist exploiters to change the name and makeup of our neighborhood: Trendyloin, Tendernob and, now, Union Square West.

As an unofficial representative of the Frisco born-and-raised 415ers who was raised in and by the Tenderloin, I say no. Don’t even think about stepping onto our sacred pavement with your venal and shameless ways. You and your gentrification are not welcome here. The Tenderloin isn’t yours to be commodified, sold and rebranded for consumption.

You don’t make a neighborhood better by flooding it with investment capital in the form of new, higher-earning residents and businesses to cater to them. You make it by investing in current residents. The present social fabric needs to be strengthened, not replaced.

There is no need to revisit the pros and cons of gentrification. Anyone living in The City is well aware of the arguments in favor and against. What does need to be said, however, is that resisting aggressive gentrification is not synonymous with preserving the status quo.

Myself and others aren’t happy with the current condition of the neighborhood, either. We want better living conditions. We want jobs for our residents. We want more murals. We want what everyone wants for our piece of San Francisco. What we don’t want is to be told we are in blight and undeserving of positive change. We don’t want to be told that in order for our streets to improve, we have to be replaced and rebranded for other people.

The Tenderloin is already a strong brand. It is one of aspiration, ambition and the blending of worlds. My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins came here as immigrants to find a better life for themselves, and their future children. This is the story of the Tenderloin.

You see, what’s in our name — the Tenderloin — is ultimately an imperfect but necessary piece: The Tenderloin is the last bastion of affordability for working-class and low-income San Franciscans. Yes, the Tenderloin is overrun with crime, drugs, prostitution, destitution, urine-baked streets, neglectful landlords and slumlords and more of the same that no child should have to endure. But it’s also a neighborhood of tireless immigrant families, barbers, teachers, recovering substance abusers and the formerly incarcerated simply trying to live. The Tenderloin is poor and rich, beautiful and ugly, full of despair and hope.

The Tenderloin needs repairs; it does not need to be replaced. Far from a rhetorical outcry, understand that changing the name of the Tenderloin today is setting the stage for displacement of the families — grandparents, parents and children — who are currently building their lives in the neighborhood. This isn’t as much about me as it is about them.

Therefore, for the future of our neighborhood, we will resist and we will win. We do not want, nor do we need, a new identity. I am proud to have been raised in and by the Tenderloin.

Chirag Bhakta is an organizer with an affordable housing developer in The City, and was made in the Tenderloin.

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