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The Tenderloin: San Francisco's Fountainhead

by Eric Miller

Cheap RentPictures of Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa seem to stand guard over a small apartment three floors above all that happens in San Francisco's Tenderloin. In some way they offer protections from the reality of what can be a harsh and unforgiving world. Lee says the pictures have been given by friends, and he points proudly to glass figurines gazing out into this small world from a jewelry display case that sits snug against a refrigerator.

The room is small, but it is home for Lee and a network of neighbors that seem to take care of each other like family. Lee seems to know many of the people in the building; they're constantly exchanging food and stories about the long days at work or neighborhood happenings, in person or by phone. Outside, he knows many of the shopowners by name, especially in the restaurants that serve an assortment of Chinese and Vietnamese food, including the favorite beef noodle soup.

Nearby, people line up outside St. Boniface Church, rebuilt by Germans after the great earthquake of 1906 and now the center of preservation efforts by the Vietnamese community. A few blocks away, residential hotels are the first stop for immigrants and family members. A few more blocks and luxury high rises house the more established, who still enjoy the vitality of San Francisco's most urban district. Here also, vacant offices show the final lines of a economic invasion that petered out before overwhelming the district. And at the very edges, new movie theatres, government buildings and a financial district set the neighborhood off from the rest of the city.

Solace & ServiceThe Tenderloin is one of those places that make San Francisco work. It may not be the engine of the city, but it certainly produces the coal that makes the ovens burn hotter. No other place in the city combines as many languages, races, income levels or outlooks on life. Drinking sorrows away in a penthouse apartment or living through them on the street, few in this neighborhood can avoid seeing how the other half, third or quarter lives. Few can avoid chance meetings on the street or the need to communicate on some level, no matter how small or brief, with someone very different from themselves who yet has so much in common.

The Tenderloin is a place those unfamiliar with its webs crossing cultures and spanning generations avoid. It's a place politicians and developers too often see as a "slum" to be razed or redeveloped. But the Tenderloin provides the resources and networks that new generations and immigrants need to build new lives and a new economy. It's also a place that brings together a diverse patchwork of people who form the great quilt of America we all hear about but don't always see.

No, it's not all pretty.

The Tenderloin knows the struggling merchants, harbors the drug deals and feels the pain of the drunk who lacks a way or a will to survive. The Tenderloin shoulders the despair of the youth shot down by the new knowledge that a virus hides in the blood, and understands the fear that expensive drugs affordable on the floors above may be unavailable to save a life on the streets below. The Tenderloin understands that sex can be just a job and that it's the hunger from the outside, and the loneliness inside, that needs to be fed. The Tenderloin understands that though they might hide in the shadows behind the limousines arriving in the Theatres, or under the sparkle of the financial skyline, each person here thinks of this, San Francisco, as their own city and their home.

OverviewRemoved from the reality of its streets, you'll often hear people talk about avoiding the Tenderloin, saying they don't like the neighborhood, or advocating mass demolition and removal. Even from within the district, people look down and hope that things will get better or go away.

The drunks on the corner; the old man in a wheelchair selling drugs; the undocumented immigrants who work themselves into a hidden economy and new life; the students who live here because they can't afford to live anywhere else; and the old people who have stayed because it is their home: the streets are theirs.

The millions are not made here, but many who go on to make up tomorrow's San Francisco start here. The Tenderloin, and places like it, are as necessary to a healthy urban environment as financial, retail and theatre districts. In her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author and urbanist Jane Jacobs noted that cities must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition. "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them," Jacobs wrote. "If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high cost of new construction."

DiversityMuch of San Francisco's successes can be contributed to her immigrants--be they from Peoria or Portugal--who bring new ideas and energy to the city. It is not possible for an expensive high-rise or modern office park to support new ideas and enterprises because the costs are prohibitive. Further, international immigrants need support networks to help them become familiar with their adopted homelands. The Tenderloin provides both good rents and social networks and so cultivates new ideas, channels new energy and prepares countless people for a new life in a new city.

But immigrants are only one segment of the Tenderloin's population, which also includes many people from the top and bottom of the income spectrum. Even if racial diversity isn't such a rarity in today's cities, economic diversity certainly is. A city works even better if it can serve as a mechanism to bring together not only people of diverse races, but of diverse economic backgrounds, who learn from each other and facilitate a better understanding.

For a tourist, the Tenderloin provides some of the most active streets in the city, stores stocking products from Asia, Latin America and India, and some of the best food and best prices of any city district, anywhere.

The Tenderloin may be the neighborhood that's most often ignored by San Franciscans, avoided by tourist buses and overlooked in brochures. But the Tenderloin is undoubtedly the neighborhood that builds San Francisco, not one girder at a time, but one life at a time. It is where many cities of people come together, and where the foundations of a new San Francisco can be seen.

Eric Miller