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Arise, Tenderloin

It is San Francisco’s most glaring contradiction, an island of need in a sea of prosperity. Can it be helped? Does it even want to be?

A painfully familiar sight in the Tenderloin: the line for a free meal at Glide Church.

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A blunt-talking former pimp and drug-dealer, Del Seymour now gives tours of what he calls "the other wine country."

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An open-topped bus full of tourists takes in the sights.

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Two women pass one of the Tenderloin's colorful murals.

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Treasure biscuits.

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A battered Bible lies on top of bedding.

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Moving a mattress.

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Barring a seismic shift in city politics, the Tenderloin is not going to gentrify the way that similar neighborhoods have in other cities. Not next year, maybe never.

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Between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the pews at St. Bonfiace Parish become a refuge for the weary.

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What’s preventing the Tenderloin from going the route of the Bowery or downtown L.A.? Four factors, taken together, make it virtually impossible for the district to gentrify in the traditional sense: zoning laws, city politics, entrenched nonprofits, and unique housing stock. Of these, longtime observers say, the housing stock is the crucial element. If the Tenderloin had different types of buildings, the almighty dollar might eventually trump the other three factors. But it doesn’t have different buildings. It has SROs.

The Tenderloin contains about 100 SROs, or single-room-occupancy residential hotels—more than any other neighborhood in the country. To find out how that came to be, I turn to Peter Field, a former mental health case worker in the Tenderloin with an encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood’s history. “These buildings were all erected after the great earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the old Tenderloin,” Field tells me during a six-hour neighborhood tour that covers about six blocks. (Field gives extraordinary public walking tours of the neighborhood twice a year through City Guides.) Older wooden buildings were replaced by taller structures made of reinforced concrete masonry. Many of them were SROs, built to maximize profits and cater to San Francisco’s large population of seasonal and maritime laborers. After World War I, the emphasis shifted to building studio apartment buildings, again to maximize profits. (So many businessmen and politicians used these studios to house their paramours that they were known as “mistress apartments.”)

For a time, the Tenderloin was what Field calls “San Francisco’s premier entertainment and vice district,” a hedonistic scene filled with nightclubs, theaters, brothels, and restaurants. Its SROs lacked kitchens and often individual bathrooms, but they were cheap and decently maintained. For decades, they housed many of the city’s working men and women: police officers, barbers, stenographers, teachers, factory workers. During the Great Depression, though, the Tenderloin began to decline. Its gradual deterioration accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s, when its aging, increasingly poor population was flooded with mentally ill patients who had been deinstitutionalized and prisoners released from overcrowded jails. They were joined by working-class African Americans displaced by urban renewal policies south of Market and in the Western Addition. In the Reagan years, the TL became increasingly populated by members of the urban underclass, many of them black, most receiving welfare, some of them homeless.

But the event that truly created the Tenderloin of today took place in 1980, when developers proposed three luxury high-rise hotels in the neighborhood. Residents and nonprofit advocacy groups organized to keep the big hotels out. The high rises were built, but in the aftermath of the fight, the city passed two crucial laws. First, the city made it illegal for owners to convert SROs into tourist hotels unless they also replaced the low-income units or paid into a fund for affordable housing. Second, it passed a zoning law lowering the height maximum in the Tenderloin from 30 stories to between 8 and 13.

These laws made it virtually impossible for developers to “Manhattanize” the Tenderloin. Meanwhile, the nonprofits, which had lobbied for the laws and led the fight to keep out the big hotels, themselves began to buy or lease buildings. These nonprofits, which include the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC), the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), and Mercy Housing, now own or lease more than 5,000 housing units in the Tenderloin. The city plays a critical role too: It has loaned the nonprofits money to acquire or rehab about 50 properties with 4,000 affordable units, and it holds or finances master leases on dozens of other such buildings. “The Tenderloin is the only place where the nonprofits own the housing,” says Field. “This protects the poor people in the neighborhood from changes in demographics.” It also gives the nonprofits a vested interest in keeping their clients from being dispersed.

Given this unique stew of interests, it’s easy to see why city politics stand in the way of any fundamental change in the Tenderloin. The mission of organizations like the TNDC, the THC, and long-established, widely respected charities like Glide and St. Anthony, is to provide support for low-income, vulnerable, and marginalized people, to protect renters from illegal evictions, and to defend their turf against gentrification. In progressive San Francisco, this is as close to a mom-and-apple-pie mission as you can find—and from the Feinstein administration in the late ’70s to Ed Lee’s today, San Francisco’s leaders have not only accepted the status quo; they’ve actively encouraged it.

“This is a well-run SRO,” says Del Seymour, leading the way into the Cadillac Hotel. Purchased in 1977 by the nonprofit Reality House West, the historic building provides 158 units of supportive housing. “Ninety percent of SROs, you can’t go in.” I ask him why not. “People selling crack in the buildings, having sex in the hallways, whoring—this is the Tenderloin!”

Seymour is a charismatic, blunt-talking former drug dealer, pimp, and addict who pulled himself together and now gives walking tours of what he calls “the other wine country.” He took me and some employees of a charity-run tech training program around the neighborhood, showing us sights both squalid and inspiring and talking about the need for change. Seymour doesn’t want a Giuliani-style cleanup, but he has no patience with his old brethren from the life. “If you’re shitting and pissing on yourself and whoring your sisters,” he announces, “you need to go.”

“I spent my nights in these SROs,” Seymour goes on. “I was not a good person. Selling drugs. I had 14 girls working for me.” What led to his downfall? “A business failure and a divorce.” How did he recover? “Jesus Christ,” he says. “And Marie and John Duggan of Original Joe’s. I owe everything to them. They gave me a job. She calls me every day.”

Seymour looks out past the faded woodwork in the Cadillac Hotel. “I can’t go back,” he says, meaning back to the life of hustling, despair, and addiction. “I don’t have a key to that door.”

Unfortunately, that door remains wide open for the countless unrehabilitated Del Seymours still prowling the TL. The people hanging out on the streets are a mishmash of small-fry dealers, hustlers, drunks, pimps, addicts, prostitutes, and the mentally ill, along with people who are simply there because they don’t want to stay cooped up in an SRO all day. Beat cops in the Tenderloin say that while their task is to protect the latter group from the criminals, it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two. And given that the police can’t arrest more than a fraction of the dealers, how can they make the streets inhospitable to the significant percentage of residents whose favorite pastime is loitering on the corner enjoying various petty vices?

Page three: Why didn't the police crackdown work?