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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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Donald Falk, executive director of the nonprofit TNDC (among the neighborhood’s largest landowners), says that his organization is already feeling the pressures of gentrification. “It hasn’t felt like this since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we started out with the battle against the big hotels. Rising property values are driving rents up. We’re going to see the Tenderloin become less affordable.”

Asked if there is an upside to the new money, Falk says, “It’s a conundrum. Lots of us would like to see more middle-class people, but would also like to see the neighborhood more affordable.” He bristles at the idea that newcomers might provide some kind of moral uplift. “I don’t like the idea that middle-class people will be role models for low-income people. In many ways, the low-income people should be role models for middle-class people.”

If Falk is worried about gentrification, THC cofounder Randy Shaw dismisses the possibility out of hand. Shaw, whose nonprofit led the fight to protect low-income SRO dwellers from abusive slumlords and now provides over 1,600 units of permanent supportive housing, has long been the most ardent and vocal defender of the Tenderloin—a kind of one-man neighborhood chamber of commerce. (He opens our conversation by reading me the riot act for writing in unflattering terms about the TL in my recent book, Cool Gray City of Love.) “It is impossible for the Tenderloin ever to be gentrified,” Shaw says flatly. His reason: the housing stock. “The gentry don’t want to live in places without kitchens or bathrooms.”

Even if the ordinance against converting SROs to tourist hotels were overturned, even if the nonprofits lost their leases and private developers bought up dozens of buildings, the cost of renovating those buildings and making them attractive to middle-class families would be prohibitive. And what developer would take that risk, with hundreds of lost souls still wandering the streets at all hours? Shaw also points out that opportunities for commercial development in the TL are severely limited by the neighborhood ban on commercial use in buildings above the second floor, the relative paucity of commercial spaces, and their small square footage.

"I’ve been involved in trying to get new restaurants to come into the neighborhood for a long time, but investors are not confident,” Shaw says. “There are successful bars here: There’s the new beer bar [Mikkeller] at 34 Mason. One of the most popular bars in the city is Bourbon & Branch at Jones and O’Farrell. But we’ve had a really hard time getting restaurants to open here, at least outside of Little Saigon. Investors are skittish.”

One might argue that this reluctance is largely due to the ongoing presence of the very population that Shaw has been vociferously defending for decades. But Shaw doesn’t accept the connection; instead he blames the city for not cracking down on notoriously squalid blocks like Turk between Mason and Taylor. “The first block of Turk is intolerable,” he says. “No resident anywhere should have to put up with that. We’ve been complaining about that forever. People like to blame the Tenderloin for the institutional failures of the city.”

Might there be another way,  a way in which the Tenderloin could rise without losing its soul? A way that doesn’t require the mass removal of the indigent, or the heavy hand of the cops, or the ruthless class cleansing of gentrification?

A blue-sky vision that’s quietly being floated by city officials, nonprofit leaders, and police staff—let’s call it the involved stakeholders scenario— could provide just that. The scenario pictures new businesses continuing to trickle into the neighborhood, along with increasing numbers of young professionals drawn by its central location and relatively low rents. (Market-rate studios and one-bedrooms in the TL typically rent for $1,200 to $1,800—not cheap, but well below the going rate in most San Francisco neighborhoods.) The key to the scenario is that these newcomers, rather than demanding that the police alone solve the neighborhood’s problems, shoulder a lot of that burden themselves. They keep their properties clean and well-maintained. If someone urinates on their storefront, they go out with a bucket of bleach and water and deal with the mess. They strike up conversation with the people congregating in front of their apartment. The new stakeholders work closely with the nonprofits, with law-abiding members of the TL community, and with the police.

The scenario plays out slowly and fitfully, but it works. The word goes out on the street that the TL is no longer an anything-goes zone. You can maybe drink a little malt liquor or smoke a joint on the corner (they do that in Noe Valley), but coke, crank, crack, and smack are out. Deal drugs and you’re going down hard.  And you can’t use the streets as a toilet.

Over time, the theory goes, most people accept the new rules. Those who are too damaged or violent to get with the program are locked up or shipped away to treatment centers in other areas. Gradually, the worst corners—Turk and Mason, Turk and Taylor, Ellis and Jones—are cleaned up. This brings in more middle-class people and businesses. In the end, the scenario posits, the neighborhood stabilizes into a functioning crazy quilt: a block-to-block, building-to-building patchwork of wealth and poverty, blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos, SROs next to renovated apartments, supportive housing beside new condos. It isn’t Pacific Heights. It has its problems. But it’s a productive, vibrant neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco.

If the city could pull this off, it would have achieved something almost miraculous: a neighborhood offering all the benefits of gentrification (no feces on the street, safety for kids and seniors, thriving cultural institutions, affordable restaurants, good grocery stores, a dynamic street life) without any of its drawbacks (displacement of residents, skyrocketing rents, and loss of ethnic and economic diversity). For middle-class San Franciscans weary of watching themselves being priced out of neighborhood after neighborhood, this achievement would create a pinnacle of urban living. It would be the city’s finest hour. And it would only be possible in the Tenderloin.

Is this anything more than a utopian pipe dream? When I ask the TNDC’s Falk that question, he is more optimistic than I expect. “It’s not just viable; it’s our vision,” he says. “And in some ways, the work we’ve done in the last 30 years has made that scenario possible.”

Page five: “If gentrification means you take care of the neighborhood better and don’t displace the people in the SROs, it’s OK.”