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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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Captain Cherniss, too, is convinced that an influx of responsible stakeholders would brighten the Tenderloin’s future. “I expect to see positive changes here,” he says. “There are a lot of great, committed people coming in who understand that a key part of improving the neighborhood rests with them. They’re extending their sphere of responsibility, not just locking their doors.” He cites the TNDC, the THC, and other nonprofits as role models. “They’re our partners,” he says. “They improved the SROs. They’re in close contact with us about what’s happening on the street. To me, they’re doing as much for public safety as me, or more.”

For its part, the city is hoping that economic development and a revitalized community will turn the Tenderloin around. Amy Cohen, director of neighborhood business development at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, cites the success of the city’s work in mid-Market and its plan to apply what it learned there to the Tenderloin. “We recognize that creating a vibrant, healthy, mixed-income neighborhood in the TL will be challenging,” Cohen writes in an email. “A growing number of people, from Tenderloin residents themselves to new tech companies to art groups, share this vision and are working in various ways to make it happen. It will not happen overnight, but there is more potential now than in decades.”

Whether this future is possible is anyone’s guess. Many obstacles stand in the way. What if the users and pushers on the street don’t leave the neighborhood, but just keep popping up in new locations in an endless game of Whac-a-Mole? How will the police sort out the dealers from the users and the users from the loiterers? If pressure from middle-class residents builds for the police to really crack down and clean up the streets, will progressives charge that they’re criminalizing poverty?

History does not inspire confidence. As Supervisor Kim points out, there are few if any models for this mixed-income success story. But if the TL is going to become a safer, saner place, people like Del Seymour and Tiffany Apczynski, who represent the neighborhood’s proud old guard and idealistic new guard, respectively, are going to play a crucial role.

Apczynski is the director of social responsibility for Zendesk, the first of the tech companies to migrate into mid-Market. In order to qualify for the so-called Twitter tax break, Zendesk agreed to submit a community benefits agreement (CBA) that commits it to devoting time and resources to working with the Tenderloin and mid-Market communities. Apczynski drafted the district’s first CBA and has overseen Zendesk’s involvement with community gardens, local caterers, and the Tenderloin Technology Lab, a training program run by the nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation.

Mandated “give back to the community” programs like Zendesk’s have been criticized as PC Band-Aids, and both the Central City Extra newspaper and the website Buzzfeed have raised questions about the efficacy and enforceability of the CBAs. But Zendesk has won praise from Tenderloin activists for the depth of its commitment to the neighborhood. Regular teams of company volunteers serve meals at Glide and cook breakfast at the Gubbio Project, a unique program at St. Boniface Parish that allows people to sleep on its pews between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. (The Gubbio Project deserves special mention. Seymour took me and a half dozen Tech Lab employees into St. Boniface one morning. It’s a regular part of his walking tour. Inside the beautiful old church, 80 or 90 people were sleeping—old Asian ladies, children, scruffy people who looked down on their luck, even a couple of young Euro-looking travelers with backpacks. Most of them were lying on the pews, a few in the aisles. The smell of incense filled the air. It was silent and warm, a refuge. The figure of Christ looked down from behind the altar. I am not a religious person, but I found my eyes blinded with tears.)

Apczynski has no illusions that companies like hers possess the key to fixing the Tenderloin, but she’s game to try. “Is it all puppies and rainbows? No. It’s a tough neighborhood,” she says. “But most people in tech want to humanize technology, to do something bigger than themselves. Why can’t we use the kind of innovation we use in our work life to change the city, to help the neighborhood?”

For Seymour, the influx of broad-minded young techies like the Zendesk employees represents less a threat than a source of hope. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gentrification if it’s done well,” he says as we amble through a TNDC-run community garden across the street from the Asian Art Museum. “If gentrification means you take care of the neighborhood better and don’t displace the people in the SROs, it’s OK.” In any case, he prefers the geeky tech crowd to the stuffier suit-and-tie set. “The young people coming in now,” he says, “are tolerant of the Tenderloin lifestyle.”

After dropping my daughter off at Hotel Nikko on that warm September night, I rambled around the Tenderloin. I went into three different privately run SROs and asked to see their rooms. For $60 a night or $1,000 a month, I could get a nightmarish cell with an air-shaft window and a filthy bedspread. As I stood outside one establishment, a crazy-looking, muscular man with a timid companion came up behind me and spat, “Get out of the way of the door.”

I walked back to Turk and Taylor and entered the 21 Club, on the corner. Eight or ten people were there, mostly older men—I recognized two or three of them from earlier visits. Frank, the joint’s amiable, indomitable bartender, with his trademark cap, was laughing with one of the regulars. As a tune came on the jukebox, an old guy in a threadbare suit with a fixed, slightly foreboding expression got off his barstool and stood there, his hands at his sides, looking off into space. I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing. “That’s Eric Clapton,” he announced to his pal on the next barstool. “That’s a Les Paul.” I realized that this gloomy-looking old man was playing the world’s most unobtrusive air guitar.

There was a stir in the tiny bar, and I turned to see the entrance of a beaming, attractive, middle-aged woman with a short, white Afro and a weathered-looking, long-haired guy wearing shorts and a white tank top. Everyone was congratulating them—they had just gotten married. One of the men I’d recognized came over and tried to buy them a drink, but the new bride smilingly said that she’d have to take a rain check because she was tired and wanted to go home. After chatting for a few minutes, the couple waved to everyone and left.

I hung out for a little while longer, half listening to the old friends talking at the bar. The atmosphere brought to mind a den in a worn-out alternate universe, filled with family members as kindly and as threadbare as old stuffed animals.

Leaving the 21 Club, I crossed Taylor and walked down the south side of Turk. Three or four people had set up a barbecue on the sidewalk. “You want some barbecue?” inquired a friendly woman standing next to the smoking grill. “How much is it?” I asked. “Well, the ribs are $7 and the chicken is $5. You hungry?” “Maybe later,” I replied. “Smells good.” “All right, well, you come back here, Mr. Tommy Bahama,” she said.

I wandered on down the street. On Jones, a figure lay sprawled in a doorway. A block later, I saw a hypodermic syringe glittering in the gutter.

Gary Kamiya is the author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco and, beginning this month, the Executive Editor of San Francisco.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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