Sometimes sunny and always beautiful, San Francisco is one of the world’s most popular destinations. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the former Alcatraz Prison, there is no end to its famous attractions. Guides will recommend Fisherman’s Wharf (home to a Ben and Jerry’s shop), Chinatown, a walk through Golden Gate Park, a visit to Haight-Ashbury and a ride on a streetcar.
But so many of the books exclude one essential endeavor: a visit to the Tenderloin.
There certainly are valid reasons to warn visitors away from the neighborhood. The Tenderloin has a high crime rate and is a notorious hub of prostitution and drugs. But for a cautious traveler who is well-educated about the neighborhood’s problems and who wants more than a walk through the capital of gentrification and overpriced real estate, the Tenderloin should not be missed.
The neighborhood has a fascinating history. In 1966, transgender people initiated one of the first LGBT rights riots in the country — predating Stonewall by three years — at Compton’s Cafeteria. Just down the street, the Black Hawk nightclub hosted many famous jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and David Brubeck, before it was demolished in the early 1970s.
The neighborhood also was home to the film industry before the business moved south to Los Angeles and the ornate art deco buildings that housed film studios still stand.
Residents of the Tenderloin have fought to preserve its integrity by adding many buildings to the National Register of HIstoric Places, seeking to prevent the gentrification that has plagued the rest of the city. To walk through the Tenderloin is to feel, smell and breathe history at every turn.
The local government also has worked to improve the lives of the poor or homeless residents of the Tenderloin. A small church near the neighborhood center, smelling strongly of incense, offers homeless people a free place to sleep. Even at midday the pews are usually full of peaceful nappers.
Boeddeker Park, a small green space once riddled with drugs, is now a safe haven for children and elders, with school groups frequently reserving time for classes to play there. Other green things can be seen in the form of potted plants outside apartment buildings, adding pops of color to the streets.
A “pit stop” carrying Port-A-Johns, sinks and needle disposals parks at a new location every day, alleviating what was once a large problem of public urination and defecation. And a truck comes around daily to remove garbage from the streets, making it one of the cleaner neighborhoods in San Francisco.
All that makes the Tenderloin a unique, safer-than-ever setting for several cultural stops. One is a small gallery called the Luggage Store Gallery, which frequently hosts the work of minority, local and student artists.
The gallery is located on Market Street and attracts a hustle and bustle of visitors who have just made it off the BART/Bay Area Rapid Transit shuttle. It is marked by a small, barely visible sign on its façade and almost dwarfed by a large camera store, yet it is usually packed to the brim on monthly gallery nights. It offers a grassroots art scene that is a contrast to the commercial art of the downtown galleries just around the corner.
The current show, in fact, is called Gentrified, featuring mixed media works, paintings and installations by a variety of artists reflecting on “life in the inner city, struggles of earning and getting by, keeping pace and staying focused; street life, encountered objects and environments they have interacted with, (and) the daily stop and grind of bodegas/marketplaces.”
A tourist’s next stop might be the newly opened Tenderloin Museum. Take the local-guided tour to learn intriguing details about the neighborhood — the best places to view drag shows or hidden murals like Mona Caron’s Windows Into the Tenderloin.
The walking tour perfectly complements the museum’s permanent collection, a one-room show of photographs, videos, newspaper clippings and text panels explaining the Tenderloin’s history. The museum also sells art by local artists on a rotating schedule, making it an atypical museum gift shop.
The Tenderloin will feel most like the Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods to Milwaukeeans, similarly filled with a mix of historic buildings, a comparatively diverse population and art galleries. In fact, most Milwaukeeans have probably been told to stay away from these neighborhoods for the same reasons guidebooks recommend avoiding the Tenderloin.
There is nothing wrong with sticking to safe choices when exploring a new city, but it’s important to consider whether we’re limiting our experiences of cities by not stepping off the beaten path from time to time. It’s off that path where you truly learn about a city, and the Tenderloin is key to understanding San Francisco.
Sure, Fisherman’s Wharf is nice. But one can only eat so much Ben and Jerry’s.