Having lived in San Francisco off and on for the better part of half my life, I’ve seen my share of gentrification. And, like many things, it has its positives and negatives. It’s hard to hate on improvements in housing standards, public safety and sanitation. It’s great to see economic growth in neighborhoods once plagued by social ills. It utterly sucks to see yet another crappy chain store replace the corner grocery.
I have high hopes for San Francisco’s Tenderloin, however. While it’s developed an undeniable hipster presence/street cred over the last few years, I don’t believe it’s ever going to fully go the way of, say, Williamsburg, or Boston’s Quincy Market. No matter how many Prohibition-era-style bars, or trendy restaurants populate its hilly streets, the ‘loin will, I hope, always remain more than a little bit seedy, sketchy and sleazy. Bless its sooty soul.
Historically, the Tenderloin has always been a bit rough, and folklore about how it got its name ranges from meaty references to the city’s underbelly to the haunches of hookers. Technically, the neighborhood stretches from Union Square to the southern side of Nob Hill (lower Nob Hill is now known as the “Tendernob,” and popular for its bars and restaurants).
Today, despite the uptick in trendiness, the Tenderloin still most visibly populated by crack addicts, gutter drunks, prostitutes, transvestites, transvestite prostitutes, junkies, bag ladies and assorted other ne’er-do-wells. It’s not a pretty sight, but the people watching is priceless – especially these days, when you throw in lost tourists, nuthugger-wearing club kids and suspender-clad bartenders.I’ve been hanging in the Tenderloin since my mid-20s, exploring its innumerable dive bars and incredible ethnic eateries (Vietnamese, Pakistani, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian …). Back then, nearly 20 years ago, I confess it was a bit dicey walking around the Tenderloin at night, but I’ll stand by my opinion that today, it’s not a dangerous neighborhood if you’re not looking for trouble. I’ve walked, alone, at 3 a.m., with no problem. When I lived on the edge of the Tenderloin for 16 months, from 2008 to late 2009, I walked to and from work through the Tenderloin every morning and evening, with nary a hassle.
On one memorable night, it seemed every freak in the ‘hood was gathered on my doorstep or beneath my window. Asian Tranny Hooker was smoking crack in the doorway, her smeared vermillion lipstick giving her the look of a Cubist painting, as usual. A junkie was shooting up in front of my garage (I sternly ordered him to find a more private place, given my block’s populace of elderly Asian couples). As I readied for bed, the cops busted a john propositioning one of the neighborhood streetwalkers underneath my bedroom window. Never a dull moment, I tell you.
I don’t mean to glorify the ugliness that typifies the lives of many ‘loin residents. I just have a real appreciation for the grittiness of city life, as well as diversity, and a glaring dose of reality. Some of the Tenderloin’s more unfortunate denizens are living the way they are due to their own mistakes; others are merely victims of circumstance. I can’t say I’m always empathetic, but living in such a neighborhood certainly has made me more understanding to the plight of some of the residents (a term I use loosely, as I’m primarily referring to the homeless). It’s also made me more grateful for things in life I often take for granted: healthy food, warm clothes, shelter, friends, family, education, a non-addictive personality, and indoor plumbing.
Sociopolitics aside, I love the Tenderloin because I find it San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhood for food and drink, as well as people watching. Some of my favorite ethnic dives and “casual fine dining” restaurants are there – Shalimar, Pakwan, Turtle Tower, Osha Thai Noodle, Canteen, Farmerbrown – as well as some of the best cocktails in the city.
Try a libation at temples of mixology like Bourbon & Branch, or Rye, or savor the dingy, dodgy atmosphere of classic, old-school dives like HaRa, Summer Place, Nite Cap, or Geary Club (the fact that you can smoke at the latter isn’t a selling point for me, but when combined with the aging Russian barmaids – all cleavage, throaty voices, and stiff pouring hands – it’s a treasure).
There are some boutiques scattered about – an upscale pet shop here, an Australian specialty product store there – but mostly you’ll find corner stores of the Korean and Halal variety, pizzerias, “massage parlors,” and coffee houses, as well as the famed Glide Memorial Church. SF’s theater district is there, just around the corner from Union Square. There are dozens of hotels, too. Some rent rooms by the hour, some by the month. Others are old, Art Deco and Art Noveau gems that provide some of the city’s most affordable, eclectic accommodations (I like the Essex Hotel), but newer boutique properties like Hotel Monaco are on the increase.
You’re also within walking distance from just about every part of San Francisco worth seeing from the Tenderloin, even if the views of and from the neighborhood aren’t the stuff of movies. But if you want affordable, colorful and convenient, it’s your place.
The one serious piece of advice I have to offer with regard to safety is to stay the hell away from Eddy Street, even in daylight. I don’t know why this is the epicenter of all that’s f—-ed up and wrong in the world, but it is, and even the local cops try to avoid it. Just stay away.
Eddy Street aside, if you, too, believe all that glitters could be anything from the cap in a hooker’s front tooth to the neon of a glorious dive bar, come spend some time in the Tenderloin.
[Photo credits: kiss, Flickr user charlottz; hotel, Flickr user CT Young; cocktail, Flickr user Splat Worldwide]