The Tenderloin

Summary: Although the Tenderloin is arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco, this reputation has helped it to remain affordable to many new immigrants to SF. These newcomers have brought not only their dreams and hopes but their cuisine, making the Tenderloin a veritable League of Nations when it comes to food. Along with the Theater District on its eastern border and its traditional set of outsiders, the Tenderloin offers a unique experience for visitors who would like to spend a night on the wild side of town.

Even before Dashiell Hammett popularized it in The Maltese Falcon, the Tenderloin was already known regionally as the locus of SF crime. Book-ended by Union Square on the east and the Civic Center on the west, and bordered by Mission Street on the south, and Pine Street on the north, the Tenderloin remains a magnet for drugs, prostitution, homelessness, and indiscriminate violence. Less noted are the many theaters on the eastern portion of the Tenderloin (making up the Theater District) and the fact that the neighborhood’s bad reputation has had a silver lining for the city’s poor and immigrant communities choking off gentrification and the accompanying high rents--for now.

Despite this, one should not downplay the extent of the violence and the illicit activity. If you take into account not only the murders that occur within its borders but also those in the neighboring vicinities in western SoMa or by Union Square, the area takes its ignominious place as the most violent neighborhood within the core of the city. (Technically, Hunter’s Point to the south is the most violent, accounting for roughly thirty killings a year to the Tenderloin’s 12 to 15, but many consider Hunter’s Point not really a part of San Francisco proper.) Attempts to pacify the area by refurbishing community parks and having an active police outreach, have not made much of dent on crime rates to this point.

If the Tenderloin has a ritzy commercial area, it is at the border with Union Square to the east where the Theater District is located. Because of the Tenderloin’s bad reputation, many are eager to consider this a western extension of the Financial District or the northern creep of cultural attractions of SoMa to the south. However, as you leave your Broadway hit late at night at the Curran [E1] let’s say, you will notice the distinctly unnerving Tenderloin vibe of the area. It has more than its fair share of homeless and outlaw types who become increasingly more visible as the streets empty in the later hours. This area also has, however, what is arguably the strongest and most vibrant theater scene of any city on the West Coast (with L.A. coming in a strong second, of course). This is where you will find the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT)[E2], the premier theater company in the Bay Area, and the afore mentioned Curran Theater (where Broadway hits are regularly revived for the west coast audiences). The Theater District is also home to several high-end art galleries.

As you move up Geary Street into the Tenderloin proper, you will find a series of bars and nightspots such as O’Farrell’s[E3], the Bay Area’s most well known strip joint--founded by the brothers who made the classic 60’s porn film, Behind the Green Door. The several neighborhood dive bars also attract curious visitors who come to slum it and live life on the wild side. Best known are the Outsider[E4], High Tide[E5] and the Edinburgh Castle[E6].

The architecture of this neighborhood is much more reminiscent of an eastern urban city (maybe even a working class suburban London neighborhood), than what we are accustomed to in the Bay Area. In place of the quaint Victorians that characterize most of SF, you have three to four to five story buildings without with fire escapes hanging off their facades. The neighborhood has historically been home to single adults and the apartments tend to be small—mostly studios and one bedrooms. The strong gay presence has relocated to the Castro.

The high crime however, kept the Tenderloin property prices low enough that East Asian immigrant started taking to area—first because of its proximity to Chinatown and then because it became the center for Vietnamese migration in the late seventies. This has lead the city to designate a section of the Tenderloin, “Little Saigon.” Many buildings in “Little Saigon,” in fact, are occupied by families that are interconnected by regional origin and can almost be thought as “vertical villages” as one observer noted in the 80’s. The Tenderloin is the only place in the city where one can still regularly find apartments and rooms that rent for less than one thousand dollars per month.

The infusion of East Asian culture also accounts for the neighborhood’s many Asian restaurants. Just along the 500 block of Jones Street, for example, you can find four Indian restaurants, Shalimar[E7], Chutney[E8], Little Indian Deli[E9] and Pakwan[E10] (which is technically Pakistani in influence). Throughout the Tenderloin you can find a variety of Indian, Arab, Vietnamese, Chinese restaurants and even a Moroccan place, Borobudur[E11]. Many of the restaurants have developed reputations as authentic cuisine where the prices remain reasonable because of their location in the Tenderloin.

The first foothold of gentrification in the greater Tenderloin neighborhood has been noted at its northern end where it borders Nob Hill. Real estate brokers, in an attempt to market this area have taken to calling it Lower Nob Hill, trying to associate the area with the upscale gentrified neighborhood to the north. Rental prices are noticeably higher in this area, although it looks little different than the heavier crime areas to the south. Many locals refer to this area sarcastically as the Tender Nob. However, with the city’s thirst for new regions to gentrify it may only be a matter of time before even this citadel of resistance falls to the army of would be gentrifiers just beyond its borders.