15 weeks ago, 56 Mason boasted a blank cement wall. Today, it shows a dashing man, in ties and tails, who gazes out on his audience, and hence passersby, as he sways with his violin. Lovely ladies pose decoratively, which the violinist and his band seem to have entranced. The mural comes from a humble 1910 post card of the Breakers Café at Eddy and Mason Street that is featured in Glenn Koch’s wonderful book, “San Francisco Golden Age Postcards
. On February 26, Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor Jane Kim, Dr. Elisa Stephens, President of Academy of Arts University (AAU) and Uptown Tenderloin Director Randy Shaw joined forces to celebrate that vibrant historical moment, now visible to everyone who walks past Eddy and Mason. In the early part of the 20th Century the Tenderloin was the “Paris of America,” and this new mural painted by AAU students shows why.
The early 20th Century featured fabulous night life, music, clothing, and even flirting—all elements depicted in this mural. Mayor Lee noted that it is “important to remember the fun depicted in this image,” which paints a picture of the Tenderloin different from its image in the common imagination.
The Breakers Café is among many legendary sites within the 31-block Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, a part of the National Register of Historic Places. Many long gone businesses survive in the postcards collected by Koch.
The 13x30 ft. mural depicts The Breakers Café and its sign, which advertises: “Rigo every night at the Breakers Café.” Shaw (Editor of Beyond Chron) noted that it took research to uncover what “Rigo” meant, with most assuming it was a dance or card game. As Supervisor Kim noted, Rigo is the “Hungarian gypsy violinist, who was beloved locally” and is shown in the center of the mural. Today, the wonderful students of the Academy of Arts University who completed the mural in a mere 15 weeks should be beloved locally.
Dr. Stephens of the AAUI agreed that “Having artwork [that] blends with history is exactly what the Tenderloin needs.” This mural also represents a successful collaboration between Uptown Tenderloin,Inc., which conceived the project, and AAU, which implemented it.
Both Lee and Kim noted that art in public spaces can be vital to a community’s health and to culture on the streets, as well as economic development. City officials say that they hope this mural will accomplish both goals, such as deterring graffiti and attracting tourists to tour the art work of the Tenderloin. “I believe that having murals in the tenderloin deters graffiti,” Vice President of AAU Rebecca Delgado Rottman told me. (She is also a member of the city’s Graffiti Advisory Board.)
Mayor Lee also expressed his happiness with the impact the mural can have on the Tenderloin and expressed his desire to make sure the Tenderloin receives help from the Community Benefits District, a local ordinance that allows for the a district to receive “special benefits” such as beatification or cleaning through a stable revenue source. Captain Joe Garrity also made an appearance, happily posing with other city officials and the artists in front of a new backdrop for the Tenderloin.
The mural joins the nearly 100 signs on historic buildings, nine “Lost Landmark” plaques, and restored neon and painted signs as highlighting that the Tenderloin has a past---and a future--- worth celebrating.
Karin Drucker is with the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSRO)