Arts, Culture Thriving in SF’s Tenderloin

by Garrett Bergthold on November 9, 2017

An event at PianoFight

Discovering the Tenderloin’s Independent Arts Scene

Starting at the corner of Taylor and Eddy streets, it’s hard to walk more than 100 feet in any direction without running into a performing arts venue.

Two blocks away, SHN Orpheum Theater hosts Broadway plays. Around the corner, the Warfield and Golden Gate Theater put on other larger-scale productions. But in recent years, an influx of smaller-scale community-based arts businesses and nonprofits have moved within a stone’s throw of each along Taylor Street. The result: a burgeoning mecca of San Francisco independent arts and culture right here in the Tenderloin.

“It’s a renaissance in independent arts,” said Richard Livingston, managing director of The Exit theater, whose location on Eddy Street has been there for over 30 years. “What’s unique is we’re in the middle of the commercial theater district, but around the corner you have an off-off Broadway theater community.”

Bounded by Market and Eddy streets and Mason and Taylor streets, the two-square block chunk of Tenderloin real estate is home to dozens of stages geared for the visual and performing arts. One of the newer ones is PianoFight, offering a full bar, restaurant and two stages including one for cabaret.

Rob Ready is co-founder and artistic director for PianoFight.  For Ready, he’s seen Taylor Street change drastically since they opened their doors in 2014.

“What we found is when we opened Taylor Street got much less rowdy,” Ready said. “There’s less drug dealing, less open drug use, less fights. If nobody is around then all that stuff goes unchecked.” The sidewalks outside the venue are much safer today due to increased foot traffic and nightlife options.

Sharon Hewitt, a Tenderloin community organizer, also known as “Gramma,” lives across the street from PianoFight. She agrees with Ready. Hewitt remembers a time just a few years ago when passers-by would walk down Taylor Street as fast as possible without stopping.

“I think we’re at a critical tipping point,” Hewitt explained. “I don’t think it’s the techies coming in and taking anything, I think San Francisco has always been a transitory place, a place of potential opportunity.”

Last week, SAFEhouse became the latest performing arts theater to join the list of art venues to call the Tenderloin home. The veteran nonprofit theater moved a mile from Civic Center into a new home at 145 eddy Street just as its old location was set to face a lease renewal a year down the road.

SAFEhouse joins a slew of other neighborhood art establishments near Taylor Street: CounterPulse; Cutting Ball; PianoFight; The Exit; and SF Comedy College, who recently moved into a shared space next door to The Exit on Eddy Street.

And that’s only the ones near the intersection of Taylor and Eddy Streets. The Tenderloin Museum at Eddy and Leavenworth offers regular cultural programming and is only two blocks away.

Joe Landini founded the nonprofit theater SAFEspace in the early 2000’s. He credits economics and a bit of luck for landing a new 15-year lease in the Tenderloin. Just as the building Landini had his eyes on for 20 years became available, a $750,000 grant distributed by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Workforce Development came online as well. The purpose of the grant was to keep existing San Francisco nonprofits in the city’s downtown corridor, which it did.

Landini says the venues popping up in the Tenderloin are not arriving by accident.

“Theater requires a certain type architecture, we need open spaces with pillars, and we need public transportation, a lot of our funding comes from visitors coming to the city,” he said. “Also, the city was pretty firm with us: if we wanted to keep our funding we had to stay downtown.”

SAFEspace almost moved to Oakland, Landini explained, but decided on the Tenderloin after everything with their new building and funding fell into place. If they did move, SAFEspace would have joined the growing ranks of performing and visual arts establishments to be displaced from San Francisco to the East Bay.

But for Hewitt, an increase in economic activity in the Tenderloin cannot cure the neighborhood’s systemic problems. Tenderloin residents are clustered into a specific geographic area that denies them the ability to participate in the city’s economic mainstream, she says.

Residents need access to upward mobility before they can start the journey upward. And she thinks the new businesses coming into the neighborhood signals a start to this process.

“How do we create an environment that is conducive to improving quality of life, and enhancing public safety, without over-policing and criminalizing mental health and poverty?”

For now, the answer seems to be incentivizing small arts and theater businesses to join the Tenderloin family, a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. These Tenderloin venues offer an authentic, only in San Francisco experience tourists and residents alike are eager to discover.

Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin

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