Leroy Looper: The Father of the Tenderloin

by Randy Shaw on February 26, 2007

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The Clean City Coalition honored Leroy Looper last week for his role in launching its success. Looper, whose 1977 autobiography was serialized in our pages, also helped start the national organization YouthBuild, and operated San Francisco’s first drug treatment program. When Leroy and Kathy Looper’s Reality House West purchased the Cadillac Hotel in 1977, it became the first nonprofit owned SRO in California. The Cadillac became the model for San Francisco’s widely praised reliance on supportive housing as the key strategy to reduce homelessness. Looper initiated the rezoning of the Tenderloin in 1981 that preserved its residential status, started the area’s first anti-crime group, helped secure a Tenderloin school, and did all of this while joining with Kathy in running a nationally acclaimed Board and Care facility for 27 mental patients out of their home on Guerrero Street.

In 1979, I was among a group of Hastings Law students who were interested in opening a legal clinic in the Tenderloin. We were told to meet with a man named Leroy Looper, who offered great enthusiasm for our plans. Inspired by Looper’s belief that we could make a real difference in the Tenderloin, we opened the Tenderloin Housing Clinic on February 1, 1980.

The Clinic is only one of dozens of organizations that Leroy Looper either started, encouraged, or assisted with development.

When Leroy Looper opened the city’s first drug treatment program in the Fillmore District in the 1970’s, he had a problem: the police would routinely come into such facilities and arrest those seeking treatment for drug possession. This seems hard to believe in today’s world, but in those days a bunch of addicts sitting in a group to talk about their addiction was viewed as the scene of a crime.

Looper met with Police Chief Al Nelder, who agreed not to have his officers arrest those Looper was trying to get off drugs. Looper began having such success that someone asked if they could hold planning meetings for a similar treatment program in the basement of Looper’s office: that was how the program known as Walden House got its start.

Leroy and Kathy Looper have always put the community’s interest ahead of their own private gain. The Loopers supported a rezoning of the Cadillac that reduced its potential value by millions of dollars—but they knew the rezoning was necessary to stop upscale highrise development.

Many will be surprised to learn that until the 1981 rezoning application, the Tenderloin had the same zoning as downtown. The neighborhood was moving toward becoming a home to luxury tourist hotels and forty-story office buildings until the Loopers helped the neighborhood go in a different direction.

When the Loopers purchased the Cadillac (which is owned by the Loopers’ nonprofit, Reality House West), only 15 of its 200 rooms were habitable. The prior owner was a speculator who let it run down, and it was a shambles.

During the 1960’s, Don Fisher, who went on to make billions with the GAP, owned the Cadillac. Fisher’s reasons for purchasing the hotel remain unclear, but during his ownership he removed some of the hotel’s historic architectural details.

Since homelessness re-emerged in 1982, virtually everyone believes that SRO’s are an essential low-cost housing resource for single adults. But few saw much value to SRO’s back in the 1970’s. It was Leroy and Kathy Looper’s stunning transformation of the Cadillac that demonstrated the possibilities of using this historic housing resource to address San Francisco’s affordable housing problem.

The Loopers did not fully recapture the Cadillac’s historic splendor. The hotel once had a fulltime furrier to care for people’s wraps while they stayed for a few weeks or months, and had 32 staff to served its guests’ every need.

Inside the Cadillac was a ballroom that the Loopers leased for San Francisco’s most famous training center for boxing, Newman’s Gym. Former San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan regularly boxed at Newman’s, and I am told that former Mayors George Moscone and Willie Brown did as well.

The Loopers were involved in creating the North of Market Planning Coalition, the key neighborhood group in the Tenderloin throughout the turbulent 1980’s. The Cadillac was host to wonderful public events during those years, with even Mayor Dianne Feinstein making one of her rare appearances in the Tenderloin to regularly attend (Feinstein was on Looper’s Board of Directors before entering politics).

When Brad Paul was head of the NOMPC, he lived at the Cadillac. Paul regularly gave tours of the Cadillac to visiting groups and to people from the business community, which helped convince influential leaders that SRO’s were an important housing type that warranted preservation.

The Loopers gave the Tenderloin what many poor neighborhoods lack: credibility and leadership. Leroy made sure that tenants, landlords, small businesses, international corporations, and everyone else in the community got along. It is a message that has served the Tenderloin well to this day.

In the late 1980’s, those of us who saw the Tenderloin on a steady upswing confronted the reality that we were an urban neighborhood living in a Reagan Administration that was hostile to our needs. Although Reagan began decimating funding in 1982, there were so many projects and programs in the pipeline from the Carter years that the impact of these cuts took a few years to be felt.

The Loopers had hoped to upgrade the community and provide desperately needed jobs by opening a Sizzler Restaurant in the Cadillac’s commercial space. But a project conceived as the Tenderloin was rising did not open until the federal government had reversed the neighborhood’s progress by withdrawing money for housing and economic development projects.

With crime in the area increasing, a restaurant designed to bring people from outside the Tenderloin into the neighborhood was no longer viable.

The Sizzler’s demise was a major setback to the Looper’s hopes for the Tenderloin, but it would prove to be one of the few failures they would experience.

The Looper’s other major reversal involved their Chateau Agape on Guerrero Street, a national historic landmark that they used to run a board and care facility. The New Yorker magazine had a lengthy profile of the Looper’s operation of the Chateau, surprising many that thought running the Cadillac were enough to keep them busy.

The Loopers finally decided to give up the day- to-day operations of running a board and care, and leased the Chateau to Westside Mental Health. Soon thereafter, one of the residents dropped a lit cigarette out his window, causing a major fire that ravaged the building.

The fire put the Chateau out of the Board and Care business, and forced the Loopers to spend years litigating with the city over its responsibility to indemnify them for their losses.

Leroy Looper has been on the Board of too many Tenderloin groups to name. It was Leroy whose connection to Elaine Zamora back in the 1970’s led her to lead the effort to bring a Community Benefits District to the Tenderloin. Now the CBD is moving toward fulfilling Looper’s dream of the Tenderloin as not only a low-income neighborhood, but a safe community for residents and businesses alike.

The Tenderloin is on its way to becoming a national historic district. Because the Loopers fought to preserve the neighborhood’s low-income residential character, it can now become an historic district without risking gentrification.

A Tenderloin History Museum is being planned for the former Sizzler site at the Cadillac. It will prove a fitting tribute to the Looper’s transformation of the Cadillac into a national landmark, and to its owners commitment to preserving the Tenderloin’s rich history.

When people ask how it was possible for an area of land between Union Square and City Hall to be preserved for the disabled and low-income working people, the answer is: because Leroy and Kathy Looper bought the Cadillac Hotel in 1977 and laid the foundation for the Tenderloin’s positive future.

Send feedback to rshaw@ beyondchron.org

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