Museum Has Helped Revive the Tenderloin
After the Tenderloin Museum opened in 2015, the Guardian newspaper declared it one of the top ten new museums in the world. Now on May 13 the Museum holds a free public celebration of the progress both it and the Tenderloin neighborhood has made in the past two years.
The Museum promotes the previously lost history of one of America’s great neighborhoods. People only familiar with the Tenderloin in recent decades are often astonished to see that the neighborhood was long thriving. Exhibits on Tenderloin restaurants, bars and dance halls tell the story of how the Tenderloin became the “Paris of the West;” long the Bay Area’s gambling capital, for decades the Tenderloin was among the city’s most politically influential neighborhoods.
The Museum reminds people who think that San Francisco’s GLBT movement started on Polk Street or in the Castro that it actually began in the Tenderloin. Tenderloin bars gave birth to the movement, whose transgender legacy will soon become part of an historic district (31 blocks of the Tenderloin are part of the Uptown Tenderloin National Historic District, with 409 buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places).
The museum has shown two “lost” films in coordination with the Roxie Theater: Drugs in the Tenderloin and Gay San Francisco: 1965-70. Both were sellouts, the former on multiple nights. The museum also showed a documentary on Glide’s Reverend Cecil Williams that had not been available since 1975—-a filming that Williams himself had not seen until he saw it at the museum (it was later reshown at Glide).
A primary goal of the Museum was to serve as an economic anchor for a neighborhood that for decades had trouble getting non-residents to patronize the community at night. In planning the museum, I regularly came across people skeptical about our plans for regular evening events. Do you really think people will come to the Tenderloin at night they would ask? Some had a knowing look as if to say that I was in for a real wake-up call.
Well, from the very start the museum had no trouble attracting people to night events. And just as hoped, the Museum evening events regularly attract people to the Tenderloin who can later go to the neighborhood’s many restaurants and bars. The Black Cat supper club is across the street from the museum, Onsen Bath and Restaurant is down the block, and late night theater at PianoFight is less than two blocks away. A restaurant will also occupy the space under renovation up the block from the museum at Leavenworth and Ellis.
More new restaurants have opened in the two years since the museum opened than in the preceding decade. And while the city’s booming economy has helped, the Museum proved to those considering opening businesses that people will come to the Tenderloin at night for quality dining, drinking, entertainment, or cultural activities.
Finally, I wrote a book on the Tenderloin as a companion to the museum (some of my research is included in exhibits). The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco includes 118 rarely seen photos, some from historic collections of matchbooks and postcards.
Dave Eggers says “If you want to understand San Francisco’s Tenderloin, you must read Randy Shaw’s book.” Peter Dreier recommends the book for “Anyone interested in cities, and how to resist gentrification and displacement.” For an inspiring summer read, you can’t beat the story of the Tenderloin’s long and successful resistance to the city’s elite— there once were many Tenderloin neighborhoods across the nation, but San Francisco’s is America’s last.
Enjoy the celebration on the 13th!
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond ChronMid-Market / Tenderloin, San Francisco News