100 years ago, San Francisco’s elite tried to close down the Tenderloin neighborhood “once and for all.” They failed. Now in 2017 the Tenderloin will again defy its critics by taking major steps toward its revitalization.
100 Years of Struggle
As I detail in my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, in 1917 the city’s elite finally thought they had closed down the “immoral” Tenderloin for good. City leaders easily shuttered the Barbary Coast in 1913 and thought the Tenderloin’s “women of the underworld” (today known as sex workers) and restaurant, café and bar owners would also quickly accept a city crackdown.
They were wrong. Unlike the Barbary Coast (which meekly surrendered after the state’s 1913 Red Light Abatement Act allowed the seizure of real estate used for brothels), the Tenderloin fought back. Tenderloin interests qualified a statewide referendum to overturn the Red Light Abatement Act, and when that failed took a legal challenge all the way to the California Supreme Court.
When this too failed they waged a valiant battle in 1917 to save the neighborhood. On January 25, 1917 hundreds of “women of the underworld” confronted the Reverend leading the attack on the Tenderloin and demanded that he provide economic justice. It was a remarkable display of sex worker activism, one that will be honored at the Tenderloin Museum on the 100th anniversary of January 25, 2017.
While brothels made the headlines, the 1917 war on the Tenderloin was really an attack on the independent women working in Market Street stores who lived in Tenderloin SROs and ate in neighborhood restaurants. The city establishment didn’t want unmarried women living independently, and their attempt to suppress women who were celebrated a decade later as “flappers” led to the Tenderloin’s closure.
By February 15, 1917 the city had forced the shutdown of all of the Tenderloin’s great restaurants, cafes and dance halls. This included the Black Cat, reborn in 2016 at 400 Eddy. The District Attorney said he looked forward to a “new class of tenants” moving into the Tenderloin, but a neighborhood long known for holding values years always ahead of its time soon came back bigger and better than ever.
The Tenderloin was a very successful neighborhood until it fell on hard times as the 1960’s began. It’s been a long road to recovery, but 2016 brought more quality new businesses to the Tenderloin than any year in the past fifty.
Consider what opened in the Tenderloin in 2016: The Black Cat, Onsen Bath and Restaurant, the extraordinary 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center, and CounterPulse arts, theater and performance space. So many new restaurants opened on Geary in the Tenderloin that it is hard to keep track; Mensho Tokyo SF at 672 Geary at Leavenworth is so popular that lines still go down the block.
Progress in 2017
Now the Tenderloin is set to build on its progress of 2016.
The long delayed Tenderloin street lighting project will finally happen. I have been working on this since I got Hastings Law students to create a detailed survey of the neighborhood’s inadequate lighting in 2011.
Mayor Lee used our survey to secure over $2 million from CPMC in 2012 to fund additional Tenderloin street lighting. But despite this project being a priority of the mayor and SF PUC Director Harlan Kelly, a series of delays (engineering, bid problems, PG&E etc.) pushed the project back. The first installations are now slated for summer with completion by the end of the year.
The Mayor also got money from CPMC in 2012 to complete the Eddy-Ellis two-way streets plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2007 (!). It’s taken a decade, but Eddy will be two-way streets soon as issues involving some Ellis properties are negotiated.
After seeing no market rate housing break ground for the past decade, the 300-unit Shorenstein project at 1066 Market should have begun last year. I described it last March as “the most positive private housing development project proposed for the Tenderloin in decades,” but it was delayed by an appeal. It is projected to break ground in June.
Group I’s joint hotel/housing project for 950-974 Market was also projected to break ground in 2016. It did not even get a Planning Commission hearing until November. The community negotiated an historic jobs/housing agreement with the developer, but this project is also being delayed by an appeal. Once overcome, groundbreaking could occur by the summer.
A major housing development at 1028 Market (temporary site of The Hall) could also break ground by the end of 2017. This assumes Planning Commission approval on January 26 and no appeals.
Finally, TNDC’s very long awaited 103-unit Eddy & Taylor Family Housing project will finally break ground this summer. I remember how excited we all were when TNDC acquired the site in 2008. It was entitled in 2009 but funding issues delayed construction until 2017.
The Tenderloin’s legal economy has always been driven by bars, restaurants and entertainment. That remains true today.
A public market at 101 Hyde (the former Post Office site) should open by the end of 2017. The city is still selecting the operator. After decades as hub of drug trafficking, this will be a dramatic positive transformation for the Tenderloin.
I have to believe that the new bar at the former site of Olive (closed in 2014) at 743 Larkin will open in 2017. Owned by the Lers Ros restaurant across the street, the bar is essential for attracting evening foot traffic to the Little Saigon restaurants. The space is undergoing a final set of minor improvements and appears ready to open soon.
The southwest corner of Larkin and O’Farrell is seeking a restaurant, which could be a game changer for Little Saigon. A street packed with customers by day is too empty at night, and a successful evening restaurant at O’Farrell would create a pedestrian transition to The Saratoga at Post.
The Black Cat’s success at 400 Eddy has led to an effort to attract a similar quality restaurant on the southeast corner of Ellis and Leavenworth across from the Jessica Silverman Gallery. That could help attract diners to other restaurants on Ellis.
The Proper Hotel at Market and McAllister (formerly the Renoir, and for most of its history the Hotel Shaw) borders the Tenderloin. It has been closed for so long that it qualifies as a “new” business, post-renovation. Having recently seen the Kor Group’s spectacular renovation of downtown Los Angeles’ Eastern Columbia building, I have high hopes for its transformation of the Proper. Its projected May reopening will boost both Market and McAllister Streets.
The Big bar at the former 21 Club at Turk and Taylor technically opened in 2016, but as yet to open to its full hours. That should begin any week.
Stanley Gatti’s identifies Meraki, his new Post and Hyde market, as being in the Tenderloin. Gatti’s public support for the neighborhood is appreciated. Meraki opens this spring.
To explain any confusion over whether Post Street is actually in the Tenderloin: Post Street was the northern boundary of the historic Tenderloin neighborhood. But because it was included in the Lower Nob Hill Historic District prior to the creation of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, it could not be included in the National Registry of Tenderloin historic buildings. I find that Post Street owners increasingly identify as being in the Tenderloin, and that’s a fair and historically accurate choice.
For the first time since perhaps the 1930’s the list of other new bars and restaurants also opening in the Tenderloin in 2017 is too long for one article. That’s a good sign.
If you are eager to learn more about the Tenderloin during this 100th anniversary year, I’ll be talking about the Tenderloin’s past and present at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street (at 3rd) on Wednesday, January 11 starting at 6pm. Please join us.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He has worked in the Tenderloin since 1980, when he co-founded the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin