March 24, 2013

Tour offers insider's view of S.F.'s Tenderloin

We left behind the distinctive aromatic blend of maple bars and marijuana wafting through Donut World on Seventh and Market streets, side-stepped a supine homeless man moaning softly and dodged a swarm of loiterers later identified as fencers of stolen property.

SAN FRANCISCO – We left behind the distinctive aromatic blend of maple bars and marijuana wafting through Donut World on Seventh and Market streets, side-stepped a supine homeless man moaning softly and dodged a swarm of loiterers later identified as fencers of stolen property.

Let the sightseeing begin.

Del Seymour, bedecked in black fedora and blue trench coat and clutching his signature leather briefcase, paused for a moment before launching into his two-hour tour of the Tenderloin, San Francisco's dingiest district, home to the homeless, to prostitution and the drug trade, but also to families and schools, churches and good people just trying to get by.

But before he could even utter a sentence, sirens blared as three patrol cars screeched to a halt across Seventh Street, on the lip of U.N. Plaza. Several firetrucks soon followed, as a handcuffed young man slumped in the gutter, his backpack getting a good going over by the authorities.

Seymour laughed. Couldn't help himself.

"Damn, we've got something going on right here," he said. "People think I stage these things. I don't."

For the past three years, Seymour, a 65-year-old former homeless drug addict who once called a 6-foot empty refrigerator box home, has provided an insider's view of the one area of San Francisco where tourists rarely venture.

He shows how local nonprofits are providing services, food, shelter and medical attention to the low- and no-income residents. He points out historic architecture and sites where significant civic events took place. He takes tourists into an SRO – single occupancy room – hotel, as well as a church where people sleep in pews weekdays. And, yes, he discreetly shows popular drug-dealing hangouts, a place where a second-floor "sweat shop" for garment workers supposedly is located, and introduces some of the neighborhood's colorful characters.

"I don't give you the ugly side," Seymour said. "I give you the real side. I don't want to glorify the ugly part, but you've got to tell the truth, man."

A two-hour descent by tourists into the Tenderloin's seedy underbelly might be viewed by some as craven slumming or poverty tourism, decried as insensitive to the less fortunate, as if people have come to view some twisted zoo exhibit of the down-and-out in their natural habitat.

But Seymour doesn't see it that way. He said educating folks about life in the Tenderloin might make people more compassionate, even demystify the district so it can begin to draw tourist dollars and thrive. Plus, in a city that showcases its many tourist attractions, why not the 'Loin?

"Years ago," Seymour said, "people probably thought Alcatraz wouldn't be a good tourist spot. Now, it's the most popular thing there is. Alcatraz is just a dirty, pissy jail. Well, I'll show you a dirty, pissy part of the city, but we got real blood flowing. Real people here."

He should know, having been a Tenderloin denizen for more than 30 years, 10 of which was on the street. After kicking alcohol and cocaine two decades ago, Seymour became a cabbie and fancied himself an amateur tour guide because "that's how you get tips." But when he got sidelined a few years back because of "too many points on my license," Seymour immersed himself in history at the library and learned everything he could about the Tenderloin's colorful past.

Such as, for instance, how the area got its name.

"Down on Taylor and Turk (streets), those used to be all butcher shops," he said. "The only meat they cut there was the tenderloin, because they had all the big hotels that wanted choice cuts. This was horse-and-buggy times, so you had to be close to your customers. So they called this the tenderloin."

Seymour admits that his story behind the coinage might be disputed.

"Other people will tell you it's because that's where the police got the best part of their bribes," he said. "They'd divide the city like a cow and this was the choicest. And other people will tell you it was named after the prostitutes. But, man, I did the heavy research. I went way back in the history books."

Another thing in dispute: the exact boundaries of the district. "Mine is this: Market Street to Polk Street to O'Farrell to Mason," he said.

"Of course," he added, cackling, "if you live on O'Farrell, you're going to call that Lower Nob Hill. If you live on Nob Hill, you call O'Farrell the Tenderloin. If you need grants, you call your area the Tenderloin. If you want to serve the high and mighty dollar, you don't use the word Tenderloin. You say Lower Nob Hill or the Theater District."

Seymour, himself, has finally moved out of the Tenderloin. Between his veteran's benefits, his taxi wages (he drives a hack in Suisun City these days) and the donations he gets from giving tours, he and his wife, Luchell, now can afford to live modestly in Lower Nob Hill.

"But I still feel this is my home," he said. "I like showing it off to people."

Making the rounds

He doesn't walk; he saunters. Seymour's never in a hurry. He wants people to take in the Tenderloin in its totality: the sights (juddering homeless and cellphone-yakking businessmen), smells (astringent urine in places, enticing ethnic food in others) and sounds (horns and sirens, ranting and laughter).

When he strolled the streets on this morning, people nodded at him. Seymour likes to call himself an "OG" – original gangster, one who's been in the thick of things for years and has earned street respect.

"People don't mind me bringing folks down," he said. "They know I'm doing what's good for the neighborhood. I'm teaching people."

He assures tourists – he does about three tours a week, more in the summer, he says – not to worry about safety. Yes, there are drug deals, auto thefts and the occasional homicide, but the reports of the Tenderloin's lawlessness are greatly exaggerated, he said.

San Francisco Police Department figures for 2013 show that the Tenderloin has by far the highest rate of narcotics arrests of 10 districts and has the third highest rate of robberies and aggravated assaults, behind the Mission District and the Southern District (from the Ferry Building, south of Market to 16th Street). Bear in mind, though, that the Tenderloin is only 0.3 of a square mile, the Mission 2.7 square miles and the Southern 2.9 square miles.

Seymour scoffs at statistics. He believes people can visit the Tenderloin without fear.

"Some don't like coming here at night, but it isn't any more dangerous," he said. "It's only dangerous if you're in the drug trade. They aren't going to bother you. The number one thing you gotta know: There's a (drug-dealing) captain that runs every block. If someone tries to take your (photographer's) camera, he'll worry that someone'll call the police and shut this block down for a couple of hours. Well, he don't want this block shut down. Hurts business. He don't want any trouble with the police."

Seymour, in fact, has a theory about why the Tenderloin has a more laidback aura than "menacing places" such as Compton, Watts or parts of Oakland.

"Maybe it's just because they are all medicated," he said. "I really think it might be because the drugs take the edge off."

It remains, however, not a place in which to let your guard down. According to the daily crime-mapping page of, 31 crimes occurred in the Tenderloin on the day we visited for the tour. One of the nine assaults in that 24-hour period was what caused the flurry of police and fire activity on Seventh and Market as we embarked. It was a stabbing, the site reported.

Yet, Seymour maintains the district is not a "hassle" to visitors because denizens have reached a detente with newcomers. The district is far from gentrified, but in recent years, tech businesses such as Twitter have moved in and tweaked the dynamic.

One newcomer Seymour likes to show off is the Cutting Ball Theater, an experimental troupe that has established a beachhead on Taylor Street. Last year, Cutting Ball produced a staged oral-history documentary called "Tenderloin," which played to packed audiences. So every time Seymour gives a tour, he knocks on the door and hopes managing director Suzanne Appel is around.

"We see ourselves as a bridge between people who've lived here for decades and people who are new from all parts of the city," Appel said. "We've reached out (and) offered pay-what-you-can tickets for those who live and work here."

Seymour asked Appel – probably for the edification of the tourists – if she feels safe working in the neighborhood.

"I've met a lot of people who live in the low-income housing unit next door, even the people standing on the corner, and we've built a (relationship)," she said. "Every once in a while, when I come to work, there will be somebody sleeping in front of our door. People on the street will help me out then."

Less than a block from Cutting Ball is the corner of Taylor and Turk streets. Seymour stopped a few dozen feet before it. He lowered his voice.

"This is our big drug corner, ground zero," he said. "Crack and meth. People come from all over – Oakland, Marin, Sacramento, Solano – to buy and sell."

He paused and gently admonished a photographer.

"Hey, hey, man, just be a little more discreet about taking pictures of that corner," he said. "They don't like that, man."

Then Seymour resumed his spiel.

"The drug dealers are commuters," he said. "People don't know that. They come in from Antioch, Fairfield, Vallejo, Richmond. One day, BART broke down and nobody was out here selling."

Most of the violence stems from drug deals gone bad, like the time in February 2009 when six people were shot outside Grand Liquor.

"You'd come out here and step over the bodies," Seymour said. "It's getting better, but still our biggest problem, right here."

Acts of kindness

Seymour opened the heavy oaken doors of St. Boniface Catholic Church on Golden Gate Avenue, took a few steps into a darkened alcove, then stopped. All you could hear was the light snoring coming from the 76 pews – every single one of them occupied by a homeless man or woman hunched under blankets.

It was a stark and vivid image – rootless individuals, their worldly possessions often stuffed into a plastic garbage bag, amid the stained-glass splendor, marble columns and ornate gilt facades.

"This is Project Gubbio," Seymour said. "It gives the homeless a place to sleep after the shelters close in the morning."

Each day, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., the church doors are opened. No one has to sign in or check names. They can just rest for a few hours, with the nonprofit providing blankets and use of bathrooms.

"Our mission is two-fold," said Laura Slattery, director of Project Gubbio. "One is to provide safe, quiet space for the guests. The other is to bridge the gap not just with the worshipping community but with the neighbors and the schools and people in the Tenderloin, to re-envision how we view the people living on the streets. They are our brothers and sisters, not just faceless people."

Such charity extends across the street to St. Anthony's, which provides free meals, free computer classes and use in a state-of-the-art tech lab, and a free medical clinic.

The midday cafeteria serves 2,500 meals a day, according to dining room manager Charles Sommer. It was packed on this particular lunch hour (turkey in gravy was the entree), but Sommer said a new, larger facility is being built at a vacant lot across the street.

Up on the second floor, Seymour led his group to the medical clinic, which was as empty as the cafeteria was full.

"You can walk right in and see a doctor within 10 minutes," he said. "You go to S.F. General (Hospital) on a Monday and still be there on Tuesday. I'm serious. I did that. But this is a top-of-the-line place."

Places of pride

You wouldn't think an SRO – single room occupancy – hotel, one of scores that dot the Tenderloin, would be a place of distinction. SROs are notorious for crime among transients. Shell out $50 a night for a roof over your head, but watch your back, buddy.

But this one on Eddy Street, near Leavenworth, isn't named the Cadillac Hotel for nothing. Built in 1907 and a city landmark, the Cadillac exudes charm. The lobby features original wood floors and artwork, even a Steinway piano. Its grand ballroom once was a boxing rink called Newman's Gym.

"Back in Jim Crow days, a lot of jazz musicians, artists and athletes, when they came to town, couldn't stay downtown, so this was the luxury hotel for Negroes in the '30 through the '50s," Seymour said. "Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and (Joe) Frazier – anyone black and famous – stayed here.

"Then (in the mid-1970s), Leroy Looper bought the Cadillac and turned it into the best (supportive) housing in the city. You gotta behave yourself to live in here, man. You come in drunk or drugging, you're out on the street."

A block or two over on Taylor, Seymour stopped in front of what looked like a gray, nondescript building. A plaque on the sidewalk marks it as the site of the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot. The cafeteria was one of the few places where transgendered people could safely congregate during an era in which cross-dressing was illegal. A police raid led to a violent uprising.

"That predated Stonewall (in New York)," Seymour said. "Lot of history here."

What is the building now?

"It's a transition house," Seymour said. "You get out of San Quentin, you go to the top floor, then move to next floor next and eventually out the door. If you're on work release, they'll breathalize and urine-test you. You fail, you'll be back in San Quentin in an hour. I've seen them hauled away."

Many of the historical sites on the walking tour no longer serve their original purpose.

Seymour showed off the Hibernia Bank Building, built in 1906, at McAllister and Jones, a classic example of Beaux Arts design from architect Albert Pissis. It fell into disrepair, became a police substation in the 1990s and, since 2000, has been vacant. As Seymour shuffled by, pigeons scattered on the steps and fluttered up into the granite columns.

"They keep talking about developing it," Seymour said. "You see how far they've gotten."

Two blocks up on Jones is another noteworthy Tenderloin spot: the site of the Screening Room, where a plaque reads that "the first full length adult oriented hardcore feature (was) legally shown in the U.S. (in 1970)."

"See what's here now?" he asked. "A swingers club (the Power Exchange)."

Seymour laughed. Couldn't help himself.

"Some things don't change, man."


Del Seymour leads two-hour tours of San Francisco's Tenderloin district by appointment only. The tours are free but donations are welcome. To reach Seymour, call (415) 574-1641 or email him at

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

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