Sam McManis

Discoveries: S.F.’s Tenderloin Museum presents neighborhood in perspective

An exhibit at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum documents changes in the neighborhood.
An exhibit at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum documents changes in the neighborhood. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Take a walk down Eddy Street. Resist the urge to walk fast with head down. Take in the acute, sometimes acrid, sensory details of these city blocks, the beating, arrhythmic heart of the Tenderloin. Be vigilant and streetwise, but don’t succumb to fear, for there is much to see and experience in San Francisco’s most notorious and misunderstood neighborhood.

A stoop-shouldered merchant sweeps the entryway of the Superette 128 market, careful not to disturb a homeless man, and his dog, curled up sleeping nearby. Men linger outside the Herald Hotel, jawing and guffawing and swigging from 40-ouncers. Kids frolic on the swings and jungle gym at verdant Boeddeker Park, the roar of their playful squeals only partially drowned out by honking taxis and construction jackhammers. The marquee at the Tea Room Theatre (“All Male Entertainment”) is lit but not yet open, same for The Power Exchange (hint: not a public utility building) a few doors down on Jones. Cops circle a man sprawled at a crosswalk, as a woman in a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt pushing a baby stroller tries not to look.

What’s needed to fully comprehend this teeming street scene, this mingling of the ordinary and the sketchy, is context – historical and sociological perspective explaining such a rich urban milieu.

Context, conveniently, can be found at the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth, where the newly opened Tenderloin Museum has got it all covered.

A labor of both love and, well, labor by lawyer and Tenderloin activist Randy Shaw, the museum is three years in the making and $3.5 million in the building, with donations coming from local business owners, grants and philanthropists. At times during the process, Shaw admits he thought that, with all the challenges the Tenderloin faces – poverty, homelessness, crime – what good will a museum do? “Maybe we should just open up another restaurant,” he said, laughing. “But we kept at it. It was an ambitious goal, but we made it.”

It is a goal mostly met, true.

The museum is a handsome, glass-walled space tucked into the ground floor of the historic 1907 Cadillac Hotel, the first of many SROs (single room occupancy residences) that define the neighborhood. With archival photos, footage, recordings and yellowed newspaper clippings – augmented by artifacts ranging from a vintage pinball machine to peep-show viewfinders from famous fan dancer Sally Rand to ticket stubs from the Blackhawk Jazz Club – it presents a history of the Tenderloin as a section of the city far richer than just a tawdry hub of gambling, drug use, porn and prostitution. Families have long lived here, churches long thrived, its sense of community evident in its embrace of all ethnicities, its tolerance shown by its acceptance of the gay and transgender populace long before the Castro became LGBT ground zero.

Where the goal might fall short – though it’s too early to tell – is Shaw’s hope that the museum will be a tourist draw, luring visitors away from obvious haunts such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park and Union Square and over to The ’Loin.

Shaw, author of “The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,” knows what you might be thinking – is this dude deluded? But he believes the neighborhood can bring in tourist dollars. At times, he sounds like a super-positive Realtor talking about a ratty fixer-upper having so much potential. His zealotry is so palpable, so contagious, that you want to believe him, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

The museum idea was spawned when Shaw led a successful neighborhood effort in 2007 to create a National Historic District for the Tenderloin. Now that the buildings, including the dozens of SRO hotels, were protected from the gentrification sweeping the rest of San Francisco, thoughts turned to commerce.

“We asked, ‘How can we revive this community?’” said Shaw, who has dedicated his career in nonproft advocacy to helping the Tenderloin and its residents, though he does not live there.

“What are our strengths? We looked at this low-income community with a long downturn, and we decided our strength is our history,” Shaw said. “When we were working on the (historic district bid), we ran across all this great history. In the last chapter of my book on the Tenderloin, I mentioned that we just can’t seem to get tourists to come here and spend money. A museum is a way to bring people in from the outside and build on our history.”

In its first month, the museum has had a steady trickle of visitors, nothing on a par with the long lines for the cable cars or the ferry to Alcatraz. Which is to be expected. Shaw counts on a strong word-of-mouth buildup over the next few months, hoping that people will stop bad-mouthing the Tenderloin and actually see for themselves.

“We hired a professional company to do a survey to determine whether there was a demand or interest in a Tenderloin Museum, and we found out that people who’d never been to the Tenderloin were the people most afraid and were least likely to come,” he said. “That says to us that the negative perception will change if we can just get people into the neighborhood.”

In a perfect world, the museum should be a draw, mostly because it’s as funky as the neighborhood itself. It’s not afraid to highlight the less-savory aspects of the Tenderloin – the drugs, gambling and prostitution – while also celebrating the outreach to the homeless by churches such as Glide Memorial and St. Anthony’s and community groups that advocated for transgender rights decades before Caitlyn Jenner emerged.

How could you not be captivated by a museum that features exhibits with titles such as these: “Porn Is Born,” “Screaming Queens,” “Buying B-Girls,” “Placing Bets” and “Caged Teens”? Along the way, you’ll also learn about how activists worked for tenants’ rights, how the Tenderloin served as a center for labor union organizing and how the neighborhood is the most culturally and ethnically diverse in San Francisco.

But, c’mon, wouldn’t you rather hear about the tawdry?

To that end, there’s a wonderfully kitschy archival video, circa early 1960s, about the Tenderloin that today comes off as almost a “Dragnet” parody. Flashing images of neon signs blaring “PUSSY CAT Theatre” and “LIQUOR,” the basso profundo narrator intones: “Every great city of the world seems to have an area given over to the fleshy needs of men. In San Francisco, this area is called The Tenderloin …”

Fleshy needs aside, the Tenderloin once was an entertainment hub. The Blackhawk Jazz Club drew the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk – you can listen to live audio recordings – and rock groups such as the Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Prince; and Herbie Hancock laid down album tracks at Wally Heider Recording Studio. In the post-World War II era and into the 1950s, bars (not just dives) and restaurants also drew visitors, before the Mitchell Brothers in the 1970s brought a different sort of crowd with their porn theaters.

Shaw has no illusions that the Tenderloin will be as trendy as the Marina or the Mission, nor does he want gussied up, condo-laden streets (“We’ve passed strict land-use measures, so much of our housing is off the speculative market,” he said), but he does pine for an economic upturn.

“There’s a great bar scene up near O’Farrell and Geary (streets) with Bourbon and Branch and Swig,” Shaw said, “but the museum’s in the central Tenderloin. That’s harder to attract new businesses and people. But we’re trying.”

Walking back down Eddy Street, headed toward the Powell Street BART station, you see the neighborhood in a much more accepting light. The homeless man and his dog are still asleep, the cops no longer surround the sprawled man and the kids at Boeddeker Park still burn off energy. An older man with a limp exits an SRO hotel, the Fashionette, and waits with you at a stoplight. He asks you for the time. You tell him. He smiles. “Man, 11 o’clock? I got me some good sleep this time.” You cross the street together, then he limps off down Jones Street.

Just another morning in the Tenderloin.

Tenderloin Museum

Where: 398 Eddy St., San Francisco

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday

Cost: $10

More info: tenderloinmuseum.org

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