Breathing new life into San Francisco's historic Tenderloin district

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      Elijah Glasper knocks on his own door before pushing it open and allowing light from the hallway into the dark apartment, where heavy curtains block out the late-morning sun.

      “Loretta? You still sleeping?”

      He peers into the dark room while beckoning me to follow him into his apartment six floors above the alleys and sidewalks of the Tenderloin district, San Francisco’s most notorious neighbourhood. “Come on in. She won’t mind.”

      Inside Glasper’s 120-square-foot apartment, it’s clear no one else is there.

      Glasper turns with a practised pivot to a wall covered with diplomas. “I’m proud of these. I got clean. I’m helping others. End of story. But a lot of living in between then and now.”

      He pivots a fraction to the centre of the room to a shiny sink. “My kitchen,” he says before finishing his small circle to face the other wall. “That’s it.” Glasper concludes the tour of his home, and then, as if suddenly remembering, he points up to the ceiling. “My roof.”

      That roof is no minor thing for someone who has been homeless, Glasper tells me. Most people look at the walls on a house tour, or out the windows at the scenery outside. He’s happy to show off the roof over his head.

      This is not the kind of tour guidebooks will tell you about—yet.

      San Francisco has long been one of the world’s top tourist destinations, but the Golden Gate Bridge and the charm of the cable cars are just one side of the city. Renewed effort is being put into the historic Tenderloin district, an area of downtown that guidebooks warn visitors to stay away from, citing the high crime rates and homeless population.

      The neighbourhood’s rough reputation goes back nearly a century to when construction crews first settled there to rebuild the city after the earthquake of 1906. Supposedly it was given the name Tenderloin because the neighbourhood was so rough that police officers had to be enticed to work there, either with choice cuts of meat or better pay so that they could afford such things.

      The hope of Glasper and others in the community is to make the 40 city blocks of residences and businesses a tourist stop in San Francisco.

      Tours are available of rooms in some of the single-room-occupancy hotels, such as the one where Glasper lives. Thirty thousand people live in the Tenderloin, one of America’s most densely packed neighbourhoods.

      The building at 44 McAllister Street has been Glasper’s home for two years, and like many heritage buildings in the Tenderloin, construction crews are working inside and out doing renovations and seismic upgrades, restoring elegant marble foyers and sandstone exteriors.

      Within a few blocks of the worst parts of the Tenderloin are some of San Francisco’s swankest neighbourhoods, including Union Square, with its art galleries and theatres. Hotel Monaco, one of the city’s premier hotels, is positioned right on the boundary of both neighbourhoods. The concierge tells tourists heading out the front door to turn left toward Union Square, not right into the heart of the Tenderloin.

      “It’s like any urban city. You need to be street-smart,” says Jenny Toomer, spokesperson for the hotel. Within a few steps on either side of Hotel Monaco are exclusive nightclubs, upscale restaurants, and downscale holes-in-the-wall that locals swear serve some of the best Indian, Mexican, and soul food in the city. A lineup can just as easily be for a free meal at the local church as to get into one of the city’s boutique bars.

      The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation had its origins in the 1970s as an anti-gentrification organization trying to stop major hotels like the Hilton from expanding. Now, TNDC is a major landlord managing thousands of units for low-income families and seniors in the Tenderloin.

      “This is a vibrant, diverse, and fascinating place. It’s a social experiment, ever-changing and evolving,” says TNDC employee Julie Doherty during a tour of Curran House, which provides low-cost housing to families. Visitors to the tranquil garden look up at the broken windows of what was a disco in the 1970s but has now been abandoned for decades. “The tourists who would want to come to the Tenderloin are people who can walk around with confidence, have their wits about them, and can walk down alleys and look at things. It’s not a bus tour.”

      In what was once an alleyway frequented by addicts off Ellis Street, local residents have created the Tenderloin National Forest, which features three trees growing on top of the concrete.

      On Thursdays, photographers volunteer their time and take pictures of locals and visitors to the Tenderloin at the garden. They’ve lined up rows and rows of faces, some with tentative smiles, others with full grins. Some are alarmingly old, many are surprisingly young. A few—both children and seniors—have ancient eyes and look solemn and sad.

      Across the street from this alleyway-turned-forest, children—who make up one-third of the residents in the Tenderloin—are screaming with joy at a playground. In one of the apartments above, a woman leans out an apartment window and shouts fiercely down at a man on the street, who curses back at her. “Shut up!” he tells her, and points at the playground. “There are kids around. Shut the hell up!” The woman looks at the kids playing and laughing, and steps back from her open window before closing it gently.

      ACCESS: The nonprofit, volunteer-run organization San Francisco City Guides conducts free walking tours in the Tenderloin in October and May. The Uptown Tenderloin Museum is slated to open in 2012.