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Read Text Only: Community
Tenderloin People


Lori Martens, Co-Owner
Koko Cocktails

Steve Jester, Proprietor
Public Barber Salon

Julianne Yates, Owner/Curator
Gallery Heist

By Jonathan Hirsch

It is a Saturday afternoon in the Tenderloin—the first day of spring. Midway out the mouth of Geary Street, just west of Union Square, I am on the stoop of my building. The million cells of people are swarming in all directions: toward Powell Street Bart Station and the East Bay, west to the avenues, north and south to the quieter surrounding cities. I am taken aback with what can only be described as awe, as the last rays of sun cascade down the windows of the lanky high rises, lighting them up like golden dominoes above a massive swell of clouds thundering down the city’s arteries from the Pacific Ocean. I watch as an unmistakable natural light overwhelms our busy world. Night approaches, and neon signs across the block start to flicker on: orange for “pho,” red for “vacancy,” pink for “massage,” yellow for “parking,” green for “go.” This is my home: the crazy, busy, dirty, beautiful Tenderloin.         

You ask why, and I will tell you. After we have carved off the skin, hair, and bones, there it remains: near the kidneys, a meaty amorphous region called the “loin.” On these malleable, everything-all-the-time streets you will find, from the high-rise hotels to the nameless basement bars lorded over by dirty old men, an equitable cross-section of humanity. The TL won’t be featured in the polite middle-class narrative of San Francisco populating travel guides. In fact, the sometimes-called “worst neighborhood in San Francisco” is gerrymandered into neighboring districts with more digestible acronyms, and omitted altogether from the tall tale of a perfectly manicured “city by the sea.” The vacuum of popular opinion that surrounds this neighborhood is precisely what draws me to it. There is verisimilitude in the Tenderloin story of the urban experience—honesty in the presentation, metropolis laid bare. Most of all, it is alive! It is the fire-breathing furnace in the basement of the city. All hours of the day, a hurried commotion torches the streets and you can hear it. You can smell it. You can see it before you, simmering.