The Tenderness of the Tenderloin
December 11, 2017
The Tenderloin lies at the heart of San Francisco, yet it does not lie within the hearts of most San Franciscans. It’s the kind of neighborhood that people go out of their way to avoid. People who walk through the Tenderloin on any given night will see hoards of people lying on the street shooting up, hear the shouts and arguments between the residents of the neighborhood, and women who walk the streets of the Tenderloin are not unfamiliar to catcalls and whistles.
Ariel Craft, a Tenderloin resident, remembers her fear of the Tenderloin when she was a high school student at Marin Academy: “I was generally afraid of it. I think I was taught to be afraid of it. And I think my parents instilled that in me as well.” Craft would visit the Tenderloin on trips to the theater district which is located in the neighborhood but was never allowed to walk through the neighborhood alone. She is now the artistic director of the same theater that she used to visit in high school. Craft no longer feels frightened as she walks from block to block, as she does it every day to get from her apartment to the theater and back. “I’m getting less stringent about what I feel safety looks like and getting closer to what actual safety is, which has very little to do with comfort. There’s a difference between what I feel comfortable in and what I feel safe in,” she says.
Kim Bender, the Senior Director of Development at Glide Church, has no fear of the Tenderloin either. When asked if she’s ever felt endangered in the Tenderloin her response is a simple: “No, never.” This comes as a surprise because Bender has lived in the Tenderloin during the late 70s and from 2012-2014 so she has spent many years in the neighborhood that people so often fear.
Presently, Bender lives in Marin and commutes to the Tenderloin each day. “I couldn’t live and work in the Tenderloin,” says Bender. “That would be too hard for me. I need to kind of get away and recharge.”
While Bender can become overwhelmed by the poverty and deprivation she sees in the Tenderloin everyday,
she also appreciates and loves the community. “The Tenderloin is a place full of a lot of pain and suffering, but I also wish that people could see how beautiful it is.” she says, “The tenderness and kindness that people can demonstrate towards each other even in the most dire circumstances is inspiring.”
Craft has experienced this kindness on multiple occasions. Operating a theater company often includes moving heavy set pieces and props into the building, which is physically challenging and can take significant time. Luckily, the people of the Tenderloin have no reluctance when it comes to helping their fellow community members. “People often ask me if I need help because we are often carrying large things. People who are on the street will often say, ‘do you need help carrying that?’It’s so nice and it happens all the time,” says Craft with a smile on her face.
Del Seymour, one of the few people who gives tours of the Tenderloin, knows the neighborhood like the back of his hand. He understands the compassion that the neighborhood’s residents demonstrate towards each other. “There’s no other place where everyone knows each other’s names. Everyone is involved in helping each other out through difficult situations because everyone is in a tough situation in the Tenderloin.”
While Seymour adores the Tenderloin, he no longer lives there. Similar to Bender, he needs to recharge and spend some of his time away from the Tenderloin — though his reasoning is quite different than hers.
For years, Seymour was addicted to drugs and lived on the streets of the Tenderloin. Through Glide Church he was able to recover and start a new life, giving tours of the neighborhood he’s grown to love. “Glide is the belly of the beast. They’re ground central for managing the problems in the Tenderloin,” says Seymour.
And they wouldn’t be able to manage those problems without the donations they receive each year. Bender raises nearly $10 million each year in donations from individuals and companies in order to support the services Glide offers. These services range from free meals to counseling for LGBT people, to church services twice every Sunday. Bender wishes to eliminate the disconnect that exists between the affluent donors she works with and the people living in poverty in the Tenderloin. “I’d rather have them come in and take a tour of the Tenderloin and see that these are people just like them instead of having them just mail in a check.”
One of the tours her donors may take could be the tours that Seymour leads, which cover every aspect of the Tenderloin, from the architecture to the drug dealers. His reasoning for starting his tours stems from the lack of tourism in the neighborhood.“The Tenderloin was a place that tourists avoided which I thought was crazy because it was blocks away from the tourist capital of the world and it made no sense for that neighborhood to be avoided by tourists.” By the tourist capital of the world, Seymour is referring to Union Square, the giant conglomerate of shops, cable cars, and ice rinks visited by millions of tourists every year. Union Square is pressed up right against the Tenderloin and some have seen it seep into the Tenderloin over the past few years.
Craft has witnessed this phenomenon and believes that because of it, the Tenderloin will not stay the Tenderloin forever. She has seen first hand in her five years living there, the change that the neighborhood has undergone. “What I’ve seen is as certain areas of the city gentrify, they become really inhospitable to the homeless population… the homeless population is becoming more and more concentrated.” From what Craft has seen, the homeless people of the Tenderloin have begun living in more condensed areas, veering away from the parts of the neighborhood that are gentrifying. The homeless people can no longer spend time in the newly gentrified areas. According to the Craft, “We’ve literally seen [the shop owners] say [to the homeless], ‘you can’t be on this street anymore’ and so the next street over gets really congested because all the [homeless] people go there.”
Bender doesn’t share Craft’s level of fear of gentrification in Tenderloin. “I can feel the border of Union Square pushing up against the Tenderloin, but I think for the most part it isn’t really going to change,” she says. In terms of prices rising and new fancier shops opening in the neighborhood, she says, “I think that it’s gentrifying for sure. But it’s slow and I know that there are some areas that won’t gentrify at all.
While Craft and Bender worry about gentrification to various degrees and have observed it, Seymour believes that this is not an issue that will affect the Tenderloin whatsoever. “The Tenderloin has not changed whatsoever, the Tenderloin will never change.” he says.“The Tenderloin has gotten some improvements but it will never change. I think it’s a great thing that it will never change.”