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San Francisco’s last working-class neighborhood gets left behind in boom times

February 11, 2014 at 6:17 PM EST
As a new wave of tech enterprises gentrify San Francisco’s older, modest neighborhoods, an area known as the Tenderloin, populated by the city’s poorer residents, remains in the grips of drugs and crime. Special correspondent Spencer Michels explores the dilemma of whether upgrading the neighborhood will result in inhabitants being displaced en masse.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: American cities often wrestle with redeveloping blighted areas, since longtime residents are often displaced in the process.

There’s a seamy neighborhood in San Francisco called the Tenderloin that’s resisting change right now, despite a high-tech boom that could upgrade the area.

Our special correspondent Spencer Michels has our story, co-produced with public station KQED San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: No one is sure where the Tenderloin got its name, but it has been the soft underbelly of San Francisco for decades: drug dealing and drunks, prostitution, the homeless and mentally ill, troubled veterans, and impoverished new immigrants; 28,000 people live in the 40-square-block area in single-room occupancy hotels and dingy apartments.

The neighborhood is adjacent to the city’s affluent booming downtown, with its expensive hotels, upscale shops and well-attended theaters.

Judy Young, executive director of the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, moved into the Tenderloin from an Asian refugee camp in 1981.

JUDY YOUNG, Vietnamese Youth Development Center: I was 8 years old and we lived in this crappy one bedroom, I think it was haunted, apartment. And there was like six of us to a one-bedroom. And the neighborhood was the worst you could ever find.

SPENCER MICHELS: Four thousand children still live in the neighborhood, and more than 30 years later, the downtrodden still line up for free meals at St. Anthony’s Dining Hall in the heart of the Tenderloin.

JUDY YOUNG: Families do live here because it is one of the most affordable places in the city. And people don’t realize how high the housing is in San Francisco. And so, if you can find a studio or one-bedroom here now for $1,200, that’s pretty affordable, compared to other places.

SPENCER MICHELS: But now a new wave of tech enterprises are moving into the city and nearby Silicon Valley, bringing with them well-paid workers who can afford to live in newer and more upscale digs and patronize pricey bars and restaurants.

Twitter, with 2,000 employees, recently opened its new headquarters just across the street from the Tenderloin. And that’s brought in a few new businesses and put pressure on the city to clean up the area.

I have spent most of my life in and around San Francisco, and I have seen lots of changes, but, somehow, the Tenderloin seems to have avoided that change. It’s still not a pleasant place, but it’s home for the poor. Many other cities have had places like the Tenderloin, but they have redeveloped them. Somehow, the Tenderloin has resisted that.

One reason San Francisco has not redeveloped the Tenderloin is the city’s experience in the largely African-American neighborhood called the Fillmore or Western Addition. In the 1960s, the city declared the area blighted and essentially bulldozed it into oblivion, forcing thousands of blacks to move out of the city. Critics called it black removal.

San Francisco magazine editor Gary Kamiya says that it was a huge mistake.

GARY KAMIYA, San Francisco magazine: The destruction of the Western Addition in the name of urban renewal, probably the greatest sin in the history of San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: With that in mind, the city’s supervisors passed zoning laws and rent control designed to make it nearly impossible to displace the Tenderloin’s population by upgrading the housing stock, turning residential hotels into more lucrative tourist lodgings, and pricing out the poor, even in the midst of the nearby tech revolution.

Randy Shaw is longtime director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit in the neighborhood. He says those laws help preserve a place where people could afford to live, the working poor included.

RANDY SHAW, Tenderloin Housing Clinic: The Tenderloin has been for the last really almost 100 years a working-class neighborhood, and now it’s become San Francisco’s last working-class neighborhood, and the last it will ever have, because it’s the one neighborhood in San Francisco that cannot be gentrified, for a number of reasons, land use protections, zoning protections, rent controls, and a unique housing stock which has no single-family homes.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Kamiya thinks something has to change in the Tenderloin. In his recent book, “Cool Gray City of Love,” he claims that nonprofits like Shaw’s and other progressive forces have impeded progress and created a museum of depravity in the Tenderloin.

GARY KAMIYA: San Francisco is very left-leaning. The nonprofits have a very strong political base in the city. To simply take an undesirable population and go warehouse them somewhere is, you know, extremely problematic. So there’s kind of a — there’s an understandable reason to not want to make a dramatic change in the Tenderloin.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the middle of our interview, we were interrupted by one resident, a man who calls himself Dirty Ray.

Why do you live in the Tenderloin?

MAN: Why do I live in the Tenderloin?

SPENCER MICHELS: Yes.

MAN: Because we’re flushed into the areas. This is where we have to survive the best that we can.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kamiya understands that point of view, but he blames the nonprofits that own or operate much of the Tenderloin housing. He says they have an interest in keeping things as they are.

GARY KAMIYA: What the nonprofits want to do is maintain their stake here. This is where they have their structures. They own or lease dozens of buildings, and thousands of people are housed and supported here. They’re being part of the solution.

But, ironically, they’re also part of the problem. The city is very loathe to step in and say, let’s sweep this all away, let’s move it somewhere else.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Shaw denies the charges and says he has worked hard to get rid of crime in the area.

What about the nonprofits?  Do they have a stake and they want to keep things the way they are?

RANDY SHAW: No, that’s absolutely false. I mean, nobody has spent more time than me trying to reduce crime in the Tenderloin.

The problem has been that the police allow activities to go on in the Tenderloin they don’t allow in other neighborhoods.

POLICE OFFICER: You have got to get off the sidewalk, guys. Come on.

SPENCER MICHELS: For their part, the police say they devote plenty of resources to the Tenderloin, with frequent street patrols and a special unit housed here.

But, according to Captain Jason Cherniss, the basic problems here are not law enforcement issues.

CAPT. JASON CHERNISS, San Francisco Police Department: Public safety doesn’t belong to the police. Public safety belongs to cooperation between the police and the community. If the environment is comfortable for drug dealers and drug trafficking, removing that drug dealer is only going to take that one drug dealer off the street, but the environment still stands.

SPENCER MICHELS: As for why the cops don’t make more arrests?

CAPT. JASON CHERNISS: Well, if you’re not used to seeing people who are mentally ill, who don’t smell good, who are incontinent, who talk to themselves, those are things that could scare you, yes. But we don’t criminalize homelessness in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, San Francisco is changing rapidly. Other older, modest neighborhoods have been gentrifying, with the poor residents moving out as prices rise.

So far, that hasn’t happened to the Tenderloin, which raises a thorny question that compassionate, but upscale San Francisco must answer: How do you clean up a drug-infested, crime-ridden area without displacing the unfortunate population that lives there?