Forgiving Tenderloin

As I continue my research on the Tenderloin’s history, I realize that its role as a safe haven in San Francisco hasn’t changed for the past 100 years. It’s home to those marginalized by society: immigrants, homeless, addicts, mentally ill, people with AIDS/HIV, the gay/transgendered community, and newly released prisoners. The Tenderloin has to be the most accepting, forgiving place in this city.

I’m writing on the Ambassador Hotel for my final story, and I believe it’s the perfect reflection of the forgiving Tenderloin. AIDS broke out among Ambassador residents during the 80s. During this time, the city hadn’t paid much attention to the new disease, and didn’t see it as a problem. A whole floor in the Ambassador was used as a hospice for AIDS patients. Social workers came in everyday to check their health, and clean their rooms. Non-profits brought food, clean laundry, and a listening ear. In a time of frequent deaths and grievance, there was acceptance and hope.

As long as people need somewhere to belong, the Tenderloin will take them in.

Tenderloin survives more than 100 years

In “San Francisco Tenderloin: Heroes, Angels, Demons, and Other True Stories” Lawrence Wonderling, a psychiatrist whom took care of patients in the TL wrote of an everlasting Tenderloin.

“The Tenderloin is one of those 20th Century phenomena that has resisted obscurity for over 100 years. […] It has been structurally destroyed, publicly intimidated, blasphemed and socially quarantined, all of which may have served to alter, but never eliminate, the Tenderloin.”
– Lawrence Wonderling, The San Francisco Tenderloin – Heroes, Demons, Angels and Other True Stories

I’m currently researching the history of the Tenderloin. There’s no better way to figure out the reason for the present than looking into the past. Like Wonderling writes, the Tenderloin has survived an earthquake, redevelopment, political pressures, and social indignation.

There’s no better quote that sums up what the Tenderloin was, is, and always will be.

Tenderloin National Forest

My very first day on the beat in the Tenderloin, I walked around for three hours, talked to people on the street, and paused at corners to watch the life of the neighborhood around me.

Yes, like people say, there are lots of homeless. And yes, I did witness a drug deal my very first day on the beat (right in front of a children’s park too). And the streets are dirty; very dirty with trash and urine.

But throughout my exploration, I found so much beauty. Like brightness in the dark. I met people that radiated positive energy. I saw walls and walls of colorful street art. And I stumbled upon the Tenderloin National Forest.

A couple of artists, always dismayed by the view of the dumpy Cohen alley from their window, decided do something. They turned that alley into the Tenderloin National Forest.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I curiously sauntered in. The place was quiet. It was surrounded by colorful murals. There were tall trees. The floor was a tiled mosaic. There were charming garden beds and metal troughs of swimming goldfish.

Walking to the very end of the alley, I circled back to find someone who knew what it this place was. That’s when I saw Joaquin just sitting there.

Joaquin was doing a story on the Tenderloin National Forest for NPR. He was glad to tell me about its history.

As I listened, I sat next to him, and took in the Tenderloin National Forest; gazing at all its features.

“People say it’s a breath of fresh air.”

Compliments from the Tenderloin

By Lindsay Oda

“You look beautiful Miss.”

“I like that hair!”

“Wow, you’re beautiful! What’s your name?”

I’ve never thought myself to be anything stunning. I’m just normal, but people in the Tenderloin make me feel like a treasure.

Today I walked into the Tenderloin looking a good mess. I wore my scrappy combat boots, dark skinnies, an old bowling shirt with the name “Joel” embroidered on the front, and a tan windbreaker. My hair was frizzy (still experimenting with my perm) and its dye fading, leaving it a reddish brown. I wore no makeup.

Yet, they still had compliments for me.

Once I went to meet and shake hands with a lady at a Tenderloin theater group. She embraced me.

“Oh, I don’t shake hands. I do hugs,” said a woman with long, fake pink fingernails, dyed blonde hair, and a puffy quilted jacket.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the people of the Tenderloin are just friendly, loving strangers. The kind with huggable, puffy jackets.

When writing stories, most of the time those I interview don’t care about me. They don’t ask too many questions besides who I write for. But people in the Tenderloin, they want to know me. Where I’m from. How old I am. What I study. What my opinions are. They’ve offered me food and a cup of tea. They invite me in their offices, their cars, and homes.

Some want to know why the Tenderloin? Why do I care to write about their community? What do I feel others need to know?

That’s when they really talk to me. Once they understand I see the same hope in the Tenderloin that so many can’t.

That mutual connection I have with members of the community, that respect…it has to be the biggest compliment of all.

Silly, little, white girl

By Lindsay Oda

Out of all the people I’ve met in the Tenderloin, Beth has to be one of the most interesting. And that’s saying a lot, considering the diversity of life in the TL. Beth, 25, is a singer from Seattle. She moved the TL a year ago, to live in a house of 15 missionaries, who put on services at New Life Church five days a week.

She has this qualm about herself.

“Sometimes I feel like a silly, little, white girl.”

I asked her what she meant. She explained she feels at times naive–coming to the Tenderloin to do missions, not understanding half the struggles people here go through.

“I don’t even pretend to know what they’ve experienced.”

At first glance, Beth is a silly, little, white girl. She stands a little over 5 feet, and she told me all this while walking her wiener dog, Danny, around the TL. She has a quirky laugh that could match a young girl. She wore a stretchy headband, black slacks, a zip-up hoodie, and sneaker flats. You can imagine the contrast to a neighborhood of many homeless.

After taking a long walk with her, and listening to her experiences in the TL, she proved to be more complex than leads on.

She told me a story about a girl she loves talking to at New Life.

Lea* is beautiful, a striking face marked with scars from a skin disease. She is addicted to heroine. Beth saw Lea on the street one time with two other men. Beth got a bad feeling about it, and went to check on her. The two men snatched a pipe from the Lea’s mouth. Lea went hysterical yelling at them.

Beth walked Lea away from the area. Lea lost it and started crying. She sobbed about how sick she’d be if she didn’t have any heroine. How she’d have diarrhea for weeks and it’d feel like her muscles were peeling off her bones.

“All I could think is ‘I just wanna buy this girl some heroine.’”

That was the point at which Beth had to ask herself: Do I really believe that God can help her?

She talks about addictions as spiritual strongholds on the neighborhood. A darkness clinging to the people and the physical space.

She explains, for these people, they need more than just food, housing, and services.

“We get so many volunteers during Thanksgiving and Christmas. They think giving out hot cocoa and a sandwich is going to do something. These people can get full meals at St. Anthony’s and Glide.”

She sees many people who want to help the community, but don’t understand it. They come for a day or week, and come back the next year.

Beth has resolved addicts need long-term relationships with people who are committed to counseling them. And of course, “the power of Jesus.”

Many people won’t agree with Beth. Many people will agree partially, and many will agree wholeheartedly; however, Beth offers a thought-provoking response to a prevalent issue in the Tenderloin: addiction.

*Name has been changed for privacy