Oh, San Francisco. Clanging trolley bells, barking sea lions, waving rainbow flags—and urban decay?
If a new plan comes to fruition, visitors to San Francisco may be adding another neighborhood to the typical Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf loop. Civic and community leaders are rallying to bolster tourism in San Francisco’s notoriously down-and-out Tenderlion district. Armed with a recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places, advocates are planning to bring in plaques, walking tours, and even erect a neighborhood museum with the intention of luring tourists off the beaten path and into the gritty heart of the historic but tainted area.
Tucked between Union Square and Civic Hall, the geographically central neighborhood has been blighted by drugs, prostitution and homelessness for decades. Residency motels, ethnic restaurants and some of the cheapest rents in the city can be found in the area, one of the most densely populated west of the Mississippi. The name itself is rife with lore of a long-gone, Wild West San Francisco—Tenderloin is rumored to be named after the succulent slab of meat its beat policemen could afford as a result of bribes and pay-offs.
Tourists and locals alike have for years been hesitant to walk the neighborhood’s streets, even by day. Sordid scenes of poverty and addiction play out on the sidewalks, with crime and violence rates among the highest in the city. But community advocates, civic leaders and even the mayor are hoping to use the area’s historical significance to promote a positive image, and leverage tourism to alleviate poverty.
The idea harkens to both slum tours, such as Rio de Janeiro‘s famous favela tours, and projects that have similarly tried to leverage tourism for the benefit of under-served communities, such as Trekking LA in Los Angeles. The questions remain: what will draw tourists to Tenderloin, and will it work?
Randy Shaw, the moving force behind Tenderloin tourism, envisions a music museum in the old Cadillac Hotel that will draw Baby Boomer Deadheads, and walking tours that will bring visitors inside the SRO (single-room occupancy) hotels that characterize the neighborhood, revealing how residents live today. “We offer a kind of grittiness you can’t find much anymore,” he says of the neighborhood.
But many remain doubtful. Laurie Armstrong, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees a long road ahead. And even residents question the success of the plan, saying that tourists should be sure to visit only during daylight hours.
Whether or not the plan takes hold, the idea shows a renewed hope and interest in an often overlooked and given-up-on neighborhood. It proves that even affluent cities have sore spots, that even the most touristed destinations in the world have areas untouched, and that even the most blighted districts have worthwhile cultural gems. You just might want to wait until the plan takes hold before you do embark on any Tenderloin adventuring.