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Tender Box 

Inflamed by crime, drugs, and rising rents, Tenderloin residents are now launching lawsuits to clean up the city's dumping ground

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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A soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s, Jojo moved to the Tenderloin District in 1983. She keeps her small, one-bedroom apartment immaculate: simple wood furniture; a few well-placed vases; framed prints; a velvety, purplish plant that creeps like ivy along one wall.

From her small balcony a hundred or so feet above the sidewalk, the view is spectacular. A vast patchwork of rooftops stretches north toward Nob Hill. Tiny figures chase each other across the asphalt at the nearby Tenderloin Children's Playground. Flags whip atop the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental hotels.

At night, the city transforms into the most breathtaking galaxy of light, bathing her living room in a soft glow. Friends tell Jojo she has a million-dollar view, that it's like living in downtown Manhattan.

As long as she doesn't look down. Directly below her is the 400 block of Eddy Street. Heroin dealers hang out around a nearby corner, and in the morning, when Jojo steps out for coffee, they call out chiva, chiva, chiva (slang in Spanish for heroin) as she passes. Jojo used to do her laundry at a place down the street, until she got tired of running the gauntlet of teenage girls in puffy jackets who line the sidewalk at Eddy and Leavenworth by 9 a.m., plying a bustling daily trade in crack cocaine.

Come evening, the girls head back to wherever they're from. Then, things really get bad. An open-air drug-and-prostitution bazaar forms near the residential hotels across the street. People scream and fight until early morning, when the puffy-jacketed girls return, and the cycle starts all over again.

Sometimes, on nights when it gets so loud that she can't sleep, Jojo calls the police. At best, a patrol car might drive by an hour later. What works better is pelting the people below with eggs.

Before she does this, Jojo turns off her lights. She tosses the eggs and steps back from her balcony at the moment of impact, so as not to be seen. She can hear people yelling up at her afterward, Come on down, motherfucker. Of course, she doesn't. (Because of concerns for her safety, Jojo asked that her last name not be used in this story.)

"After they've been egged it's really quiet for about an hour. They disperse because they don't want to get hit." Jojo says. She smiles: "The eggs help. I've gotten to be a really good shot."

It's not that Jojo hates anyone down there. Her philosophy is simple: If they're bad people they should be in jail, if they need help they should be helped, and if they're just lazy and shiftless they should be sent wherever lazy, shiftless people belong. Put even more simply, she just wants them all to go away.

Which is why Jojo -- and 41 of her friends and neighbors -- have adopted a new tactic in the fight to clean up their neighborhood: filing small claims lawsuits against business and property owners who allow drug activity to occur on their premises. In late June, residents filed more than $200,000 worth of suits against the Doba Cafe and Deli, a nearby market at Eddy and Leavenworth that they believe contributes to the area's never-ending traffic in illegal narcotics.

The suits, filed with the help of a community group called Adopt-a-Block, are part of a growing campaign by residents to improve the Tenderloin. Synonymous for decades with drugs, crime, poverty, and prostitution, the neighborhood is once again trying to shed its role as San Francisco's neglected, vice-ridden dumping ground.

The Tenderloin has long been a refuge for largely transient populations, including drunks, drug addicts, parolees, the homeless, and the mentally ill. But as rents around the city skyrocket, the neighborhood is more and more becoming a permanent haven for working poor and people who, like Jojo, live on fixed incomes. They can't afford anything else, and don't much want to leave the Tenderloin, anyway.

Faced with the choice of fleeing the city, doing nothing, or making a stand, many have opted for the latter, hoping to reverse years of crime and financial neglect, and upend the widely held attitude that the Tenderloin will always be the Tenderloin, beyond any hope of improvement.

Change will not come easily. Solutions have proved elusive over the years, and efforts to lure in businesses and rid the neighborhood of its many ills are complicated by its compassionate reputation, and a long-standing desire that it remain low-income.

But there are stirrings, and hope that people will choose not to accept things that have always been accepted, that enough groups will focus their attention on issues large and small until the gains pile atop each other and yield what the community has long been striving for: a safe, affordable neighborhood at the heart of one of the most expensive cities in the world.

A bustling entertainment district prior to World War II, the Tenderloin might well have disappeared in the late 1970s when, faced with shrinking housing stock and years of rising crime, it risked being swallowed by the expanding downtown Financial District and tourist industries.

Led by groups such as the then-newly-formed North of Market Planning Coalition (NOMPC), residents and activists fought to preserve the Tenderloin as a low-income community, and to provide it with what it had long lacked: a political voice.

Over the next few years, activists battled encroaching development, pushed for an ordinance stopping the conversion of residential hotels to tourist use, and succeeded in having the neighborhood downzoned from commercial to residential. To prevent future gentrification, nonprofit developers began buying hotel and apartment buildings, and dedicating them as permanent, affordable housing.

Though the 1980s were, by most accounts, a time of hope and steady improvement for the Tenderloin, by the end of the decade recession and crack cocaine, among other things, had unraveled many of the gains. Crime rose, businesses closed their doors, and, declaring the neighborhood "a community in distress," NOMPC published the Tenderloin 2000 report in 1992 -- a sweeping, 10-year plan aimed at increasing housing, reducing crime, and improving the economy.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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