Tender Box

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

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.

The effort didn't exactly go smoothly. To jump-start the plan, NOMPC recommended forming a seven-block redevelopment survey area on lower Eddy Street in 1995. The recommendation was expanded to include 14, then 21, blocks the following summer. A number of neighborhood leaders, many from the Leavenworth corridor, objected to the expansion, though, saying their area wasn't sufficiently consulted.

After a bitter dispute, redevelopment was tabled before reaching the Board of Supervisors. NOMPC, then short on funding, laid off its small staff and went belly up at the end of 1996, leaving the neighborhood without an umbrella organization to give voice to its concerns.

Since then, the Tenderloin has become home to a stunningly diverse population of about 25,000 -- college students, immigrants, seniors, the disabled, families, entry-level professionals. Residents still struggle with many of the problems the neighborhood faced two decades ago, a maddening tangle of social, economic, and criminal issues. Each woe has a flip side that makes coming up with solutions all the more difficult. Economic development must be balanced against the threat of gentrification, and the fact that many residents are on fixed incomes and will never work.

Also, while nonprofit agencies continue to supply much-needed services to the poor, the homeless, and the mentally ill, many feel the neighborhood's high concentration of social services adds to its myriad problems.

Efforts to address other issues that have historically been of concern -- like affordable housing and high crime rates -- have seen mixed results. Though nonprofit developers own almost 20 percent of the housing stock, speculative pressure continues, and the rental market is as tight as ever.

Violent crime is down, as it is citywide, but many residents still don't feel safe walking the streets, and their fears are justified. Drug dealing is rampant as always: The Tenderloin accounts for 40 percent of the city's drug cases, over half of which involve out-of-town perpetrators. The Police Department's Tenderloin Task Force made more felony arrests last year (6,572) than any other district.

If some things haven't improved, it hasn't been for lack of effort. During any given week, one can attend a dozen meetings on bettering the Tenderloin -- board meetings, task force meetings, committee meetings, advisory meetings. If meetings were police officers, there would be three on every corner. If meetings were apartments, everyone would be housed.

Community efforts have resulted in a number of improvements, particularly for the neighborhood's 4,000 children. Gains in recent years include a new children's playground and elementary school. Macaulay Park, closed in 1995 at neighbors' request, is scheduled to reopen next year, as are a new playground for preschoolers and a new boys' and girls' club.

The Board of Supervisors has passed moratoriums on new massage parlors and liquor stores in the neighborhood, and a new credit union opened last month. Boeddeker Park, an open-air crack house as of January, has been more or less cleaned up, and a new police station will open across the street from the park next year.

"What we're dealing with in the Tenderloin is a microcosm of the social dysfunction that every city is grappling with, issues of homelessness, poverty, lack of treatment, lack of financial resources for the citizens here," says Capt. Susan Manheimer, commander of the Tenderloin Task Force. "I think we're going to work really hard, the community, the city, and the Police Department. We've seen a lot of strides, the neighborhood is improving. We need to continue to put our resources together and keep plugging away."

Teenage girls in puffy jackets seem to own the lower 400 block of Eddy Street. Likely as not, they commute on BART each morning from the East Bay. They are generally accompanied by a few puffy-jacketed young men, and sometimes older men. It's a loose-knit group of about 20. The girls line the sidewalks, selling crack all day long.

For example: On June 9, during a one-hour period beginning at 12:30 p.m., a dozen apparent drug sales occurred on the lower 400 block of Eddy. A handful of girls lined either side of the street, some sitting cross-legged on the hoods of cars, eating ice cream cones, sipping fruit punch. When a buyer approached, one girl's hand would disappear up her sleeve and then down her pants. The girls store their drugs in a place only doctors can search.

If caught, teenage girls are the least likely to do time: The legal system often gives them second chances, and executing search warrants on their body cavities is a task some doctors refuse to perform.

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