Pin It

The Place That Time Forgot 

Why things never seem to get better in the Tenderloin, no matter how much money is thrown at it

Wednesday, Jan 7 2004
Comments
Time doesn't move steadily. Sometimes, in some places, it clambers along vigorously through acres of portentous events. Elsewhere it coasts for miles past flat, empty expanses that disappear from memory.

Consider the life of retired locksmith Noel Gasaway, age 67. I struck up a conversation with him the day before New Year's Eve, and given his vivid way of recollecting events long past, at first I thought he'd only recently become a married man. "Is your wife meticulous?" he asked me, as an aside. "You know, the sort who likes everything done a certain way?"

Actually, though, Gasaway met his spouse a half-century ago, while he was in the Navy. He was stationed in the Pacific Northwest, and it was just after World War II, when good work, money, adventure, and memories were easy to come by. "I was labor chief on a joint venture with Bechtel. We built a Coast Guard base around Nome with a 1,400-foot tower," Gasaway said. "When they had government contracts, I'd work at Boeing. One time, I had a paycheck in hand for $38,000. My mother-in-law happened to get wind of it. She told my wife, 'He's been somewhere gambling, not working.' That's the kind of mother-in-law she was."

"It was the 1950s," added Gasaway, who for nearly a decade has spent his days nursing decaying joints in a room in the Baldwin House Hotel on San Francisco's Skid Row. "So that was quite a bit of money."

I'd begun thinking about this herky-jerky nature of time last week, after I spotted an article in the San Francisco Examiner that read as if it could have been written 10 years ago. It was a brief item quoting Tenderloin poverty impresario Randy Shaw, and Gasaway's Baldwin House neighbor Antoinetta Stadlman, both criticizing Shaw's old nemesis, nonprofit developer John Elberling, just as they've been doing for years. This time the duo denounced a new subsidized apartment building at Sixth and Mission streets.

To me, the news item served as a commentary on the bizarre, Brigadoon nature of San Francisco's Tenderloin and Sixth Street slums. This joined cluster of drug-infested firetraps is the target of millions of dollars of redevelopment and poverty-relief money, the focus of attention for various competing charities, and the subject of recurring bluster by an assortment of politicians. But time stands still here nonetheless. The flophouses are run by exploitative slumlords, just as they have been for years. Excitement comes in the form of occasional fires, drug-related fights, collapsed banisters, and broken-down communal bathrooms. But mostly, people in Gasaway's neighborhood just sit in their rooms for hours, venturing occasionally into cold, dark, dangerous, urine-stinking hallways, then returning to tuck in for the night -- night, after night, after night.


Since the area was declared an earthquake recovery zone in 1990, it has been the site of $85 million in redevelopment spending, and several other money streams are aimed at rehabilitating the buildings and/or people of the Tenderloin and Sixth Street. But nothing seems to change, and there's a reason: The government agencies and the nonprofit groups supposedly dedicated to helping the denizens of Skid Row have created an unchanging political economy that in some ways provides something for everybody: political activists, slumlords, developers, petty politicians, bureaucrats, mercenary merchants, drug dealers, government agencies, and nonprofit groups -- all of whom would lose out if this part of downtown were ever changed into something other than a dangerous, dehumanizing slum.

There are dozens of nonprofit groups, public agencies, and private entrepreneurs who participate in this economy, some more prominent than others. They often bicker. But they coexist peacefully in the long run.

An attorney who commutes to the Tenderloin from his $2 million mansion in the Berkeley hills, Randy Shaw has reigned as a sort of Skid Row feudal lord for a quarter-century, agitating to keep San Francisco's tourist hotel district from spreading into the poorhouse district encompassed by Bush, McAllister, Van Ness, and Taylor streets, with a spur jutting south on Sixth Street. Shaw's organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, has for years enjoyed an odd, symbiotic relationship with the slumlords of Skid Row; his organization receives city money to act as a sort of middleman that holds benefit checks on behalf of slum tenants, many of whom have drug, mental, or alcohol problems that might lead them to squander their money or fall victim to slumlords who misuse the checks. So Shaw could be seen, superficially, as an enemy of slumlords. But he depends on them for his group's existence and sometimes seems to act as their political ally.

Recently, for example, Shaw has campaigned for a scheme by which the city would lease Skid Row hotel rooms and pay nonprofit groups to manage them, presumably with tenants' interests in mind. This arrangement would give slumlords a way to, essentially, cash out their buildings without losing ownership of them, and without the nasty eviction battles associated with selling the properties.

John Elberling has spent the same quarter-century developing subsidized apartment buildings in the area just to the south of Moscone Center. Elberling's group, Tenants and Owners Development Corp., or Todco, typically erects buildings that have their own managers, as well as some support services for indigent residents; Todco buildings, therefore, have no need for Shaw's rent-brokerage services.

Shaw and Elberling have been criticizing each other for decades. Elberling's most recent project, the 154-unit Bayanihan House at Sixth and Mission streets, has put them at odds again.

Shaw was quoted in the Examiner as saying the $22 million spent on the Bayanihan House would have been more wisely used on rent at existing single-room-occupancy hotels, in so-called "master lease" arrangements that allow nonprofit groups such as Shaw's to take over management of the hotels. "You have to look at the economics," Shaw was quoted as saying in the article, which derided the Bayanihan House as a poor person's Trump Tower.

About The Author

Matt Smith

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed