The Place That Time Forgot

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

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.

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