The Place That Time Forgot

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

Gasaway says they'd find plenty to interest them if they did visit.

"The building doesn't seem to be up to code. When everybody gets into the hotel at 6 p.m., the main fuse blows. Then when the fuse cools down, 30 or 40 minutes later, it stays back on. This place really needs an electrical upgrade."

The drama of the drug trade provides another source of diversion.

"The present owner rents to mostly folks from a mental halfway house," he says. "The crack is not as prevalent as it was, but these folks have mental problems. I'd be the first one to say they should have a place to stay. But in a lot of cases it's a bad thing; they've put the sheep with the wolves down here. People in the hotel wait for those people to get paid and then they try to get everything they've got; they succeed. People give them crack a week or two before they get paid, then hook them. They beat them out of what little money they have after rent."

It wasn't always thus. Gasaway moved to the Baldwin House 15 years ago, after he'd lived in Los Angeles for years working as a locksmith. He'd previously moved to L.A. from Seattle after his wife died in a car crash 25 years back -- so long ago it seems like forever, and yesterday.

Even for a grieving man such as Gasaway, San Francisco's Skid Row was a slightly better place back in the 1980s, he says.

"When I moved in in '87 they vacuumed the rooms, they changed your linen. Now, every room has one change of linen when you move in, and that's it until you move out. Now, they furnish nothing. People go down to get toilet tissue, because the communal bathrooms are always out. They used to clean the toilet and put new tissue in the box."

Gasaway voted for Gavin Newsom for mayor; he was compelled, he says, by the candidate's promises to try to help people get off drugs. Surprisingly, Newsom apparently has a small fan club on the fifth floor of the Baldwin House Hotel.

"There are several people on my floor who said they voted for him because they thought that because of the way he talked, maybe we'd get a little improvement," Gasaway says.

I'm not usually one to suggest that politicians play to their gallery of fans. But I'll make an exception in this case. During the mayoral campaign, Newsom posited himself as an anti-slumlord activist, saying in position papers, speeches, and interviews that he is committed to reforming Skid Row.

During his campaign, Newsom touted the idea that attention to economic principles should be at the heart of city decision-making; I certainly agree with the sentiment. But the fact is, the market has failed the Sixth Street slums. The area's overlapping webs of public-private partnerships seem to do more for the government-charity-hotel-owner partners than for the destitute people they're supposed to benefit.

The system by which abusive private-sector slumlords provide most San Francisco apartments priced under $600 needs to end. We need more subsidized low-income buildings of the sort Elberling just erected at Sixth and Mission. The redevelopment process up to now, which treats slumlords as "stakeholders" in the redevelopment planning process, is illogical: Social policy intended to correct a system of abuse should not be guided by the abusers.

Similarly, further enriching slumlords with subsidized building-improvement schemes, or allowing them to cash out with "master lease" arrangements, is inappropriate in my view. These schemes add no apartment rooms to the city and therefore do nothing to drive down the price of now-exorbitant Skid Row hovels.

I'd like to encourage our new mayor to tour Sixth Street hotels and send moles to monitor the various groups working there with an aim toward learning the area's age-old, prisonlike political economy. He should start with stepped-up enforcement of building, health, and fire codes -- this would be nothing new for a new mayor, but it's a necessary base line and an important starting point. He should review the redevelopment suggestions Stadlman's Project Area Committee will soon submit, and consider portions that de-emphasize financial cooperation with slumlords, while emphasizing the construction of decent housing with indigent services.

Perhaps, with the help of a miracle or two, our Sixth Street Brigadoon might start changing.

"I'm hoping," Gasaway says. "You know, we've got to keep hoping."

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