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.

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.

When he spoke with me last week, Elberling had drawn criticism for the right reason -- his new building has created bad economic conditions for the area's slumlords. "Hotel owners don't get rich from our projects," he said. "They're going to lose their good tenants. We set a good standard with a kitchenette and more bathrooms. They don't like it. It shows a much higher standard of a decent hotel, with decent amenities in every room, refrigerators so they can cook. We have decent bathrooms. Sheetrocked walls so you can't hear what's going on in the room next to you. They have phone lines, cable television.

"They have the amenities you or I would expect in renting a basic place to live. That's the standard all the hotel owners should comply with."

In my first feature story for SF Weekly nearly seven years ago, I followed the lives of two Skid Row lovers, Jeff and Al, who got by collecting cardboard and cans from San Francisco alleyways. They described to me their lives as residents of what they called the "Patel hotels" in the Tenderloin. (People with the last name Patel, not all of them related, own many of San Francisco's Skid Row hotels.)

Jeff and Al said they had borrowed money from their hotel's owner to support their drug habit, until their entire monthly benefit check was taken up by the $10-per-day interest the landlord charged. To help pay off their debt, they worked at the hotel for $5 per day, an apparent form of indentured servitude. Al told me about a time they were sent up to clean a room after a man had been found dead and decomposing there for several days, his bodily fluids seeping into the mattress.

"The owner told us to just turn the mattress over," Al said.

The abusive behavior of San Francisco slumlords is an old, unchanging story that crops up perennially in newspaper articles, building inspection reports, and S.F. city attorney lawsuits. The discrete elements of these stories -- frequent fires; unheated buildings; blocked fire exits; broken windows; missing door handles; broken lights; collapsed banisters; damaged walls, ceilings, and stairs; smoke detectors sans batteries; filthy carpets and bathrooms; roach and rat infestations; trash in the halls -- add up to a narrative that never moves forward.

In my second SF Weekly story, I profiled Antoinetta Stadlman, a transgender woman who openly fantasized about becoming the queen of Sixth Street. She'd pinned pictures of Louis XVI, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Queen Elizabeth II beside a picture of herself on a wall in her room, and a crown on her door. She allied herself with Randy Shaw and became unofficial manager of the Baldwin House, writing in her diary that "[i]f we played our cards right, we would be a force few people could oppose. We could end up ruling South of Market, and end up directing the inevitable changes that are coming into the area."

When I wrote about her six years ago, Stadlman had failed in an attempt to be elected to the South of Market Project Area Committee, a 21-person group that, under an unusual state law, helps guide millions of dollars in redevelopment spending. Persistent in her quest, Stadlman has since been elected to the Project Area Committee and has become its chairperson. In that position, she is an outspoken advocate of Shaw's "master lease" scheme.

Gasaway says he doesn't hear much from Stadlman anymore. She used to be omnipresent in the building, corralling tenants into meetings to discuss broken light bulbs and the like.

"I don't go to the meetings anymore. Nobody goes to them because nothing's done. The only thing Antoinetta seems interested in now is her seat on the redevelopment Project Area Committee thing, which really don't affect this hotel," Gasaway says, then segues into a description of how time passes at the Baldwin House, a building of 250 tiny hotel rooms.

"In the past five years, on this floor, it looks like almost half the rooms have two people, or in some cases three people. There are only two showers on the fifth floor where I live. If one of the toilets is broken down -- and they are all the time -- you have to wait in line for one of the toilets. Years ago they were doing health inspections every month. I haven't seen the health inspector up here in probably a year. And I've seen no fire or building inspectors. They've given up on that, I think."

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."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.