Their Daily Bread

A new generation of activists is fighting to clean up the Tenderloin. The neighborhood’s churches are standing in their way. Whose side are the angels on?

This profile bears little resemblance to the Tenderloin's population as a whole: Nearly a third of the Tenderloin's residents are Asian or Pacific Islander, and only 10 percent are African American, according to a 2004 study by Urban Solutions, an economic development nonprofit. From 1970 to 1990, the number of young residents in the Tenderloin swelled, in contrast to the steep decline in San Francisco's youth population as a whole. (Since then, the neighborhood's youth population has declined slightly, in keeping with the citywide trend.)

"I do hope the folks in City Hall can realize that this is a family neighborhood and folks are scared," Lopez says. "It is a community, and I don't think even our politicians see it as one."

Elaine Zamora, like Dina Hilliard, takes a fresh approach to the Tenderloin's chronic problems. Her North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District is itself something of a revolutionary agency, despite its often-mundane duties. (Close to 80 percent of its budget goes to street cleaning. During the 2007 fiscal year, Zamora says, agency staff picked up 4,000 used syringes.)

Thousands congregate in the heart of the Tenderloin every day for free meals. A man eats outside Fraternite Notre Dame on New Year’s Day.
Josh Edelson
Thousands congregate in the heart of the Tenderloin every day for free meals. A man eats outside Fraternite Notre Dame on New Year’s Day.
Dick McNeil (left) a Hunters Point resident and soup kitchen volunteer, says Fraternite Notre Dame is doing its best to keep crowds under control: “We’re trying.”
Josh Edelson
Dick McNeil (left) a Hunters Point resident and soup kitchen volunteer, says Fraternite Notre Dame is doing its best to keep crowds under control: “We’re trying.”

Community benefit districts, which levy a small property tax throughout their coverage areas to undertake beautification and quality-of-life projects, tend to crop up in tony neighborhoods such as Noe Valley. In the Tenderloin, by contrast, previous efforts at neighborhood improvement have often been decried as gentrification. In 2005, one local architect's campaign to plant 400 trees was aggressively opposed by activists who said she was trying to "sanitize" the area.

Since forming in 2004, however, the Tenderloin's benefit district has accomplished a number of small but significant tasks. The CBD was instrumental in getting the Tenderloin its own full-service post office — the previous post office, like that of a university campus, was only general delivery. The district has also commissioned a mural by San Francisco artist Mona Caron for a bare wall at the corner of Jones and Golden Gate at one end of the infamous block-long gauntlet of drug pushers known as Pill Hill.

Zamora herself lives on this block. Just up the street is the soup kitchen of the St. Anthony Foundation.

"When I first came here, there were 30 people waiting on this corner," she said on a recent tour of the neighborhood, pointing up the street from the building where she opened a law office in 2000. "They weren't waiting to eat. They were waiting to sell drugs" to those who had gathered for a free meal. Outside the soup kitchen, Zamora sometimes saw food fights.

In 2003, when St. Anthony's sought a permit to open a health clinic and expand other social services at a new facility on Golden Gate, Zamora saw a chance to act. She lobbied on behalf of the neighborhood for an extensive set of permit conditions, ultimately numbering more than two dozen, which governed how the foundation ran its services. St. Anthony's now deploys workers to monitor and control its food line, and, fulfilling another requirement, has joined a neighborhood improvement association.

None of this was easy. Zamora says she was called a NIMBY and accused of "pitting the poor against the poor." Such charges are often an effective rallying cry in land-use battles, but don't stick easily in a neighborhood with an average of more than one social-service outlet per square block. "We have made a place more livable for people who should have a right to live that way," she says.

Looking back, Linda Pasquinucci, deputy executive director of the St. Anthony Foundation, says the push-and-pull with neighbors was for the good. "That really was a wakeup call for us in how we were impacting the community," she says. "I don't think we were ever aware of that."


St. Anthony's détente with its neighbors is a rare happy ending. Glide Memorial Church and the San Francisco Rescue Mission — the other two churches that offered regular food service prior to the arrival of Fraternite Notre Dame — are another story.

In August, Jimenez, the Tenderloin police captain, made waves when he stated publicly that Glide's food line had become a market for dope peddlers. It was not an accusation to be made lightly. Glide's charismatic preacher, Cecil Williams, is a figure of national celebrity, and has been a larger-than-life presence in the Tenderloin for more than four decades.

Jimenez says the problems persist. "Some of the people that go there for the food also have substance-abuse issues, and they seem to be fairly open about it," he says. This phenomenon, he adds, is not limited to Glide.

Williams' church feeds thousands every day, and, like St. Anthony's, offers a gamut of social services, including health care. Williams doesn't foresee a Tenderloin where these things are no longer needed. "I've been here for 44 years," he said in an interview. "We had poor people before I got here, and they'll be around one of these days after I leave."

He continued, "I'm convinced a lot of folks don't like poor people. And I do. I love poor folks. We are going to keep feeding poor folks. We are going to keep working."

This single-mindedness, while it conforms to basic ideas of charity preserved over centuries in the major religious traditions, is precisely what bothers residents like Zamora and Hilliard. Glide has a reputation among its neighbors for heedless devotion to its own cause, and is sometimes accused of building itself up on the backs of those it serves. Churches like Glide depend on the largesse of individuals, foundations, and governments to pay their staffs' salaries, and donations and grants are driven by the perception that a church has work to do.

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