Re-Read The Tenderloin Times, at the Tenderloin Museum

"Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94" looks at a monthly paper that published through some turbulent times.

(Cabure Bonugli)

In the history of San Francisco journalism, The Tenderloin Times was a landmark newspaper — an exemplar of innovative and investigative work that advocated for the Tenderloin district’s homeless population, reported on the area’s immigrant community, published in multiple languages, and humanized one of San Francisco’s most challenging neighborhoods. The paper published a mostly monthly edition between 1977 and 1994, and at its zenith, distributed 15,000 copies around San Francisco — and helped influence city policy.

The Tenderloin Museum’s new exhibit, “Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94,” is a bittersweet look at the little paper that could. Funded by Hospitality House and grant money, The Tenderloin Times was the right paper at the right time — staffed by idealists like Rob Waters and Sara Colm, who made sure that under-reported issues like homelessness were reported with the seriousness they deserved.

“There was just so much going on in the neighborhood, and the newspaper had a good relationship with people in the community and had a very activist spirit,” says Colm, who was a Tenderloin resident when she worked there, and who helped organize the exhibit. “There were marches and demonstrations, and packing City Hall for people in the neighborhood to speak out against tourist-hotel encroachment or evictions. For a journalist and for an organizer, it was really the place to be. A lot of the city’s issues came to rest right there in the Tenderloin, including the beginning of the homeless crisis.”

The Tenderloin Times’ funding struggles, which dovetailed with a recessionary economy, led to the paper’s closure — but that final chapter is missing from the exhibit. The highlights and accomplishments of the paper’s 17-year run are there in full, including plenty of coverage of the arts and of health-related matters (which led to the 1986 creation of the Tenderloin Self Help Center). So, too, are the Times’ pioneering coverage of homeless people in the early 1980s. (In 1986, then-Chronicle reporter Katy Butler said The Tenderloin Times was the first San Francisco paper to cover the homeless.) It was also printed in English, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese — native languages of Tenderloin populations who were also first-generation Americans. The Smithsonian Institution gave The Tenderloin Times an award in 1991 for its multilingual publishing. The paper was ahead of its time — but Colm says its demise doesn’t mean the end of the paper’s unique blend of journalism.

“The way I see a newspaper is that it’s more than the physical object of the paper — if it’s a good paper, there’s really a community of people affiliated with it, and that’s something that really can’t be killed if the paper shuts its doors,” says Colm, who left The Tenderloin Times in 1992 to freelance from Cambodia, became managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post. She later worked for Human Rights Watch, and she’s now a human-rights consultant in Virginia. “Every time I come through San Francisco, which can be once or twice a year, I come to the Tenderloin just to see how it’s going, and it still can be a harsh place. People are in dire circumstances. To me, the street scene rivals the intensity of the late 1980s, when crack-cocaine hit and some of the streets were really chaotic.”

“Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94” is arranged on vertical poster boards in the museum’s main exhibit space, which has displays about the Tenderloin’s rich history of music venues, sex clubs, gambling houses, fancy hotels, and transient abodes that catered to people on the margins. The Tenderloin has been an area of last resort for so many people through the generations. Even as homelessness and drug use remain a major issue there, the area is being gentrified like other San Francisco neighborhoods.

Like The Tenderloin Times, The Tenderloin Museum (which opened in 2015) is a unique space — unpretentious, risk-taking, unusual. When SF Weekly visited the museum on a Sunday afternoon, the ticket-issuing staff member was playing guitarist Jim Hall’s monumental Concierto de Aranjuez, a complex song featuring trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Roland Hanna, and other stalwart musicians. Concierto de Aranjuez reverberated into the exhibit space, filling it with moody, introspective textures that perfectly captured the exhibit’s complex threads. At times beautiful. At times chilling and almost haunting. That’s Concierto de Aranjuez. And that’s the Tenderloin that was captured in the pages of The Tenderloin Times.  

“Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94,” through March 30, 2018, at the Tenderloin Museum, 398 Eddy St. $6-$10; 415-351-1912 or tenderloinmuseum.org.

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