“I’m obsessed with mattresses,” Nicole Schwieterman says. “I’ll pull over if I see one. Bike, car, whatever. There’s so many abandoned mattresses in San Francisco. I went to Recology one time to get compost, and I found the mecca of old mattresses.”
Schwieterman and her friend Amanda Durbin — an artist who catalogues them on Instagram with the hashtag #nothingreallymattress — have documented hundreds in the past few years. But if mattresses are the refuse world’s equivalent of charismatic megafauna, those animals — like, say, giant pandas — that crowd out the conservation needs of less-adorable species in the popular imagination, Schwieterman’s daily existence is consumed with smaller, even less glamorous bits of detritus: bottles, cigarette butts, and (of course) poop.
For many of San Francisco’s small-business owners, this might involve a lot of keeping one’s head down and calling the cops, decrying the neighborhood’s threats to a store’s foot traffic. Not so for Schwieterman, who did not choose Larkin Street simply because it was more affordable than Valencia, Chestnut, or Divis, and who resided for years at Polk and Eddy, although she’s since moved out of the neighborhood. Since February 2015, she’s run Fleet Wood and StudioNico — a boutique and a screen-printing-business-slash-clothing-line, respectively — out of a storefront on Larkin Street between Geary and O’Farrell. (If you’ve ever seen a T-shirt or tote bag reading “Good Grammar Is Sexy,” it came from here.) Within two blocks in either direction are thriving holdovers from Larkin Street’s grittier past — a gay dive (The Gangway), The New Century Theater, and a discriminating porn consumer’s paradise (The Magazine) — along with totems of its spiffier present, like fellow boutique The Loin, Jane Bakery, and Mr. Holmes’ Bakehouse. Apart from hustling to ship orders, working events like the Treasure Island Music Festival and Noise Pop’s 20th Street Block Party, and creating an affordable space for local makers and artisans to sell their wares, it means getting involved at all levels in a neighborhood she loves.
“This place is beautiful and full of energy and amazing,” she says. “Totally the opposite of where I moved from: white, conservative Ohio.”
Schwieterman works with the Larkin Street Association, the Lower Polk Community Benefit District, and many of her neighbors to make sure their stretch of the Tenderloin is a viable one, with mixed retail in lieu of vacancies or “20 boom box stores on one block.” It also means shooing away drug dealers, who largely seem to listen to her.
“They stay on their side, which is all I’m asking,” she says. “Our whole side of Larkin between Geary and O’Farrell is like the off-limits zone for dealing. The corner store [Woerner’s Liquors], The Gangway, us, we all are constantly just being like, ‘No, no, no.’ There’s a playground over there that’s the main concern. Kids walk by from Frank Norris Elementary, and they’re passing through all this literal crap and figurative crap.”
It’s an unending battle, though, as the drug dealers “tend to listen temporarily, and then they forget or don’t care. It’s gross to walk through and find discarded needles and some guy standing out there asking if we need some crack. I’m like, ‘No, I’m good.’ ”
Because the intersection of Geary and Larkin is where three police precincts — Northern, Central, and Tenderloin — meet, it can be difficult to enlist the cops at all.
“Even when there is an actual problem, they don’t show up, because it’s, ‘Oh, just another drunk lady passed out on the sidewalk.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know if she’s breathing.’ ”
Attempts to flag down cops in patrol cars have similarly met with dismissal. This may change, as Schwieterman notes with appreciation that a female sergeant has begun regularly attending the Larkin Street Association’s monthly meetings. But in the year-and-a-half she’s been in business, she’s gotten to know many of the locals.
“Rooster is a good one,” she says. “Rooster, like, ‘If you need me, just crow.’ If I go out and crow, he shows up. He’s awesome. Another guy is an active avid heroin user, openly, and also needs to make money for his addiction. He looks out for us, makes sure people aren’t messing with our shop. I give him a couple bucks or tacos or cigarettes. Six-Four is a 6-foot, 4-inch African-American woman who has “6’4″” tattooed on the back of her neck, ’cause she’s always getting asked how tall she is. She looks out. They show up at our parties. We bring beers to them.”
The unofficial mayor of the street is The Rev, who uses a wheelchair and often asks Schwieterman if anything’s wrong or if she needs him to talk to anyone.
“We print shirts for him,” she says. “If it’s a design on the back, we print it on the front, because no one can see the back of his shirt.”
In other words, that Fleet Wood is neither betwixt nor between police precincts and neighborhood associations has given Schwieterman the opportunity to be a leader. Now that she’s running First Thursdays, she hopes to turn it into something that draws people from all over the city — and on Thursday, Sept. 1, it’ll be bigger and longer than usual, a kickoff party with tacos and a coffee pop-up from 3-10 p.m. for San Francisco Zine Fest, which will be held in Golden Gate Park this Sunday, Sept. 4. Noting the large Vietnamese community, she says the Little Saigon Festival and Block Party in June, Larkin Street’s first-ever street fair, drew 1,200 people.
However much the city might like to help Tenderloin small-business owners, money is always an issue and the permitting process is a slog. But the Lower Polk Community Benefits District has funds for street-level improvements, and Schwieterman is eager to de-beige the neighborhood and install more murals.
“There’s a ton of blank wall space, and it just turns into people tagging over other people’s tags,” she says. “Murals for the most part don’t get touched by graffiti as much. I’m going to bring in some hyperlocal kids who work in the TL and hang out in the TL. The budget’s there, and it’s really exciting. There’s a lot of potential but everyone has to want it, everyone has to be actively involved, and everyone’s got to promote.”
Ultimately, Schwieterman’s vision is not unlike a hipper, updated version of Jane Jacobs’ idea of the ideal city street: neighbors looking out for each other, irrespective of occupation or economic class. Good sidewalks are sexy.
“My favorite thing,” she says, “is when people have never been to the Tenderloin before, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you have a shop in the TL? What’s that like?’ I’m like, ‘Why don’t you come by sometime?’ I just want people to be OK and have fun.”
Fleet Wood/StudioNico 839 Larkin St.415-439-9293 or fleetwoodsf.com