For Aldan Mosqueda, the manager of the Helen Hotel, the morning of July 6 was like any other: tending to rooms, checking in visitors, and entertaining a question about the vintage sign that was painted decades ago on the hotel’s outside wall.
Like a siren from the vintage past, it advertises the hotel’s previous name (El Rosa) and a soft-drink campaign (“Fresh Up With 7 Up”) that harkens back to the 1950s. Standing on the second floor of the three-story building, Mosqueda tells SF Weekly that tourists and other camera-wielders regularly stop by the hotel to take photos of the sign, whose faded glory is evidence of a period when the Tenderloin district — and San Francisco itself — was very different.
“People take many photos,” Mosqueda says, describing the outer sign as being “from a long time ago.”
From at least the 1950s, the hotel was a place for people in transition. The vintage sign makes that explicit through its advertisement of “transient rooms” — although the last “s” has almost completely faded away. What the sign doesn’t advertise, however, is the hotel’s history as a place that welcomed LGBTQ people. In the mid-1960s, gays and transgender individuals lived in the building, and helped organize what are believed to be the world’s first transgender-rights protests.
The Helen, which is close to Sixth and Market streets, is still a place for people who live on San Francisco’s margins. It exists on an edge of the Tenderloin that has other transient hotels — and the creeping signs of gentrification. Other old signs dot the area, but some hotels have redone their with the help of Precita Eyes Muralists, the beloved San Francisco nonprofit that is celebrating its 40th year of existence.
An example of a refurbished hotel sign: the one at the Warfield Hotel at 118 Taylor (by Turk), just around the corner from the Helen Hotel, which Precita Eyes refurbished in 2011. The sign trumpets another drink from the 1950s (“Par-T-Pak Beverages,” which were originally quart-size bottles of Nehi sodas that later became their own brand). Fewer people want to take a photo of that sign. Like visitors who go to Cuba to relish in the vintage cars that still run there, the camera-wielders who wander the Tenderloin gravitate toward the Helen Hotel. On Flickr and other websites, scores of people have posted images of the sign, generating comments like “super!” and “love the color!” One photographer described taking his photo of the sign this way: “It was actually kind of scary when I was taking the shot … lots of transients around, eyeing my camera.”
But take the photo he did. Whether it’s nostalgia or a feeling that the past is still alive, that “El Rosa and 7 Up” sign will continue to be a magnet — just blocks away from shiny new buildings that are “safe” and “clean” but don’t have the character of the hotel at 166 Turk St.