The Tenderloin: A Neighborhood of Heartbreak and Inspiration

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There’s no denying that the Tenderloin has a bad rap, but in a neighborhood filled with heartbreaking scenes of poverty and drug abuse there are inspiring stories, acts of goodwill and plenty of businesses too good to remain hidden. From cutting edge theatre, old school paperback bookstores, classic gay bars and Vietnamese cuisine, to modern day speakeasies, hip vintage clothing and artisan bakeries, the Tenderloin is a fantastic mix of cultures.

Despite the rapidly changing city surrounding its 40 square blocks, the Tenderloin won’t go the way of other blight ridden neighborhoods anytime soon. The 100’s of SRO’s, single-room-occupancy hotels, that line its streets are there to stay. City legislation enacted decades ago will insure low income housing for residents. However the non-profits, businesses, and many neighborhood inhabitants have hope of a brighter, cleaner future for the ‘Loin, without displacing those in need. Many organizations continually provide support, food and housing for the low income, homeless, mentally ill, and elderly. Their generous work could not go on without a continual flow of volunteers, not only during the holiday season but throughout the rest of the year.

Tenderloin Walking Tours by Del Seymour
Del Seymour takes you on a tour beyond the grit of the Tenderloin streets, filled with history and insight from an insider’s perspective. He was a Tenderloin resident for 30 years, once an addict, having spent much of his time on the streets where he now gives his tour. Residents, shop owners and volunteer organizers great him like he is the well-loved mayor of the Tenderloin.

The route often starts from the Donut World on Seventh Street and Market, past drugs dealings and the bartering of stolen goods, and on to UN plaza and talk of its history peace rallies and demonstrations. Seymour tells about the thoroughfare that Market St once was, before BART was built in the 1960’s, and the businesses that never came back. As the route continues deeper into the neighborhood he points out yellow bricks painted on the sidewalk designated as safe route for children and families and the non-profits where you can get a healthy meal and a safe place to sleep. The murals painted on the walls depict a vision of what the Tenderloin could be, and what Seymour and many other residents hope for its future.

Tenderloin Volunteer Opportunities:
These organizations help those in need almost every day of the year and there is always room for those wanting to give. Volunteers are needed to serve meals, teach valuable skills and monitor safe sleeping spaces. Holiday (and year round) volunteer opportunities are posted on each website.

Glide Memorial Church (330 Ellis St.)
GLIDE has gone from serving one free dinner a week in the 1960’s, to now serving three meals a day. They have grown beyond a church to a place of community action, hosting a free clinic, childcare center, supportive housing and more. Even former President Clinton and Maya Angelou have joined in their Sunday celebrations. More information on this holiday’s volunteer opportunities can be found here: glide.org/holidayvolunteer2013

St. Anthony Foundation (150 Golden Gate Ave.)
Many guests at soup kitchens live alone and meals like the ones served at St. Anthony’s offer a place not only to eat but to interact with others in the community. The dining room serves a million meals over the 365 days a year that it is open. St. Anthony’s is expanding its dining room in a brand new building expected to be completed in the Fall of 2014.

St. Boniface Catholic Church (133 Golden Gate Ave.)
St. Boniface is a unique and awe inspiring place. Soft light shines through the stained glass during the morning hours where 76 pews are made available for safe sleep and refuge to anyone in need. Hospitality monitors are on hand to ensure a welcoming and clean environment, and provide an ear for listening. More information about the project can be found here: thegubbioproject.org.

Drink, Eat and Shop:

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge (133 Turk St.)
There is never a dull moment at this legendary gay bar. The Tubesteak Connection dance party on Thursday nights and the Hot Boxxx Girls drag show on Fridays and Saturdays are not to be missed. Directly across the street is the site of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966, the first known full scale riot for transgender and gay rights. The riot marked a turning point in the LGBT movement.

Little Saigon
In 2004 part of the Tenderloin was designated as Little Saigon. Its entrance is marked by two dragons atop pylons on Larkin St at Eddy, and then expands to O’Farrell on the north and a block east and west. The area is best known for its Vietnamese cuisine. Saigon Sandwich is a staple for inexpensive Banh Mi and Turtle Tower for Pho from the North of Vietnam.

Hooker’s Sweet Treats (442 Hyde St.)
Come for the buttery caramels topped with chocolate and sea salt and stay for the charming atmosphere. The bakery invites a slow morning of sipping coffee and watching the Tenderloin stroll by. Put in holiday orders early for the melt-in-your-mouth caramels to ensure the arrival for family and friends.

Vacation (651 Larkin St.)
Vacation, a store transplanted from Atlanta, was opened in the Tenderloin by Kristin Klein in June of last year. It brings vintage clothes, art and music together in an easily enjoyable experience. Hand-picked unique and designer vintage finds fill the store and a new show of local art is rotated monthly on the walls. Free live music features touring and local bands often filling the store’s basement. Store front open Wednesday through Sunday 12pm to 8pm. Check the store Facebook page for upcoming art openings and music.

Photos and story by Beth LaBerge for SF Weekly.

Published on November 7, 2013

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