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In the Tenderloin

Scenes from San Francisco’s most infamous neighborhood

South African photographer Pieter Hugo has exhibited his work in major galleries and museums around the world. His photographs have depicted violence, poverty, and the scars of colonialism in Africa, as well as more intimate moments of domestic life.

Last spring, Hugo came to the San Francisco Bay Area on a fellowship from the Headlands Center for the Arts. He and his wife, Tamsyn, enrolled their daughter in a day-care program near City Hall. After drop-off on the first day, Tamsyn found herself walking through the nearby Tenderloin. Despite butting up against some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, like Skid Row in Los Angeles, has long been known mostly as a hub of poverty and crime. Prostitution, drugs, and homelessness are ubiquitous. When Tamsyn saw a man shooting up in his neck, she called Hugo, who’s known for his portraits of people in marginalized communities. “You’ve got to come down here,” she told him.

“I normally do a lot of research, but I didn’t do that this time,” says Hugo. Instead he began taking walks around the area, striking up conversations, and shooting quickly, spontaneously. He was distressed by the mental illness and addiction he witnessed in the three months he spent taking these photographs. “The people I shot were calm with me,” he says, “and then a moment later, they’d be screaming at someone.” But he did not set out to document destitution. He hoped, instead, to capture life in a neighborhood seemingly apart from its city and its time — “an anarchic community in the midst of a crazy boom.”

These stories were reported and written over the course of one recent week, from many different corners of the Tenderloin.

SRO

The Tenderloin is the point of entry for many who arrive in San Francisco. With its single-room-occupancy hotels and immigrant community, the neighborhood has long served as an initial foothold in the city. Yet that same supply of cheap housing, along with a cluster of social-service providers, can also make the neighborhood, more cruelly, a final destination for folks trying to hang on in an expensive city. I know this because for me, the Tenderloin was both.

My first day in San Francisco, fresh off the freight trains from back East, I found a place in an old hotel on a small alley at the edge of the neighborhood. I made a writing desk by placing a piece of wood over the sink in my room. I remember finding a hiding place above my window where someone had nested a single unused hypodermic needle. I had wanted to move to San Francisco to be a writer, and here I was. At night, the hotel’s neon sign bathed my room in a pink glow.

In the rest of the city, the dot-com boom was shifting into gear, but in the Tenderloin, old-timers sat around their lobbies, listening to ballgames on the AM radio or reading paperback crime novels or waiting for the pay phone to ring. Men on corners talked to themselves, as if broadcasting a station that only they could hear. I remember the smell of wet newspaper and weak doughnut-shop coffee, the persistent scrape of men collecting cans.

It was easy to disappear. You could leave the daylight world and turn down a long hotel hallway or into a darkened bar. There, you could go underground for good, like the man with the white beard who told me he’d first come to the city to stop the war during the Summer of Love or the drag queen who claimed to have set cop cars on fire in the White Night Riots. She smiled while she drank, remembering thousands of men dancing shirtless in the sun during Gay Freedom Day parades on Market Street.

In the downtown library, I found another kind of hiding place: an ancient file cabinet stuffed with folders of faded local news clippings. All had been cut out by hand and pasted onto white paper with the newspaper name and the date — hours of work performed by an unknown librarian. I’d begun photographing the neighborhood’s neon signs, so I came back and pasted my photos onto white paper, labeling them by address and adding them to a new file that I marked tenderloin — bar and hotel signs.

Not too long after that, I moved to another neighborhood, and indeed I did become a writer. But the money wasn’t too good and I eventually found myself back in the Tenderloin. By now the neighborhood really was disappearing. Rents were soaring as tech firms moved in. When my building eventually sold, I knew what would come next. I listened to baseball games on the radio. I read crime novels. Then, a day came when I stood on Market Street, shaking hands with my lawyer after we’d negotiated a settlement with my landlord. I would use the money to start over in a new city.

As we walked past the library, I thought of an old drawer full of newspaper clippings. I tried to remember what it had felt like to be young and so in love with this place. But all I could remember was my first hotel and its flickering sign, glowing pink through the night. — Erick Lyle

Soup Kitchen

The dining room at St. Anthony’s, a Tenderloin-based nonprofit that provides food, medical care, and other services to those in need, serves up to 3,000 meals a day. Forty percent of the free meals in San Francisco are served there. Marilyn Chan, who is 64 years old, has been living in the Tenderloin since the mid-1980s, when she first came to St. Anthony’s for help. People call her the “Mama of the ’Loin.”

This neighborhood is the place I spend the majority of my time. I’ve been here for so long. It’s my comfort zone. I’ve been homeless, but I’m OK now. I live in an SRO on Eddy, and I’m giving back to my community. I volunteer at my senior center.

I go outside and there’s one or two people every day, they remember my name. Sometimes I can’t remember their names; I know faces. The guys say, “Hey, Mama,” and I say, “Hey, how are you?” They’ll stop and give me a hug.

Oh yeah, I’ve been in the ’Loin for a while. I know some people don’t like it because we have the drug dealers that hang around, but today it’s not too bad. The cops are out there.

I don’t care what the drug dealers do, but please, stay on the side, give me a path to walk through the sidewalk. One time I was walking up Leavenworth, and a guy told me to go walk in the street, and I said, “Why should I, you’re younger than I am!” I didn’t mean to be mean. One of the guys, his buddy, came up to me later, and he says, “Sorry, Mama.” I said, “It’s OK.” They give me respect. Some people don’t like that expression: Mama. But they’re respecting elders, and it doesn’t bother me.

People ask me, “Where do you live?” and I say, “The ’Loin.”And they say, “Is that bad?” and I say, “No!” Each person’s different. It’s a mix of everybody now.

I’ve been on [affordable-housing] waiting lists since 2001. At that time, out of 32,000, I was number 28,000. Bottom of the bucket. I’m still waiting. — as told to Bonnie Tsui

Italian Joint

There’s often a row of police motorcycles parked on the corner of Larkin and Post, outside a restaurant called Little Henry’s. At 2 p.m. on a warm Wednesday, four officers sit together at the table farthest from the door, eating giant plates of pasta. Two are Asian, one is black, and one is white; SFPD couldn’t hope for a better representation of the neighborhood’s demographics. Henry is working the register, like he does most days. He’s Chinese, but he’s got the details of his no-frills Italian place down pat, from the red-and-white-checked tablecloths to the old-school smocks his cooks are wearing.

I order spaghetti and make small talk with one of the cops. He’s been working in the Tenderloin for about three years, and he tells me that it’s changed a lot during that time. “Mostly for the better,” he says. “Still a lot of blocks you shouldn’t walk at night, though. It can be tough work.” He says there are more robberies and drug offenses at the top of the month, more violence toward the end. I ask another cop what his favorite part of the job is. “A lot of good people live in this neighborhood,” he says. “Hundreds of little kids go to school here. Sometimes you see a group of them walking together down the street, holding each other’s hands, being led by their teachers.”

My order arrives, with a bowl of clam chowder and a big hunk of bread. Through the window, we see a gaunt girl — she can’t be older than 16 — circling the block repeatedly. She’s talking to herself, walking fast, apparently looking for something. “Seems pretty urgent,” one of the officers jokes. A while later, they get up from the table in unison. Outside, they stand at their motorcycles for a few beats. They’re putting on a bit of a show, taking longer than they really need to get their helmets on and buckle their jackets.

I pay at the counter and ask Henry why he thinks so many cops hang out at his place. He pauses, shrugs, then hands me my change. “I’ve been here for 32 years, and they’ve been coming since I opened,” he says. “They come here now because they’ve always come here.” — Eric Steuer

Drag Bar

It’s a Sunday evening at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, an off night for a bar whose walls practically ring with the shrieks of parties past. A magnet for brides-to-be, punk queers, tech hipsters, and gay elders clinging to their rent-controlled apartments with their chipped manicures, this is the spot for a drag show in San Francisco, never mind that there’s no stage — for a hardy queen the world is a stage, and the girls at Aunt Charlie’s are tough. Like the dear departed Vicki Marlane, who ran the show here during her day; now the block is named for her. I’ve watched performance artist Ben McCoy crawl the carpet and stomp the bar during her outrageous numbers. Shows with names like Sleaze, Tubesteak Connection, and Suicide Tuesday bring a John Waters–esque camp to the neighborhood’s seedy reputation.

San Francisco, once the gayest city in the world, can’t keep its gay bars open. Last year the Latina drag bar Esta Noche shut its doors, and the storied Lexington Club, the city’s premier dyke bar, closed last month. In this way, Aunt Charlie’s is a miracle: a staunch holdout, a stubborn reminder that the city was once a haven for sexual outlaws, the Tenderloin the province of trans women who rioted against harassment at the old Compton’s Cafeteria months before Stonewall erupted in New York City.

On this empty Sunday, I marvel at how tiny the joint is. Busted plastic chandeliers above my head twinkle like real crystal; I imagine the missing pieces were snatched by a desperate queen in need of emergency jewels. The foul-smelling carpet stretches its casino pattern from the floor up the side of the bar, wood-topped and spotted with cigarette burns from smokier eras. Saturdays you might need a reservation to see the show, but tonight it’s a fine place to sit with a drink by yourself. I finish my Coke and leave the soft pink haze for the harsh flash of cop cars double-parked along Turk Street, aka Vicki Mar Lane. — Michelle Tea

Pho shop

Around lunchtime on a Friday, there’s a long queue for the free showers at Jones and Ellis. Across the street, Pho Tan Hoa is a different world: bright lights, loud chatter in three or four languages, even its own climate — warmer and more humid, weather like soup. Men in bright construction vests, on their break from a project at Macy’s, slurp from bowls of noodles heaped high with slices of beef. Little boys in glasses sit in the back, playing iPad games. There’s a printed-out sign taped onto a greenish-blue fish tank: PLEASE DO NOT SCARE AND FEED THE FISH!!! PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE FISH TANK!!! THANK YOU!!! The resident fish wears a downturned mustache. It looks ancient and unperturbable.

The restaurant, which used to be called Pho Hoa, has been in the Tenderloin for about 25 years; the Tan Hoa family bought it eight years ago. Abe, a slim Asian man in a jacket and button-down and nice shoes, confesses he’s been here four times in the three weeks he’s lived in San Francisco. The bowl that contains his combination beef pho is close to 16 inches in diameter — big enough to bathe a rabbit in. “I usually don’t finish all the noodles,” he admits. “But I love the broth.”

Rodney, eating alone by the stoic fish’s tank, stands out: a black man, maybe in his 40s, wearing tiny Transitions glasses that have not transitioned to clear. He eats there once a week, maybe more. His usual order is pho, he says, because “I had an Asian girlfriend a long time ago, and this is one of the things that she introduced me to.” The clientele is “mostly Asian, very few African Americans, some Caucasians sprinkled in,” Rodney says. “Which is cool. I’ve always had a great interest in the Asian culture. Lifelong. I’m taking an Asian American studies class right now. … It’s all because of Bruce Lee.”

Two octogenarian girlfriends with short perms hang out near the double front doors, leaning on their walkers. They stare when I speak English. “Do you speak Cantonese?” I ask in Cantonese, and they brighten, but unfortunately, that’s all I know how to say in Cantonese. — Rachel Khong

Affordable Housing

On a recent afternoon in her family’s sunny Tenderloin apartment, sweet with the scent of steamed rice, 15-month-old Holly Lin climbs into an entertainment console, straddles the arm of a futon, scrambles on top of a stool, and rocks on a plastic dragon. Her mother, Miao Ling, catches and cuddles Holly when she veers too wildly, and her father, Jun Jie, distracts her with a bouncy ball.

Holly and her 9-year-old brother, Howard, are among the 3,000 or so children living in the Tenderloin, more than half of them Asian. When the Lins emigrated from China in 2008, they lived in a Chinatown SRO where they fought to use the communal kitchen and bathrooms. They were thrilled when a one-bedroom opened up in a Chinatown Community Development Center affordable-housing building at Turk and Jones, nearly 600 square feet to themselves. They didn’t know about the neighborhood’s reputation until after they moved in, but they adapted: If they see homeless people sacked out on the sidewalk or someone urinating or defecating in public, they take another route. Miao Ling has even turned these sights into a lesson for her son: “See, if you don’t study hard, you end up like that.”

The family regularly walks over to Chinatown to shop where the prices are cheaper, the language and selection familiar. But in the late afternoon, they retreat to their building’s courtyard, dotted with trees, benches, and a playground built on a rubbery green-and-blue surface. Holly stuffs twigs, paper scraps, whatever she can find into her mouth while tweens in hijabs, jeans, and Ugg boots balance on a climbing structure. One of the Lins’ neighbors, a Yemeni grandmother in a long gray dress and red hijab, passes out crackers and croons, “Thank you, thank you. Neighbor me, neighbor good.” — Vanessa Hua

Corner Store

Irfan Ali is holding four packs of hot dogs. He’s restocking a fridge in his store, Cadillac Market, on the corner of Eddy and Hyde, on a Saturday afternoon. Ali, trim and friendly in a collared shirt and slacks, tells me many of his customers are regulars. “We do tabs to help people buy food. It’s only for people we recognize, who pay every month.”

A skinny white guy in a dirty T-shirt looks carefully at all the bottled-water options while holding a can of King Cobra malt liquor. He pulls out a bottle of Crystal Geyser.

The store is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. “I get people on drugs who come in and throw candy around,” says Ali, who grew up in Pakistan and lives in Hayward with his wife and kids. “We used to call the police, but they don’t come fast enough. So if the customers curse, we say thank you. But if I have a bad day, I get in arguments.”

A Latino guy wearing a backpack and blue baseball cap comes in and buys a pack of cigarettes. A few minutes later, he returns and buys a shrimp-flavored bowl of dehydrated noodles.

“More than a year ago, the police told us we had to remove the boards from inside our windows. People bang on the glass at night, so I was worried. The police make all the markets do the same because if someone keeps us hostage, they want to be able to see in the store.”

A Middle Eastern guy dressed in a gray button-down and carrying a leather messenger bag buys a bottle of Tisdale shiraz. Ten other customers buy single beers or cans of malt liquor over the course of an hour and a half; one man slips his Bud into his own wrinkled brown-paper bag.

“People think the Tenderloin is the worst neighborhood in the city, but we have the 24-hour foot traffic, which makes it safer.”

Ali is using a tag gun to stick prices onto the lids of potato-salad containers. A white guy in a red Orange County Choppers T-shirt, leaning slightly on a cane, points at him and tells the cashier, “He said I could have anything in this store for free!” Ali smiles. The guy buys a fifth of Smirnoff and says to Ali, “Tag my head!” Ali replies, “You’re not worth it.” Guy: “C’mon!” Ali presses the tag gun gently to his forehead. “Now you’re $1.99,” he says.

An older black woman in sweats and a fisherman’s hat, missing two bottom teeth, buys Cheetos Puffs, Oatmeal Cremes, and a microwaveable cheeseburger, plus a pack of Wings cigarettes. The cashier pulls a piece of cardboard from under the counter with her name handwritten on the top. He writes in the cost of her purchases. “That’s one of the regulars with a tab,” Ali says. “She has no money right now.” — Caitlin Roper

Sidewalks

I like the library — I go there often. I walk down Leavenworth, make a right on Geary, then a left on Larkin, and I do not deviate, ever, from that route. After six years of living in the Tenderloin, I’ve learned that it’s the least likely to give me problems.

Sometimes I can’t convince myself getting there is worth it. On hot days I can taste the smell of human piss. I move between bony people scurrying by and swollen people passed out and baking in the sun. I don’t stop anymore to make sure they’re breathing. When did that happen?

The hookers, out as early as 10 a.m., often smile at me as I pass. Some are so strung out I wonder if they can even see me. The others suppose I look like someone who might smile back, and on good days I can. Most days I feel sad about them for blocks. The night prostitutes are burly and work up on Post in tightly stretched tank tops and skirts like headbands. They’re affectionate, laughing and hanging off of one another on the corners, shivering and waving at cars. Always with the “Hey, girl!” to me. But they don’t come out until it’s dark.

I walk down the east side of Larkin to avoid an ever-present line of dealers, all men. There’s always a delay between realizing that someone is following me and collecting all of myself to turn around and tell him to stop. On this side of the street is a laundromat, which generally means more women and families. A little girl trails behind a stroller, holding onto the bottom of her mother’s shirt. Her mouth is open and she’s tripping over her feet, looking back at a row of people slouched against the scissor gate of a vacant store. One man is setting up a street sale — scuffed high heels, some DVDs, and greasy flip phones laid out neatly on a bedsheet.

By the time I can see the library, men in suits are waiting at red lights next to me. There’s one last bad patch, on the grass right in front of the library, but by that point I feel like I’ve made it. I turn around to answer a tall older man, stiffly bent forward at the waist, with a tinny radio in his pocket. “’Scuse me, sis … ” He holds out four quarters pressed between his thumb and index finger. His nails are black. Sometimes this gimmick leaves me with 80 cents — one nickel in the middle of the stack — in exchange for my dollar bill. I know what my chances are, but from time to time I play along. This time it’s four quarters. — Summer Sewell

Office

A slow trickle of fit, mostly bearded, mostly tattooed men flow in and out of a small, utilitarian office sandwiched between a bodega and an apartment complex on Ellis Street. It’s early afternoon on a recent Thursday, and the olive-green walls of this cramped space are covered in graffiti-style artwork, stickers, and drawings. Wooden benches and stools line the room, a stack of board games fills one shelf, and a half-dozen bikes are parked in a rack on the tile floor.

Most of the men are killing time between the lunch and dinner rush, when they’ll hop on their bikes and zip all over the city, carting food, flowers, and anything else you can get delivered in today’s app-powered, on-demand economy. They’re employees of TCB Courier, a five-year-old company that hooks delivery services up with bike messengers. TCB’s 50 messengers sometimes do 15 deliveries over their five-hour shifts, says Jonathan Tesnakis, one of the company’s 11 co-owners.

TCB opened its headquarters in the Tenderloin a year and a half ago because the area was cheap and central, and the company could get a ground-floor space — key for hauling bikes. About a year after TCB moved in, their office was broken into. Twice. They installed a roll-down gate that they shut every night and haven’t had a problem since. When the gate rolls up in the morning, it reveals a logo on TCB’s front window that reads Gettin’ Muddy, Gettin’ Cutty (“Cutty” is Bay Area slang for something that’s sort of sketchy, but cool). It’s meant to refer to TCB’s cyclocross team, which is sponsored by a local bar, but it could just as easily describe the neighborhood. — Katie Fehrenbacher

Dive Bar

Weekday-afternoon sun pours through the 21 Club’s grimy window, lighting up the bottles and the peeling ceiling paint and the rattling floor fan and the bobblehead dolls and the beads and the rifle and the thumbtacked snapshots and the bumper sticker that says something about supporting U.S. flagships. From the old jukebox, Rod Stewart, then Aretha. Eight or nine customers — in flannel shirts and sweatpants, a few with canes, one with a beret, another in big shades — sit or stand around the place; most are over 60, and many have come in daily for years. They are warm and chatty, bantering about the news and the days of the Merchant Marines and about values — like how much value you’d get when you ordered the chops at the original Original Joe’s.

Callie pours a beer over half-melted ice. She’s a chuckler, a holler-across-the-bar sort. Her mother danced at the old Playboy Club. Decades ago, she claims, their family owned 80 Tenderloin bars. Owned this one, too — her aunt did, as she explains it. One day the aunt walked in on her husband in bed with another woman. She shot him and did ten years, Callie says, but first transferred ownership to another relative, who then transferred it to Frank, the current owner.

Also here is Simon, who’d wanted to see the world. He left his hometown seven hours north of Stockholm, he says, and arrived in San Francisco. He checked into a hostel that first night and found the nearest bar. Frank’s bar. Simon, who works here now, hands Jungle Jim a White Russian. Jungle Jim has powerful old arms coming out from an old vest, and a powerful mustache, and a tiny dream catcher hanging improbably from a wicker hat. He introduces himself as James, says he grew up in the Mission when being black wasn’t so rare and when there was respect and when burritos were 75 cents. He drives trucks. Just pour more Kahlúa over the dregs, he tells Simon when his White Russian depletes.

Across the street, sprawled at Turk and Taylor, everyone seems broken, twitchy, and forlorn. Inside, maybe some are broken, too, but broken and happy, and convivial, and discussing a funny thing that happened here in 1988. I hear nobody discussing how all this will go away in June, when the 21 Club becomes another $12 cocktail place. What’s left to say? Anyway, the afternoon’s too nice for moping, the sun now lower on the back wall but still orange. Callie tells me her grandmother said a neighborhood changes every 20 years. Maybe the thing to do is be glad the bar beat the odds as long as it did and pour another beer over your ice. — Chris Colin

All photographs courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery