On a warm San Francisco night this past September, I dropped my daughter off at Hotel Nikko on Mason and Ellis for a performance by one of her musical theater idols at Feinstein’s. There were probably a hundred people circling the streets looking for parking, but I had my secret spot: Driving two blocks south on Mason, deep into the wounded but still-beating heart of the Tenderloin, I turned right on Turk and parked 10 feet from the corner.
After locking the car, I walked west toward Taylor. Almost immediately, I came upon five or six bedraggled older men standing or sitting on the sidewalk—one of them huddled in a doorway, bending over to light a crack pipe. Just a few feet further along sat another disheveled group—a man sucking on a pipe, a woman slugging a can of malt liquor. They paid no attention to me. A figure lay sprawled in a doorway, out cold. The acrid tang of urine hung in the air. I turned left on Taylor, walked the short block to Market Street, and turned left, passing the refurbished Warfield Building, the new home of Spotify and Benchmark Capital, conjoined to the old Warfield Theater. Midblock, a dozen young men were gathered around two street dice games, wads of money in their hands. A guy near the corner of Mason called out to me, “Hey, Joe, want something to smoke tonight?”
For as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco—going on 43 years now—I’ve been fascinated by the Tenderloin. It is the strangest neighborhood in the metropolis—maybe the strangest on the planet. In the midst of one of the most affluent cities in the world, it is a 40-square-block island of poverty and squalor. Its streets teem with the people the Chamber of Commerce does not want you to see: the ragged, the mentally ill, the addicted, the paroled, the homeless. While all big cities have such denizens, they are usually scattered here and there—not clustered right next to the most valuable real estate in town. But the Tenderloin couldn’t be any more central.
Read more of Gary Kamiya’s story, Arise Tenderloin, on sanfranmag.com
Photos by Stephen McLaren