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THE INTERSECTION: Is the Tenderloin gentrification-proof?

Illustration by David Boyer.

THE INTERSECTION looks at change in the Bay Area through physical intersections and street corners — where different cultures, desires and histories meet every day. 

Season one focuses on Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that some feel is changing, while others feel it’s getting worse. What you’ll hear this is season is what producer David Boyer found while spending the better part a year getting to know the people who live and work nearby. This is episode five  listen to more

What changes a corner or a neighborhood? When is change an improvement? And when is it not? In this installment of THE INTERSECTION, consider the complexities of change. Fittingly, the story begins at George and Lennie, a cafe that’s a half block from Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

In many now-upscale neighborhoods across the country, that new cafe was the first sign of things to come. And like many of those cafes, this one has reclaimed industrial touches and a barista with a really long, bushy beard.

A year ago, Brett Walked leased this spot and six months ago he opened the doors to customers. He wanted to build something for himself, his girlfriend and his 8 year-old daughter. He had spent time in the Tenderloin before but being here everyday for a year he still wasn’t prepared for what he encountered.

“It is like the wild west,” says Brett. “It’s surprising to me that it's just complete chaos down here. You know. It’s like you sit here all day. And like these dudes out here just selling drugs all day long.”

While this isn’t the norm on many blocks in the Tenderloin, it is part of Brett’s everyday reality.  “I mean I run out of change, I go across the street I'm like yo drug dealers like here's a stack of twenty's can I get some fives.”

Even though Brett doesn’t want to gentrify the neighborhood, it’s the promise of change and development that lured him here.

“A year ago a friend brought me here,” he explains. “He worked for the city and so he had a decent understanding of like what was going on in the area as far as like new construction and people moving in and out and kinda like what might transpire in the Tenderloin in the next few years.

He’s seen it happen before: when he worked at Four Barrel Coffee on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission “I moved here six years ago that's a vastly different block. Now compared to then.  Back in the day at Four Barrel like people would steal our tips or whatever, like that never happens anymore..

Still, it’s hard to envision Golden Gate becoming the next Valencia Street. But there are signs that the neighborhood may be reaching a tipping point. A nearby dive bar is currently being converted into an upscale lounge and a chinese takeout joint into a small plates restaurant. At the same time, the median rent for a 1 bedroom in the Tenderloin rose 36% last year,  far more than any other neighborhood in the city. And Brett’s cafe is on the ground floor of one of the neighborhood’s priciest properties, the Lofts at 7, where studios now go for over $3000/month.

It’s not just the lofts and cafes that have neighbors thinking change is afoot. There’s been talk about what might be coming to the empty storefront on the northeast corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth. That’s where the Big Boy Market used to be. The store was a notorious trouble spot—a haven for drug deals and stolen goods.

“It was just a beehive of criminal activity around that location. Complaints everyday,” remembers Captain Jason Cherniss, former captain of the Tenderloin Police Station. “So, we finally started asking people: send us an email with your name on it. And tell us exactly what you’re seeing. So we started flooding the city attorney’s office with these emails. And he finally said I have enough here to file a lawsuit against you for a, for a public nuisance.”

Eventually, the store owner closed up shop and the storefront was empty. For months there’s been talk about a potential new tenant. A game-changer according to many in the community.

The new kids on the block

Imagine the polar opposite of a violent, drug-infested corner store across from a middle school and a childcare center. That’s pretty much 826 Valencia. It’s a writing and tutoring center in the Mission co-founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari. But you wouldn’t know it’s a tutoring center if you were just walking by. That’s because the front is a pirate supply shop, where you can buy peg legs, eye patches and all your pirate needs.

Founded in 2002, before a tsunami of high-end retail transformed the Mission, 826 was started specifically to help the neighborhood’s Latino kids. Many were were growing up in Spanish-speaking, mono-lingual homes and falling behind in reading and writing. The curio shop-slash-tutoring center now serves more than 6,000 kids a year from all over the city. It has become a national non-profit with centers across the country.  And a year or so ago, they began to think about what’s in San Francisco.

“As a mission, 826 from the beginning, has been to go deeper in this city,” explains Dave. And executive director Bita Nazarian “identified the next place that there was great need there and that there wasn’t a similar center.”

“Our volunteers have to get there and believe in serving the community there.,” explains Bita. “So we asked our volunteers, ‘Where else would you travel to support kids who are in our focal group?’—so low income students of color. And the Tenderloin was by far the most interest.”

They have spent the last year meeting folks in the neighborhood and raising money and looking for a space. And in San Francisco’s hot real estate market, that presented a challenge. Because they needed to find something accessible, affordable and big enough. Bita also found “a number of the landlords are prospecting that everything will go up so quickly so quickly, right? They want to make a buck. And so , you know, we just kept looking.”

Eventually they were put in touch with Paul Boschetti, who owns the building on the corner, where the Big Boy Market used to be.

Originally, he didn’t want to rent to a non-profit. “There is enough non-profit in the Tenderloin,” says Paul. But his broker wouldn’t let it go. “He call me…and said, ‘You know the director of this outfit want to talk to you. Just talk to me. Let's go and talk to them. You don't have to rent it to them.’ I said, ‘Okay. I'll go and talk to them.’”

Bita remembers his reaction to the Valencia Street center. “I mean, his eyes couldn't have been wider as he walked through our pirate  supply store. And he saw children and adults sitting side by side—learning and working and writing. I mean, he just, I think it kind of shifted his view of what could happen next.”

“I thought to myself, if I was a young kid I think I would like something like that myself,” says Paul.


Welcome to the neighborhood

Then it was time for Dave and Bita to visit Paul’s building at Golden Gate and Leavenworth. Aside from the infamous Big Boy Market—which only rented a fraction of the space—the ground-floor has been largely vacant for 20 years. It had been the headquarters for the United Artists Theater chain until the late 1980s. And before that it was home to a gay bar, an upscale lounge, a Filipino restaurant,  a film archive and more. But that was a long time ago.

“You know I went to look at it. And it was a really interesting place,” says Dave. “It's a warren-like space with all these little weird rooms that have been built ad hoc over the years for different reasons. The space is five thousand square feet, but it's probably subdivided thirty times.”

“When you walk through… it smells like grossness,” adds Bita. “I just remember I stopped inhaling as I was walking through. The bathrooms are like filled with grime. Parts of the walls are missing. We saw a hook that was probably weighed half a ton. It’s a very inhospitable space. So you look at that, plus the street activity on the corner:and you say, ‘Wow, is it, can anybody make the impact, right? Is that even a realistic hope?’”

Dave and the rest of 826 were up for the challenge. “That became pretty inspiring,” he notes. “To think that we could transform a trouble spot into a place of hope. But it was like a six month process of getting the lease done. And during that time we worried that it might not happen.”

But eventually the lease was signed. “I think that there was some pressure from the city,” says Dave. “Friendly pressure—saying ah, ‘This is the right thing.’”  After a $1.2 million renovation, the new 826 center will be opening up late spring 2016.

What's 826 in the TL going to look like? What's the theme?  Why won't the Tenderloin gentrify like the Mission?To find out, click on the audio link above.



THE INTERSECTION is a new podcast produced by David Boyer and KALW. It was made possible with a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the NEH.

Subscribe to the podcast to hear the entire season and future episodes from this and other intersections around the Bay Area.