Tenderloin district touts its history

October 16, 2008 6:58:39 PM PDT
A San Francisco neighborhood is about to get federal designation for its historic significance, and you might be surprised where. It's not Chinatown or the waterfront. It's the Tenderloin -- a place known for crime and homelessness.

The Tenderloin is often called gritty, seedy, down and out. Soon you can add the word historic.

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a leading provider of housing for homeless people in San Francisco.

He's been a key force in pushing to place this neighborhood near city hall on the national register of historic places.

"Right now if you end up living in the Tenderloin, you feel like you've been a failure. Oh, God, what could be worse. I'm living in the tenderloin. Now people can say I live in the uptown Tenderloin Historic District, it's a really hip place," said Randy Shaw from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

The Tenderloin we see today is the result of the 1906 earthquake and fire that wiped out the neighborhood. It was rebuilt along with the rest of the city.

According to architectural historian Michael Corbett, the post-quake Tenderloin was specifically designed for a new breed of city worker.

"The first new skyscrapers and the first office buildings were being built downtown. So the Tenderloin was built for these people, the new class of people, for middle class workers around Union Square and the Financial District," said Corbett.

Corbett surveyed the Tenderloin for the federal nomination. He says there are 409 buildings that are pieces of history and there are primarily two types.

Old hotels from the 20's and 30's are now called SRO's that provide rooms for formerly homeless and others with low-incomes. This is thought to be the nation's largest collection.

And then there are apartments which could include the first studio apartments ever built.

"We say it's significant not because of the architectural features, but because of the building types and because of the social history," said Corbett.

The state has already approved the Tenderloin's historic designation. The paperwork is headed to the federal government which is expected to agree.

Gold-colored plaques will be placed on the buildings to highlight their significance.

Property owners in the new Uptown Tenderloin Historic District will get a 40 percent tax credit for any renovations they make. The vast majority like Elaine Zamora have signed off on the plan.

"It could be the beginning of rejuvenation of property facades and property in general. It is gaining a lot of positive momentum," said Zamora.

Others we talked to who live in the neighborhood are skeptical that being called historic will change the reality of life here.

"It's going to be rough. I mean anything is possible, but it's going to be rough," said Tenderloin resident Tony Boutrin.

"I've been living here for 18 years. I don't think it's going to do any good, that's my opinion, I could be wrong, but I doubt it," said Tenderloin resident Raymond Easter.

But Randy Shaw has no doubt the Tenderloin will forge a new identify that goes beyond the listing in the national register.

A history museum is already in the planning stages and he'd like tours to bring in tourists, who are usually warned to steer clear of the Tenderloin.

"I think 20 years from now we'll be the last neighborhood that is unchanged from how we were in 1980 and 1960 and 1940, and I think that's special and will lend an interest to people coming to check out this place from around the country," said Shaw.

This historic proposal is more than 20 years in the making.

To learn more about about the Tenderloin's historic proposal, click on The Back Story.


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