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North Market Force

[whitespace] The Tenderloin The newest cheapest neighborhood you can't afford

Text by Michael Stabile
Photos by Farika

You've already missed it. It's too late. While no one was looking or, rather, while everyone was looking toward the Mission and Hayes Valley and Lower Haight and ironically laughing about the possibility of Hunters Point gentrifying, we all missed the biggest San Francisco opportunity since the Gold Rush or Yahoo!'s IPO. The Tenderloin.

When I moved here three years ago, it was sketchy enough living in the Mission, never mind the Tenderloin. For a few months, I sublet a studio in a creaky old building on the corner of Jones and Bush. I convinced myself that I lived in Nob Hill, but when the building across the street burned down in a crack-addled blaze, Terilyn Jo kindly informed me that evening on the news that I was, in fact, living in the 'Loin. If newscasters were more gracious, I lived in the Tender-Nob. Or Lower Nob Hill. The apartment itself was crappy. The shower was a drip, the bathtub didn't drain and the view was of the downstairs dumpsters. It cost $550 a month, and I couldn't wait to move into a tenement slum in North Beach.

Personally, I like gentrification. Neighborhood committees demand more streets, the Rite Aid starts carrying W magazine and you have unlimited access to biscotti, smoothies and well-made double lattes. Families relocate to the cheaper suburbs, leaving San Francisco-land more of a playground for the young and hip. Politically, it's a little too right of the left than I care to admit, but so are Calphalon pans and old-vine zinfandels. Selling out tastes better, and you get to wear tuxedos occasionally.


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On a recent night out, I discovered how geographically central the Tenderloin is, and suddenly I became obsessed with living there. It's next to Union Square; it's just blocks from the Van Ness movie megaplexes, not to mention the opera and symphony for those of us bourgeois aspirants content to slum. I figured that on the rent money I'd save, I could eat at Postrio once a month.

Though both BART and MUNI are just steps away, my current residence in Duboce Triangle didn't seem so exciting anymore. The Tenderloin wasn't some gentrified suburb, it was "the city." Gritty. Authentic. Real. Manly. In comparison, all other "hip" neighborhoods seemed like imitation versions of West Portal or Presidio Heights--glorified suburbs claiming to be in The City. I was no longer content to be a bridge-and-tunnel bohemian.

Of course, while bohemian and daring may have described the noveau carpetbaggers who moved in prematurely, it could hardly apply to we moderns, for whom the gentrification has become fairly visible. Union Square encroaches steadily on previously dangerous turf. Mason Street, once regarded as the eastern end of the 'Loin is now populated by department stores and boutique hotels like the King George. The San Francisco Police Department reported a 16 percent decrease in overall crime from December 1997 to December 1998.

The Tenderloin Trendyloin: Moneyed hipsters are moving onto the 'Loin's mean streets.

A friar from a Tenderloin-based church and community center, who asked not to be identified, suspected the Mayor's Office had as much to do with the revitalization as did the rising rents of San Francisco.

"We definitely know what's going on in the Tenderloin," he said, shortly before a burst water main claimed his attention. "We can see it with the sweep of the homeless from the Civic Center and City Hall and with the closure of the Social Security Building."

I took a rainy weekend to examine the promise of the 'Loin during the day. Vietnamese restaurants riddled the streets, along with a handsome selection of dry-cleaning establishments and custom tailors. As long as they wouldn't ruin my Hugo Boss suit, I'd be in heaven. And "For Rent" signs appeared in window after window. "Lovely one bedroom, recently remodeled. Excellent view"; "Studio with AEK and bathroom. Inquire within." Score! I thought, writing down as many numbers and brief descriptions of their location as I could, indicating "sketchy," "soon to be chic" and "might get shot."

I strolled through the parks, which were complete with parked patrol cars, and walked past Glide Church, in awe of its tolerant urbanity. I could imagine going to Sunday services dressed in Diesel. I toured a local smoke shop and saw a real live crack pipe, rounded at the bottom with a twisty neck and a special chamber for the "rock." It was like viewing La Gioconda at the Louvre. Everything seemed so promising.

I started making phone calls, and my dreams were shattered. One woman, renting a studio on the less than desirable corner of Jones and O'Farrell, was asking $925. "But it's the Tenderloin," I argued. "Whatever happened to location, location, location!" "Do you want to live in Daly City?" she countered, the market on her side. The remainder of the follow-up calls went in much the same manner, ranging from $850 for a hole in the wall above a porn store to $1,195 for a one-bedroom whose location made my Jones Street apartment seem like Grace Cathedral. MetroRent, a local rental agency, couldn't produce a listing under a thousand dollars. The ones that were offered were often closer to $1,500 and offered stunning perks like 'no view' and 'laundry down the street.'

Soon, I suppose, some new acronym (NoMA?) or renaming will bless the area with the final degree of chic, in the way that parts of the Mission are now Dolores Heights and part of Lower Haight has become Duboce Triangle and Civic Center has been rechristened Hayes Valley. Then the clamor will begin. The Bay Guardian will decry the eviction of transients, and local hustlers will bond together for a Yuppie Eradication Project. Cafes will open, boutique designers and boutique bars will prosper like bastard children of Backflip and Six, and we'll all be slapping ourselves for not realizing the 'Loin's promise. Except that it's already too late. Hunters Point, anyone?

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.