Going Deep in the Tenderloin with Randy Shaw

DSCN1177San Francisco   When I lasted visited with Randy Shaw at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about a year ago, the Tenderloin Museum was nearing opening day, and he offered a personal tour the next time I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer this trip.

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Randy is a now a long time fixture in the Tenderloin as a housing and tenant organizer and lawyer of several decades standing, as well as an author of several books on organizing and, more recently, on the Tenderloin itself. The Tenderloin, as the name of the neighborhood in downtown San Francisco implies, speaks colorfully to its own history as the favored location for the pursuit of sometimes open and sometimes illicit pleasure of different forms for generations whether that be dancing or gambling, wine, women, work, or song. It was also the longtime home near the heart of the San Francisco labor movement and of huge and important tenant struggles, some of which Shaw was in the middle of as well, which have arguably made the small, dense blocks of the Tenderloin perhaps the last working class, semi-affordable neighborhood in this high-flying executive city where average home prices now top $2 million.

DSCN1179The Tenderloin Museum does a good job in a well-organized, nicely crafted space in telling the diverse story of the community’s history and struggles, as well as importantly it’s people, whether immigrants or workers or writers and artists. Amazingly, as I walked through the museum with Shaw, I looked up and there was an illuminated map of the Tenderloin and its streets, dramatically underscoring the diverse history and stories of the space.

The quick tour of the museum turned out to be only a prelude to a fuller understanding of the way Shaw and the housing clinic have used their base and experience in the area to be developers steering the very future of how people will come to see the Tenderloin in coming years. The museum of course anchors the history, but walking these short blocks from Shaw’s office, we popped our heads into a construction site, where a restaurant, the Black Cat, is taking shape, which they support as cheerleaders and investors. Several blocks from the museum and the cat, at 236 Leavenworth we walked into an art gallery displaying work by Tenderloin artists or artists with a connection to the neighborhood that was surprise in and of itself.

DSCN1181Another couple of blocks away Shaw greeted the director of a space opening this week that they fondly called the Octopus because of the giant murals of fish and sea creatures dominated of course by the octopus itself. Dave Eggers, the noted author and another impresario in the literature, art, and cultural world, had found his match in Shaw as the primary promoter of the Tenderloin and its treasurers and was on the eve of opening a huge space to mentor young writers in one section, supported by retail in another. Last minute painting was still being done by the muralists, video crews were coming in, and the organizers saluted Shaw on his recent coup of getting the Mayor to the opening to launch the space.

Anywhere else in San Francisco all of this might have added up to the first shots coming from the guerrilla troops of the gentrifiers, but in these subtle statements behind numbered doors, it was clear that instead – at least for now – I was getting to watch value being added to the community that was understated, but appropriate and significant to what we can still hope is a bastion for the future of the city where people may still have a place.

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