Public Safety & Justice

Protecting and Preserving the Tenderloin

Can police Chief George Gascón clean up this San Francisco district without pushing the poor out?
by | May 2010
 

As a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, George Gascón isn't exactly new to tough neighborhoods. During the late 1970s, he worked the Hollywood Division when the once-fabled neighborhood was known primarily for its transvestite streetwalkers and drug sales. In the late 1980s, he moved to Hollenbeck, a proud Chicano community in East L.A. with deep roots-and some of the city's oldest gangs. But last summer, Gascón took a walk through the 20-block triangle of downtown San Francisco known as the Tenderloin just a few weeks before he was sworn in as San Francisco's new police chief-and he was shocked by what he saw.

"It took me back, how open it was," says Gascón. Drug dealers openly peddled their wares-OxyContin, crack cocaine, heroin-on the sidewalk as tourists wandered through and schoolchildren walked home. Dressed in civilian clothes, Gascón watched-"just really surprised, quite frankly"-as police officers simply drove by, not stopping to address the obvious criminal behavior taking place. To Gascón, the Tenderloin was like a scene from the 1970s, before the Broken Windows theory-from James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which holds that outward signs of disorder give rise to crime (and conversely, that outward signs of order reduce it)-changed what behavior was acceptable in most cities.

"This is a place where there are no consequences," says Gascón. "It was the norm of the place." In Gascón's mind, that made it the perfect place "to make a point." And so, soon after being sworn into office as San Francisco's new chief of police in August 2009, Gascón announced that one of his top priorities would be to clean up the Tenderloin. What followed, however, was anything but a straightforward application of proper police tactics. Instead, Gascón came face to face with difficult questions about how the city should house and serve its neediest residents. Arching over them is an even larger question: Can a troubled neighborhood be changed without changing its residents?

A century ago, most big cities had neighborhoods where vice sidled up to skid row-and police turned a blind eye to illicit activities in return for a healthy cut of the illegal profits (hence the term "tenderloin.") In Seattle, it was Pioneer Square. Los Angeles' vice district centered on Sanchez Alley, just off the historic plaza. New York City had Hell's Kitchen, and a notorious tenderloin centered on the Broadway theater district in Manhattan's West Side. But after World War II, urban renewal demolished the old slums and protected vice was shut down. What the bulldozers spared, gentrification claimed in the 1990s as marginal; neighborhoods like Denver's "LoDo" and Hell's Kitchen became hipster hot spots.

San Francisco was different. Parts of the city were given up to forces of development, notably the South of Market area, which is now replete with high-end chain coffee stores and trendy wine bars. The Tenderloin, however, was preserved, thanks in large part to its distinctive architecture, but to its single room occupancy (SRO) residential hotels in particular.

A century ago, SROs-single room boarding houses with a communal bathroom on each floor (and no kitchen)-were a feature of every big American city. While most were designed to provide simple, low-cost accommodations to working men, many turn-of-the-century buildings were quite striking. However, their cramped quarters and increasingly unsavory associations led to their demolition in most cities. San Francisco, however, is different. More than 400 are located in or around the Tenderloin. There, a room in a nice, well run SRO goes for about $520 per month. In contrast, the average rent for a studio apartment is roughly $1,300 per month. The presence of so many SROs in and around the Tenderloin makes San Francisco unique: No other thriving American city has a low-rent, low-income community in the heart of downtown.

The preservation of the Tenderloin's historic architecture isn't a testament simply to the area's exceptional disorder. It's also the result of deliberate social policy. In 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom unveiled a new approach to the city's homeless population called Care Not Cash, which paid nonprofits to manage SROs as housing for homeless residents. (For a detailed discussion of this decision, see A Roof to Start With from the December 2005 issue of Governing.) One person behind this strategy was Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) Executive Director Randy Shaw.

Shaw founded the THC as a free legal clinic in 1979. But he quickly had a different priority: leading the fight to preserve the Tenderloin's SROs. Doing so, Shaw believed, would further several important ends, among them protecting historical buildings and enticing tourists to the neighborhood where Muhammad Ali once trained and Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia briefly lived (the Cadillac Hotel), or the apartment where an ex-Pinkerton detective, Dashiell Hammett, invented the hard-boiled detective novel.

Shaw believed it would also give San Francisco a tool to combat homelessness that other cities lacked-conveniently located, low-cost housing that was gentrification-proof. Shaw asks, "How much would you pay without a bathroom?"

Today Shaw's organization operates 15 SROs in the Tenderloin, which provide housing to roughly 2,000 people. Other SROs house another 2,000 Tenderloin residents. Shaw isn't blind to the neighborhood's problems, but he doesn't think the SROs cause them. Some of the neighborhood's residents, however, think otherwise.

Dina Hilliard moved to the Tenderloin 11 years ago. For the neighborhood, her background is unusual. A majority of the Tenderloin's 20,000 residents come from Vietnam, Cambodia or, more recently, the Middle East and Central America. Hilliard arrived from Wheaton, Ill. ("a dry town," she notes wryly). She initially came to teach at a small Christian school-an experience that connected her with the Tenderloin's less noticed groups, its seniors and children. City officials estimate that some 3,500 kids live there-one of the neighborhood's most startling sights is seeing these children navigating the food lines and dealer hangouts on their way to and from school.

"When I first moved here, the only thing I saw was the street element," says Hilliard. "All you see are people selling drugs, being drunk and stabbing each other. But after being here for a while, you start to see the people in the buildings. For every person out on the street dealing drugs, there are five people in the apartment scared to come out." These residents, Hilliard believes, are the people who go unnoticed and unserved. She notes that many are convinced that the city views the Tenderloin as little more than "a containment zone."

When you consider the numbers, it's hard to disagree. Of the Tenderloin's 20,000 residents, some 4,000 are placed there by city-funded nonprofits. Most of these people have serious substance abuse problems. Some 30 service providers, methadone clinics, halfway houses, health clinics and food kitchens tend to their needs. Despite the prevalence of drug dealing, the Tenderloin is also a re-entry gateway for inmates exiting the correctional system: Only the Bay View area has more parolees.

"If you really are serious about rehabilitating people coming out of the penitentiary, they need to be in an environment where it is hard to find drugs," says Gascón. "If you put them in an environment where drugs are available and gang members are pushing their wares, then it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy." And people will recidivate.

Yet one logical next step-moving some of these service providers and/or the people they are serving to other parts of the city-isn't easily taken.

"On the one hand, you have service providers that say there should not be any diversification [of the population] or 'gentrification,'" Gascón says. "On the other hand, you have people in more affluent neighborhoods who are safer and have fewer challenges that say, 'I don't want that in my neighborhood.' So for very different reasons, you have a separation that continues to consolidate a system that hasn't worked for many years."

There's another option as well: development. When Gascón first walked through the neighborhood last summer, he thought back to his time in another troubled yet historic community-Hollywood. Its turnaround over the past 20 years inspired hope that the Tenderloin could experience a similar rebirth. But Hollywood's transformation involved embracing development in ways that the gentrification-adverse Tenderloin has not-and maybe cannot, given the scale of the holdings of nonprofit service providers in the area. That makes matters much more difficult, Gascón says.

"If you become sort of a monoculture type of economy where it's all based on providing service," Gascón says, "then it becomes almost impossible to be able to have a rebirth." In that scenario, "the only thing you are left with is the ability to improve the overall environment through high visibility and targeted enforcement."

The police crackdown began in September 2009, just weeks after Gascón was sworn in as chief, with classic undercover buy-and-busts. The first night of the operation, police arrested eight people for dealing drugs. The last night of the operation, 30 days later, police arrested the exact same number of dealers, despite nearly continuous nightly operations. In the process, police discovered that most dealers weren't from the Tenderloin at all. Rather, they were coming in on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, from Oakland and the East Bay, to sell to a captive audience.

While neither the supply of aspiring drug dealers nor the demand of neighborhood residents had been assuaged, people who live and work in the Tenderloin noticed the results. Even before the crackdown was announced, "I immediately saw a difference," says Hilliard. "Certain areas where there had always been areas loitering, it was empty. Nobody was on the sidewalks."

The situation around the neighborhood schools improved too, after a dealer who worked near one was convicted and sentenced to a 10-year prison term. While some residents expressed concern about the crackdown, "most appreciate the effort," Hilliard says. But like other residents and even some officers, she worries about whether the police effort is really sustainable.

Gascón insists that it is. In March, the San Francisco Police Department began another cycle of buy-and-busts to maintain the successes of the fall. But in the Tenderloin, improvement only goes so far. On a late March morning, two police officers spotted a man sitting on the sidewalk, smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine in a pipe. They hustled over, eager to make an arrest and demonstrate the crackdown in action, only to realize that the man was just smoking marijuana. The officers turned and walked away.

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