San Francisco: The High Life of the Lowlifes

(Image: Urban Reality Press)(Image: Urban Reality Press)The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, by Randy Shaw. San Francisco: Urban Reality Press, 2015.

If your life was changed by a spell in the Bay Area (as happened to this writer a bit over fifty years ago) and, even more, if you lived in the Tenderloin (guilty again), this book will have special meaning. Even if not, the aura of historic San Francisco, that heartland of American bohemia now almost thoroughly yuppified yet stubbornly gorgeous, offers a universal appeal. The Tenderloin, for its part, is more of an acquired taste.

Author Randy Shaw has a special claim on this district, just blocks from ever-changing downtown. He has been here for more than 30 years, serving the needy at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic where he remains director. Quite a job, but he also edits BeyondChron.org, a response of sorts to the decline (in space and quality) of the book pages in the once-hip San Francisco Chronicle. Never without dreams, he seems like a fellow without illusions.

And yet, his portrayal of San Francisco seediness is a celebration. The drugged-out zone perpetually loaded with SROs, tavern dives and troubled teens from out of town was just about as notorious a century ago. Describing the red light district of the 1910s and offering some wonderful vernacular art (the best are risqué bar matchbooks) and photos, he explains that the Uptown Tenderloin emerged from the calamitous 1906 earthquake with new glory. Theaters, dance halls, fraternal halls and residence hotels solidly constructed, it attracted the elite along with the city’s proletariat.

A campaign to “clean up” vice naturally focused on punishing the single women of the scene. Abandoned by husbands or choosing to live on their own, in a historic moment of women’s search for personal self-determination, they found paying work in the sex trade. Outright brothels, upstairs rooms of French (!) restaurants, hallways, front rooms, even bathrooms served the purpose. The “morals” campaign launched in 1917 forbade unaccompanied women from most venues. Even all-female events were thought to inspire flapper impulses in the respectable girl.

The campaign failed as all subsequent campaigns would, and for similar reasons. San Francisco politicians, mayors and police officials to city council members, themselves, enjoyed the scene, and, besides, the payoffs from liquor dealers and others lubricated campaigns. The Tenderloin recovered from repression as it recovered from the earthquake: stronger than ever.

The “New Era of Fun” during the Prohibition era is lovingly recorded, with high-stakes and low-stakes gambling (women did it, too) swelling the usual illegality of the zone. Now and then, the press documented widespread police graft, and about as often, a police chief would go on a crusade – against the Tenderloin, not against his own officers. Being San Francisco, the city’s libertarian lawyers fought off prosecution, although the bordellos pretty well closed or moved elsewhere by the time Pearl Harbor was bombed.

And then, as in anywhere Big City America that hosted sailors and soldiers, Gay Life swept forward. Gay bars and other meeting places got special attention from the military, of course. But a California Supreme Court case of 1951 ruled, most astonishingly, that public assembly of homosexuals was not exactly a crime. The Tenderloin had already become a venue of choice. By this time, famed liberal columnist Herb Caen (he later coined the word “Beatnik”) provided acidulous commentary on the attempt to get at gays by shutting off the supply of B-Girls … he noted that club owners responded with all-girl orchestras, some of them suspiciously unmusical. “Girls, Gambling and Graft,” as the conservative Examiner characterized and cursed the scene, nevertheless continued to have widespread and lucrative appeal.

It’s somewhat painfully funny to recall, on a political side note, that in the Tenderloin, the California Labor School, the only leftwing academy where students could enroll on the GI Bill, boasted an array of distinguished artists and intellectuals as teachers – until the Red Scare drove the CLS out of business. Radicalism, no stranger to San Francisco, was a different kind of “deviation,” lacking the protection of payoffs from the authorities.

Once more, arguably as a run-up to the nation’s Urban Renewal plan to scrub clean the urban setting, San Francisco’s big shots set upon a scheme to extend downtown into the Tenderloin and, effectively, wipe it out by another method. The gay bars were high on the list, but the gay-pioneering Mattachine Society (its headquarters moved from LA to San Francisco in 1953) was on the job as well, and the effort stumbled. Modern jazz, no stranger to the Tenderloin, by this time also flourished at cheaper prices than in the tony clubs of North Beach. Herb Caen pointed out that the grown children of the city’s elite were jazzophiles and therefore Tenderloin habitués, even if their fathers were hopeless Squares.

The “Sixties came in a rush, marked in the Tenderloin by gay protests before New York’s famed Stonewall Riot, but for the same reason: police harassment, following protests against anti-queer discrimination at a neighborhood coffee shop.” The papers called it “gayola” (following the radio “payola” scandals a few years earlier) when the continued acceptance of gays in most clubs was noted. The cops had been paid off, as usual. Gay youth, male in particular, filled the neighborhood with people seeking to be free but also badly in need of services – and respect.

By this point, the old-timers interviewed and well known to the author 30 years later, were very much on the scene. The book becomes somewhat more of an oral history, and increasingly personal. In deep trouble, the Tenderloin gathered something new and important: a merging of gay rights and anti-poverty activism, the basis for Shaw’s own Housing Clinic and a wider network of services. And just in time. Porn bookstores, theaters and nude dancing emporia opened up by the scores. More upbeat and upscale gay residents shifted across Market Street to the Castro, where a political base would soon grow. The Tenderloin sunk downward.

Ironically, it was not only a gay ghetto by 1970 or so, but also a gray ghetto, inhabited by the old and poor who could not leave, even if they wished to. The appearance of a lively music studio with the likes of Credence Clearwater Revival and the Jefferson Airplane offered hope. The ineffable Herb Caen defended “the action, the struggle to survive on its own terms, the togetherness of losers and loners,” a place increasingly unique in a city steadily becoming a place for the wealthy and suburban visitors.

Shaw is very much a part of the neighborhood revival from 1980 onward and doubtless gives himself too little credit for the work he has done. It proceeds, as always, somewhat against the odds. Attempts to create a bright and shining restaurant, for instance, tended only to build an island of respectability surrounded by poverty and drugs. The social service community drive to create a new park likewise seemed to be an instant hit, especially for elderly residents, and then turned into a drug market (it closed in 2012, and reopened last year). Luxury hotel towers built on the fringes of Tenderloin did little for the neighborhood, but hard-won schemes for nonprofit housing have made a real difference.

Here is hope amidst an American saga of rich growing richer, poor growing poorer. Urban gentrification turned on its head blocked speculators from emptying out buildings and blocks for richer prospects. New, monied immigrants from India bought up SROs and . . . stopped making repairs, until pushed to improve. Amazingly, they did the repairs, and with city commitments of various kinds, things got better for many inhabitants.

The author is not absent from this ongoing process. He was an early champion of the Tenderloin as a historic district, and the recovery of a “lost history” has played a major role. In the end (so far), a Tenderloin Museum, opened this Spring, is the crown diadem of this most improbable diamond in the rough. Kudos go in many directions, and the modest Randy Shaw accepts some of them. With every good reason.

Paul Buhle lived in the Tenderloin from September to December, 1963. His landlady urged him to “go back to college.”