Known as the TL or The ‘Loin to locals, the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco offers huge street murals, cheap eats, and pre-war apartment buildings that often share walls with hip bars and five-star restaurants. From its historic buildings that harken back to its vivid past to its innovative new developments, the history of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District is a colorful blend of ambition, sin, and vision.
The Tenderloin is located on a 50-square block wedge on the southern slope of Nob Hill, between the Union Square shopping district to the northeast, and the Civic Center to the southwest. Its historical boundary on the north is Nob Hill’s Geary Street, and aesthetic continuity with that adjoining neighborhood has grown in recent years as the Tenderloin has seen an increase in renovation and beautification projects.
Before the Tenderloin first got its moniker, it was known as “downtown”. Though no one is really sure where the name comes from, there are many bawdy speculations. One theory suggests that the neighborhood’s “soft underbelly” of vice is comparable to the soft tenderloin cut of beef. Though the neighborhood carries a layered, complicated history, it’s resilience and agility is renowned.
Beginning and Beginning again
The Tenderloin initially emerged as a respectable residential neighborhood as an influx of upwardly mobile people settled in San Francisco after the California Gold Rush. In the late 19th-century, the neighborhood was known for its vibrant nightlife of theater, opera, fine dining and upscale brothels.
However, that incarnation of the Tenderloin was almost entirely destroyed in the great earthquake and fires of 1906, thanks to the high concentration of wooden buildings. One of the few surviving structures, the Hibernia Bank Building, still stands at the corner of McAllister and Market Streets.
Instead of abandoning the area, the neighborhood immediately rebuilt with hotels and apartment buildings–many completed by the following year. A number of those hotels and apartments still exist today.
Soon, however, the district would become known for more than just rebuilt structures.
Roaring 20’s, booze, and graft
In the early half of the 20th-century, the Tenderloin developed a reputation as a center of excitement, thanks in no small part to an abundance of vice. During Prohibition in the 1920’s, the neighborhood sprouted various halls for gambling and billiards, as well as illegal speakeasies. Though these establishments were mostly avoided by the average citizen, they drew in a diverse collection of the well-to-do, thrill-seekers, and opportunistic bootleggers.
Noir and the arts
It was most likely the Tenderloin’s ‘bohemian’ attitude that lent itself to attracting great artists, writers, and musicians to the district. Famous detective writer Dashiell Hammett, for one, made the Tenderloin his stomping ground.
His fictional detective character Sam Spade was given Hammett’s real-life apartment address at 891 Post Street. In fact, the Noir classic The Maltese Falcon takes place almost entirely in the mysterious world of the Tenderloin.
In the mid-20th century, the Tenderloin was also a hot spot for musicians and nightlife in its many bars and clubs. It was also the location of the Musician’s Union Building on Jones Street. The Black Hawk club at Hyde and Turk Streets brought in Jazz greats such as Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and many others.
The New Settlers
The Tenderloin encompasses what is officially known as San Francisco’s “Little Saigon” on Larkin Street between Eddy and O’Farrell, where a concentration of Vietnamese Americans live and do business. Little Saigon is known for its bustling bahn-mi sandwich shops and popular inexpensive lunch spots.
Many Southeast Asians relocated to the area after the Vietnam War in the early 70’s. At the time, the neighborhood had a high vacancy rate and cheap rent made it a good place for the new settlers to build community and start their new lives. The Tenderloin, in that regard, has always been a place for reinvention.
Throughout its history, the Tenderloin has been called home by a great many people, not only immigrants. The LGBTQ community, for example, has been a staple of the neighborhood for decades. Long before the Castro was San Francisco’s most prominent gay neighborhood, the Tenderloin was where the LGBTQ made a flourishing community for themselves, and they continue to help shape San Francisco as a city.
Bring in the New
In recent years, efforts have been made to bring new resources into the Tenderloin with an eye on making the neighborhood safer and bringing new life to some of the more run-down areas.
Developers have stepped in to fill rows of vacant buildings and storefronts with housing, retail, bars, and restaurants. Investors along with neighborhood groups have undertaken large urban renewal projects such as fixing up playgrounds, beautifying parks, and designating historic areas.
The history of the Tenderloin is a complex and bold story that should be told. And in 2015, the Tenderloin Museum opened with a focus on preserving the history of this diverse and unique neighborhood.