San Francisco's red-light denizens fight to stay seedy
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SAN FRANCISCO -- When Carolyn Abst moved into this city's harsh Tenderloin district several years ago, she thought she would be welcomed. As owner of an architecture firm, she was bringing in jobs and ideas to revitalize the area. Instead, some of her neighbors called for her head.
"Wanted" posters went up around the Tenderloin last year, featuring Ms. Abst's photo. Someone circulated pamphlets disparaging her. Residents yelled at her in the street. Ms. Abst's offense: trying to plant 400 trees in the area. "I had no idea that cleanliness, beauty and safety could get people so riled up," the 58-year-old says.
In San Francisco's Tenderloin, residents aren't fighting the usual gentrification battle over displacing low-income families. Instead, they are fighting for the neighborhood's gritty ambience.
Often described by tourist guides as San Francisco's worst neighborhood, the Tenderloin has for years been a gathering point for pimps, drug addicts and transvestites and transgender residents, some of whom work as prostitutes. Some residents say that's what gives the Tenderloin its personality and makes it a crucial piece of San Francisco's diverse cityscape. Cleanup efforts, these residents contend, threaten to destroy an atmosphere that welcomes people on the fringe of society, who otherwise could find no refuge. And it distracts from the issues the neighborhood really cares about, such as safety for sex workers and affordable housing.
"This was a place where people who don't fit in, the ostracized and cast-off, could find a place of their own," says Tenderloin resident Matt Bernstein Sycamore, a former prostitute and now a member of a local gay activist group called Gay Shame. The group, which was behind the "wanted" posters that targeted Ms. Abst and her tree-planting campaign, has been joined by other neighborhood activists in efforts to combat what it calls a "sanitized vision for the future."
Mr. Sycamore, a sometime club host who is also known by his drag-queen name, Mary Hedgefunds, says he has now moved out of his one-bedroom Tenderloin rental because the neighborhood is no longer a place where he wants to live.
At least one city official is sympathetic to the local activists' cause. "Yes, people are addicted to drugs and, yes, there's homelessness," says Chris Daly, a Democrat who represents the Tenderloin district on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, the city's legislative branch. But "why shouldn't these people have a place of their own?" Mr. Daly, a proponent of affordable housing, has steered funding to nonprofit social services and tenant-protection programs for the area.
The Tenderloin is a 20-square-block area sandwiched between downtown and the tony neighborhoods of Pacific Heights and Russian Hill. It bears the old name of a district in Manhattan, where patrolling cops in the early 1900s who profited from extortion could afford the choicest cuts of meat. In the 1970s, Polk Street, the main thoroughfare of San Francisco's Tenderloin, became a cluster of sex shops, spurred by the area's cheap rents.
In recent years, with the city reeling from some of the nation's highest housing costs, professionals like Ms. Abst have also eyed the area's affordable real estate. And they are remaking the district. Along the Tenderloin's western edge, chic new digs are replacing the dives and hangouts that catered to sex workers. The Polk Gulch Saloon, where transgender patrons and drag queens once congregated, is now the Lush Lounge, serving watermelon martinis to an upscale clientele. The Giraffe, a working-class gay bar since the 1970s, is now Hemlock, a venue for rock and punk bands that attracts the college crowd.
The changes are anathema to Daisy Anarchy (her real name, she says), who heads the local Sex Workers Organized for Labor and Civil Rights, a labor union. The 42-year-old retired stripper says that with all the recent upgrades, transgender residents of all professions have been increasingly harassed.
Ms. Anarchy says she frequently consults with Mr. Sycamore to figure out ways to stop beautification efforts. She attends neighborhood meetings held by the likes of Ms. Abst in order to disrupt the gatherings, loudly seeking to refocus the proceedings on her agenda of rights for sex workers. "I'm giving voice to the voiceless," Ms. Anarchy says.
Some Tenderloin traditional residents like the changes. Tamara Ching, a transgender former prostitute who has lived in the Tenderloin for 13 years, says she is sick of the brazen drug use in public areas, and welcomes the improvements. "Honey, yes, we got drug dealers, crazy people and prostitutes with razors in their purses," says the 57-year-old. "Change is good, as long as tolerance remains."
When Ms. Abst, the architecture-firm owner, moved to Polk Street in 1999, she knew the neighborhood's reputation. But she persisted because of the affordable building she found. She and her husband turned the building's ground floor into an office for their firm, Case Plus Abst Architects; the upstairs loft became their living space.
But by 2002, Ms. Abst was weary of the patrons of the neighboring homeless shelter, who she says often used drugs in an alley between the buildings and treated her doorway as a restroom. That year, she created the Lower Polk Neighbors community organization. Comprising 35 residents and business owners, the group successfully petitioned the city for more street cleaning and pushed to shut down a needle-exchange program operated by a nonprofit out of the alley.
Last year, Lower Polk Neighbors began implementing a plan to plant 400 trees around the Tenderloin's western edge, a largely treeless area rife with drug sales. Ms. Abst enlisted a local organization for homeless youth to get the program started, paying each kid $6 a day. The first project: plant two palm trees in front of her own building. Ms. Abst, whose group has planted 26 trees so far, says her cleanup efforts will ultimately benefit the whole neighborhood. "It needed to be done," she says. "It was like the city had forgotten about this neighborhood. It was filthy."
But the tree campaign struck a sour note at Gay Shame. The youths were hired "to do grunt work, and what they should be learning is computer skills or learning how to be an architect, not planting palm trees," fumes Mr. Sycamore. "It's exploitation."
By March of last year, "wanted" posters and pamphlets were circulating featuring Ms. Abst's smiling face and accusing her of "forcing homeless youth into the planting of palm trees." The poster encouraged residents to call a phone number if they spotted her. The number was fictitious, but Ms. Abst says the posters frightened her and focused a lot of negative attention on her in the neighborhood.
Mr. Sycamore says the poster was meant as a "prank," and he isn't sorry. He says his organization's most recent meeting to strategize, in May, didn't result in action. But the group is still looking for new ways to capitalize on the attention drummed up by the poster campaign.
Ms. Abst says she isn't giving up. Her organization is building alliances with other community groups to help clean up the neighborhood. "I've caught hell for trying to do something about" the neighborhood's grime, she says. But "I'm fine with that."
First Published October 24, 2006 12:00 am