The famous tenderloin. It is the symbol of so many problems that plague San Francisco. Homelessness, drug overdoses, retail theft, general filth.
But I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite parts of town.
The Tenderloin reminds me of 1980s New York, neglected, unsanitized, at the intersection of Bleecker and Bowery. There are sections of pavement in the Tenderloin where you have to hold your breath and close your eyes.
At the same time, there’s probably no other place in town where it’s easier to strike up a conversation. Life takes place on the streets at the Tenderloin, not locked behind closed doors. The neighborhood has welcomed waves of immigrant families from countries ranging from Vietnam to Yemen. There are art galleries holed in the wall. Dive bars. And I challenge anyone to find better Thai food in California than in the restaurants at the Tenderloin. (My favorites: Lapats Thai Noodles Bar, Zen Yai, Lers Ros Thai.)
Two weeks ago, I took a walk in the Tenderloin with Jonathan Carver Moore, owner of an art gallery on Market Street, at the edge of the neighborhood. Moore shares my fascination with the net and he has already shown around.
“I love leaning into the field,” Moore said.
I interviewed Moore for a retrospective, published last week, on my seven years as San Francisco bureau chief for the New York Times. I was looking for signs of rebirth in the city and saw green sprouts in the art galleries, shops and restaurants we visited.
“Art is going to save San Francisco,” Moore said.
One August afternoon, when the heat was in the triple digits across most of the United States, it was 68 degrees in the Tenderloin. Moore introduced me to John Vochatzer, who runs a gallery, Calamity Fair, which periodically hosts gigs by local punk bands.
Vochatzer also helps organize an art walk through the Tenderloin on the first Thursday of each month, a self-guided tour of the neighborhood’s art galleries and performance spaces. He spoke of an optimism he hadn’t detected in years, in part because apartment and store rents had fallen.
“Artists, musicians and weirdos can afford this place again,” he said. “For the first time in years, I’m meeting artists who are moving here for the art scene.”
Vochatzer said that before the pandemic, even in the most deprived neighborhoods of the Tenderloin, one could not find an apartment for less than $2,000 a month. “Now I know a lot of people who got decent sized studios for $1,200,” Vochatzer said.
I met Debra Walker, an artist who lived through the boom and bust cycles of the city, and asked her about it.
“Wealth is like an inflating balloon in San Francisco,” she told me. “When it deflates, as it does now, it gives the art more room, more room to breathe.” The artist collective where she lives and works in the city recently renewed its lease.
I know what some readers are thinking: what is this guy going to write next week, an ode to Skid Row? The tenderloin, I admit, is not for everyone.
In a neighborhood with so many problems, it might be naive to think that he will be a driving force in the revitalization of San Francisco. Crime could spiral out of control. Open-air drug deals on street corners in Tenderloin could spawn even more violence. And in the past two years alone, a dozen Vietnamese restaurants that depended on customers from nearby City Hall, courthouses and federal offices have closed, victims of work-from-home policies that kept customers away. .
But for the first time in a long time, an opportunity seems to present itself.
Thomas Fuller is now a Page One correspondent for the New York Times, working on the biggest stories of the moment, and will continue to write about Northern California. Heather Knight will debut next week as new San Francisco bureau chief for the Times.
where we travel
Today’s tip comes from Jessica Gorman, who recommends an oddity in San Bernardino County:
“My partner and I recently took a trip to SoCal for a wedding. We had free time, so a friend of ours told us to visit this abandoned Egyptian building in Chino Hills. Apparently it was to be an Egyptian themed restaurant and was closed in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 (spooky vibe, of course). It’s in the middle of a random mall, next to the highway but, oddly enough, it’s kind of magical. There, I kept imagining that it was once someone’s dream. I thought it was worth seeing – it was like an artifact of the pandemic. Oh, and then you can eat some (but it won’t be Egyptian food).
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
And before leaving, some good news
The Times recently published reader-submitted romance stories no longer than 100 words. I thought I’d end today’s newsletter with this lovely letter from Joseph Bennett:
In July 2000, San Diego Pride held a massive commitment ceremony for several dozen same-sex couples. Single, I witnessed all the love. “Please turn to your partner and repeat these vows,” the minister said. On a whim, I turned to the handsome stranger next to me. “Do you want to do this?” I asked. He said yes. We held hands and repeated the vows. The last was: “I promise to support you until you reach your highest potential.” Then we kissed and Eli asked, “Now that we’re married, what’s your name?” It has now been 23 wonderful years since we kept our promise.
Thanks for reading. We will be back tomorrow.
PS Here today’s mini crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla, Briana Scalia, Maia Coleman and Kellina Moore contributed to California Today. You can join the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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