• Connie L. Johnston

Escape from the Tenderloin

I’ve been back a couple of weeks from the American Association of Geographers conference in San Francisco and my post-conference weekend of relaxation there. I had not been to this both beautiful and troubling city in about two decades, and I wanted to reflect on this visit. I also want to beg the city’s forgiveness, in advance, for the less than lighthearted overall tenor of this piece. However, I want to say first that I see why it is easy for people to fall in love with San Francisco and the Bay area in general. When it is clear and beautiful, as it was during my visit, it is spectacular—saturated blue skies, glistening water all around, sweeping views from the top of cartoonishly steep hills. There are the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, hills ending abruptly in the water, abundant flowering plants, and lovely architecture. If one has the means to afford the ridiculously high real estate and rental prices, this would be a magical place to live.

My first visit to the city in the 1990s came with a warning to steer well clear of the “Tenderloin”, an area southwest of Chinatown and the Financial District, and roughly between Larkin, Geary, Mason, and Market Streets. This was where, I was told, one would find all manner of unsavory characters doing all manner of unsavory things. The area’s name and sketchy reputation, it is said, date from the first of half of the twentieth century, when police officers were offered better pay to work there. This better pay would allow them to buy better cuts of meat, such as tenderloin.

In the years since my first visit, I had heard and read that the Tenderloin had “cleaned up” a bit. When looking online for hotels for the conference, there were even quite a few nice looking ones now in the ‘Loin. Also, I’m a bit more “worldly”, if you will, than I was 20 or so years ago. I’ve both traveled and lived in areas where one has to exercise a bit of caution and have become, unfortunately, accustomed to encountering “the homeless”. With a budget that really didn’t allow for staying at one of the nice conference hotels in Union Square, and feeling better about the Tenderloin, given its at least partial transformation, I decided that staying in a hotel in this area would be fine. And it truly was. I never felt unsafe; I was never "harassed". What I wasn’t really expecting in the new-and-improved Tenderloin was the sheer number of people I saw who were living lives that are likely unimaginably foreign to anyone reading this.

I want to pause for a moment of clarity here before this essay starts to read like the generic recounting of a privileged, middle-class, white woman’s offended sense of delicacy. (If that’s what this actually is, I at least want to register that this is not my intent.) Or before it starts to read like a call to arms, resulting from a shocked sense of delicacy, that we the fortunate must *do* something, that we must now care. Of course, I am all for doing something and caring, but not because this situation was just recently so present to me. It goes without saying that it should be unacceptable that people, anywhere, live without homes and food and access to medical care, and my writing it here won’t make it more so.

For what it’s worth, what I want to get at here are some of the mundane details of my experience and suggest that these mundanities demonstrate disconnection—mine and yours--on a more profound level. I’ll start with human waste. On my walk from the BART (Bay Area Transit Authority) Civic Center stop up Hyde Street to my hotel on the morning of my arrival, I passed through several areas that smelled of urine and feces. Yes, this was unpleasant for me, but how much more so was having to take care of bodily functions on the street for the individuals that don’t have access to a bathroom. As I walked along, I noticed that there were wet spots and areas of smeared brown on the sidewalk. I tried to avoid stepping on and rolling my big, bright red, shiny Kenneth Cole suitcase’s spinner wheels through these areas, but this proved a bit tough—I did the best I could. Despite my best efforts, when I arrived at the hotel, I felt that (at a minimum) the soles of my shoes and my suitcase wheels were “contaminated”, and I cleaned both off with hand sanitizer. I later laughed with friends about how ridiculous it seemed for me to do that. Since that time, I have been thinking about how my point of connection with another human being’s desperate misfortune was through my soiled suitcase wheels, and that this later turned into something funny.

This brings me to my next mundanity—talking about these “others”. For me and probably anyone reading this, people such as those I encountered in the vicinity of my San Francisco hotel are an undifferentiated mass of the results of mental illness, drug addiction, various bad decisions, and/or multiple other varieties of misfortune. They make “us” uncomfortable and we all know the feeling of trying to just pass by on a city street without making eye contact, or to pretend that we didn’t hear a request for money or snide comment. They were the topic of conversation when I talked with folks about the Tenderloin and/or the location of my hotel. “Yes, I’ve felt somewhat uncomfortable in that area, but no, I haven’t felt unsafe.” “Fortunately, no one has approached me for money or harassed me.” Whether or not people on the streets in the Tenderloin were specifically mentioned, when I and others discussed how we felt in that area, they were implied. Or if someone described a particularly noteworthy or disturbing individual or act seen, still it was an unnamed piece of that larger group of others whose lives are so dramatically different from the rest of ours.

When my boyfriend joined me the weekend after the conference, he had booked us into a nice hotel in a nicer area, Nob Hill, just a few blocks north of the Tenderloin. I felt no need to sanitize my soles and suitcase wheels after coming in off the streets here. I lay down to rest in the spacious room with high ceilings and I, honestly, felt a small sense of relief. One of the fortunate, I had escaped the grime of the Tenderloin for my last few nights in San Francisco.

Connie is on the staff of The Coordinates Society.


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