Part 2 — Danger as ambience: The gang over at Spruce want to take a walk on the wild side (among other items we might want to take a long look at.)

So let’s envisage an alternate outcome for the Saratoga building’s vacancies and others like it throughout the Tenderloin.

The motif for site-usage should be unhesitatingly straightforward: The search for investment that enables the full participation of the residents of the area. These investment ideas ought to be initiated by TL residents, ideally, and of necessity staffed by them. And more: the approach incorporates the intention of conferring a designation of economic autonomy and sovereignty to the district.

The kicker, of course, is nothing less than the belief in the shocking notion that poor and low-income people can eviscerate the stigma of welfare dependency, and can do so by actually creating wealth. And that the ensuing financial gains be distributed primarily as wages and be spent by its resident-workers in similarly indigenous commercial ventures in the community. Obviously implied in all this is the idea of cooperatives; starting on the shop floor and combining as networked co-op entities, and finally coalescing as a producers’ business-district confederation, on as stringent a labor, social, and environmental standards-of-practice basis as is feasible.

* * * *

I’m visualizing one group in particular rightfully inhabiting Neveo Mosser’s Post and Larkin space. I go back with this group a long ways.

I worked out of Hospitality House as a community organizer in the late 1960s, starting three months after the facility opened. About that time someone anonymously contributed a large pallet of art supplies. Within days the brushes and clay had found the hands of runaways, drug addicts, gays and gender-transitioners, and the assorted traumatized, as the room became a cathedral-like respite from the streets. I remember thinking how remarkable the work was; untutored young people drawing solely upon instinct, dreams and the pain of their lives.

They’ve endured from that seedbed, these artists. And over the years the Hospitality House Community Arts Program has been accorded its due recognition.

Today there are some 300 artists living in the Tenderloin, mainly in the SROs. They display their work through the various CAP shows, one of which is the yearly greeting card sale.

I’ve wondered for a long time why that greeting card event hasn’t been rolled into a formal greeting card business. The pool of artistic talent in the Tenderloin is enormous, and of proven quality. And the scope of the operation needn’t be only local. There’s no reason why with an online presence it couldn’t easily go national and worldwide.

As a first step to that occurring, there are ample resources at hand. Among them, for instance, former mayors who regularly exhibit a willingness to be useful, and a number of prominent locals with the pedigree for championing worthy causes.

The novelist Danielle Steele chaired Hospitality House’s annual auction a few years ago. One can readily imagine the impact of Steele and her Pacific Heights friends opening their Rolodexes as Park Avenue, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, Bel Air, Belgravia and 16th Arrondissement answering machines record and herald the news: We have hundreds of terrific artists in our Tenderloin district who live in 8×10 foot rooms on very low incomes or at a subsistence level. Many of them have been here for years enduring the grime and the hopelessness. And now they’re starting a greeting card business. The city has stepped in and helped them lease a building long-term. The artists will run it themselves and share the profits and pay the bills. This isn’t a charity case. It’s exactly the opposite. And that’s the whole point. They intend to turn their lives around. And in the process they hope to turn their neighborhood around, too.

* * * *

The city’s Central Market/Tenderloin Strategy, published last month, speaks rather emphatically about the need for business investment and workforce development in that target area. The plan, an update of Mayor Lee’s 2011 Central Market Economic Strategy, is a belated acknowledgment of the interdependence of Sixth Street and the Tenderloin with mid-Market.

To date, the city’s preoccupation with Central Market is obvious: the tax-break windfall to the tech companies, and the subsequent 12,000 jobs, 5,600 housing units and new arts and business ventures opening along Market and the boundary of the Tenderloin. There was clearly an inevitability to the Turk/Taylor area commercial buildup once the tech onslaught began, as the expected spillover into the eastern Tenderloin will likely comprise an amalgam of tech, tourists and patrons of the new theaters on Market.

How willing the city is to venture deeply into the remainder of Tenderloin, however, remains to be seen. What does its vision of “shared prosperity” entail, and how does it foresee that playing out within this demographic? Will it rely on conceptually static, rote examples for fostering development and a renewed prosperity there, or is it truly prepared to innovate, to risk, given the reality of the staggering income disparity between the populations of Central Market and the historic Tenderloin? What are the undergirding cultural assumptions for this hoped-for “mixed-income” eventuality? How might that proceed day-to-day, and what sort of long-term prospects does it offer?

Lots of questions. Ones we need to be pondering. At stake is the city’s last affordable neighborhood. And if that neighborhood goes, you can be sure, so goes any remaining notion of the San Francisco that’s been a welcoming beacon for successive generations arriving here to build a life.

* * * *

As we’ve come to learn, real estate and commercial interests aren’t the slightest bit shy about encroaching on the urban landscapes they once couldn’t wait to flee. They approach this new “wilderness” from the outside-in, nibbling at the borders, in much the same way our pioneering forebears in their transcontinental expeditions executed a bison hunt: work the outside edges in hopes the herd doesn’t stampede.

Larkin St. is the perfect example. Only the two blocks below Geary stand between the ten businesses in Little Saigon that have lost their leases or been priced out during the past year from linking up with the similarly transformed northern end of the corridor where the Spruce group will implant.

A block south of the Saratoga in Geary’s 800 block can be found two recently opened establishments featuring the now–de rigueur wide windows, impeccably finished woods and soft, precise lighting. The wine bar Tender dispenses 21 wines via brass taps and offers an assortment of cheeses and charcuterie which can be-enjoyed on red tufted-leather banquettes in its upstairs lounge. Owner Miriam Lipton describes her place as one “pouring outstanding grape on tap for patrons in the raw but ripe Tenderloin.”

The adjoining restaurant, Huxley, brings veterans of Saison, Bar Agricole and Outerlands to its kitchen. Diners can savor a rabbit entrée for $42, a price the SF Chronicle’s Michael Bauer felt was “justified,” although it “[made] me wonder how it will play to the neighborhood crowd.” Foie gras is also frequently available, and those at the window tables are graced with a superb view of people expressing their good fortune at the varied hand-me-downs they’ve found at the Goodwill outlet next door.

Both Tender and Huxley have an agreement for bread deliveries from Jane, a recent addition to Larkin a half-block below the Saratoga. The breakfast/lunch café’s founder and chef Amanda Michael — like Spruce’s Tim Stannard, a native San Franciscan — opened her flagship Jane on Upper Fillmore in 2011 and has seen it become touted as a new power lunch venue, frequented by the likes of Stanlee Gatti, Apple and Google execs and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. Michael’s “on-trend” white-tiled-walls industrial-chic Larkin location, opened 15 months ago, sits mid-block and its side window faces the Cedar Street alley. As a consequence, customers dawdling over their $9 bowls of granola and $11 salads are prone to notice the block’s homeless using the alley to urinate. One Yelp reviewer offered this helpful bit of advice to anyone thinking of visiting the cafe: “There are … tons of homeless people and don’t be alarmed if you see someone staring right back at you. Maybe distract yourself with their beautiful indoor mural instead. Or … you could also talk to your companion.”

This attitudinal seepage into the neighborhood certainly ought to have been predictable. It’s reflective of the financial and cultural assumptions that have driven the past ten years’ buildout of high-end condos along Van Ness (and beyond) and that typify the classic elements of follow-on boundary erosion: calculating, furtive, insidious, and ultimately destabilizing. As these restaurants and clubs pop up, avidly proclaiming their own preciousness, they’re abetted by landlords within the targeted area salivating over the financial accrual from a more prosperous commercial tenant base. In the attempt to attract a tonier caliber of tenant, some landlords offer below-market-rate initial leases, betting on a turnabout for the neighborhood and the promise of much higher rates for subsequent leases.

The affluent, peering across the other side of the line, invariably find the mix of hipness and menace there to be alluring enough to want to incorporate it as another of their leisure-time playgrounds, simultaneously re-enforcing the conviction that they can go anyplace they want and lay claim to it.

The victim, in this instance, is mainly the Vietnamese community and those first immigrant waves from the 1970s and 1980s who founded small businesses and restaurants along lower Larkin as their sole means of surviving. Despite lacking the necessary language skills and having to cram large families into studio apartments, they witnessed their neighborhood flourish over the decades as their children navigated the alien streets, became acculturated and achieved in ways that no one could possibly have imagined. By any measure, Little Saigon has been the most prominent example of the Tenderloin’s post-1970 heritage, and the past year’s displacements seem to signal the end of an era.

Given the plethora of available resources in the Strategic plan, one would be led to believe that Little Saigon’s denouement is far from imminent. Larkin St., designated as Action Zone H in the plan — one of the Tenderloin’s nine such zones — has tasked a point person to coordinate resource programs for multilingual small business retention and stabilization, lease/legal assistance, financing, marketing, relocation funding, opportunities to acquire master leasing, and policy solutions to ensure that small businesses in the zone “stay and grow.”

The plan mandates tracking the implementation of those objectives, and will publish timely Report Cards from each zone. If you were perhaps wondering if anyone in the city was responsible for monitoring this area before the Zone H point person was assigned — and were curious about where that person might have been for the past year — in due course the report will let us know, presumably. Doubtless the report will also detail the city’s response to last month’s announcement from developer JS Sullivan that the company intends to raze a building on one of those two blocks below Geary and construct an eight-story, 42-condo complex with 22 parking spaces and 1,400 feet
of retail space made available by the elimination of the three previous businesses. It appears that the Van Ness corridor mindset is poised to make a great leap forward. Or westward, to be properly specific.

* * * *

It’s of some significant interest that from one quarter of the Tenderloin — the upper echelons of the nonprofit sector, in fact — comes the insistent contention that the changes we are currently witnessing don’t qualify as gentrification. The argument goes that since the wealthy aren’t interested in living in the studios or one-bedroom apartments that predominate the non-SRO housing stock, the word isn’t applicable. Moreover, the protected status accorded three-fourths of the Tenderloin’s units has minimized tenant vacancies and attempts at eviction.

In effect, we can only infer from that premise that the word and what it conveys is essentially meaningless in the Tenderloin; for commercial displacement, as well. Business owners affected by turnovers to wealthier tenants are thus entitled to little more than a cursory, but surely polite, “Gee, tough luck, pal.” Of course, the added component of such situations is the stark reality that if you live and work in this city and have a business taken out from under you, you’re not likely to be housed here much longer.

In observing the changeover in Tenderloin commercial sites, we’re forced to conclude that since gentrification has no meaning here, whatever re-appears in those storefronts is fine. No problem. Just fill them up. With whomever. Disregard whether or not they’re truly neighborhood-serving. Let it slide. Brighten things up. Make it prettier. Make it smell better. Just end the long scourge of disinvestment. Implore them and they will come appears to be the mantra. And indeed they have, as we’ve seen.

I’m not talking about someone like Roy Choi. As Choi launches his Loco’l restaurant and competes head-to-head against the fast food chains at their price point and with superior food, he’ll provide even the lowest-income Tenderloin resident the chance for a once or twice a month celebratory meal in a setting graciously unlike the usual sterility of a fast-food venue. That bequeathing of dignity would understandably come naturally to Choi. He grew up in environments like the ’Loin, and he’s evidently here to give back. Of even greater import, the cooking school he’ll be incorporating into the operation offers the prospect that those kids will emerge from those lessons and carry their dreams back into the neighborhood, dedicated to what their own storefronts could deliver: dispensing quality food, creating wealth but remaining conscious of the necessity for affordability and scale, hiring from the neighborhood and drawing strength from the history, tradition and inherent generosity of the people of these long-suffering 33 city blocks.

I see almost none of that sort of gesture from this batch of recent newcomers to the commerce of the district. What has been conspicuously in evidence instead are the attitudes of proprietors who’ve previously made their mark elsewhere, to considerable acclaim and monetary gain, and who feel impelled to push the envelope. In the context of their presence in the Tenderloin, they face off against a community with negligible disposable income, folks who will never be able to enter their premises and taste their food, but who will look on from the outside, observing the kicky rituals of slumming and voyeurism, self-promoting upscale self-absorption versus “ the other,” locked in a potentially endless, odious and poisonous Dickensian embrace.

Let this stuff continue and flourish and any notions and exquisitely calibrated official schematics we may have about ameliorating the Tenderloin’s longstanding and persistent problems will remain a pipe dream. Count on it.

* * * *

So what might the remedies be, becomes the question. For starters, a re-visiting of our CAP artists at their humming Saratoga space seems to be in order (we’ll speak of that as a reality since it’s so eminently well-deserved). The aspects of their orientation — hiring from within the Tenderloin, co-op/collective profit sharing, eco-friendly production, and collaborative and mutually supportive business contacts throughout the district — provide us a model for small business development that’s proactive, “paintbrush ready,” and enthusiastic.

As I read the brochure-resplendent Strategic plan, it comes across as dense with detail, its abundant listings of resources often overlapping and duplicative among the fiefdoms within the bureaucracy and its external partners. The word “action” is peppered throughout the document, but its application tends almost totally to safety and beautification projects, and low-income resourcing. Although economic development is dubbed “a priority,” the impression you get is of a strategy limited to city and community groups competing with each other, each with their own job-search information and procedures and little else.

The overall effect in terms of small business creation in the Tenderloin is, unfortunately, one of supplication: as if waiting, sitting back, relying on someone to approach you could possibly prove to be successful. As you read the data on the commercial vacancy rate, the nub of the issue becomes clear and glaring: vacancies in the Tenderloin have plummeted from 21% to 4% during the past four years, and only slightly more than 100 remain. Yes, it’s all about infrastructure and infill and who controls it; and that fact will largely determine the economic future of the Tenderloin.

Fortunately, as was noted earlier with our CAP artists, ample resources are at hand to intercede and address the problem. In this case, Mayor Lee himself can be expected to step nimbly to the fore. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us; the mayor’s raft of programs and proposals dealing with neighborhood investment and the revival of manufacturing should have furnished the necessary clues.

In preparing to address the situation in the Tenderloin, one can imagine the mayor sitting down for a long chat with, say, Willie Brown. I can almost hear it now: “Willie, I have a job for you, if you’re interested. It’s a big job, one of the toughest the city’s ever faced, and I think you’re the man who can get it done. First, you’ll need to change your last name from Brown to Loman, because you’ll be going door to door in the Tenderloin, on a ‘shave and a shoeshine’, and you’ll also be carrying authorization from the city and its partners to ask building owners down there how much they want for their properties. If I could, I’d give you permission to whip out a checkbook and cut deals right on the spot. … You’re laughing. You like the Loman thing, don’t you. Yeah, it’s funny, but to do it right that’s the way it has to be done. Mixing that approach with the fact that you’re well known, should get us results. You’ll need to concentrate on the largest commercial buildings. Auto repair shops and garages, for instance. We don’t want to see a former repair shop ever again become a holistic spa, like what happened on Eddy St. last year. Any workers that are displaced, we’ll find jobs for them, with no loss in salary, and we’ll do it immediately. And I’m certainly not forgetting those 100 or so remaining rental vacancies down there. Of course we want them, that’s the primary objective; every last one of those leases if it’s humanly possible, with or without the buildings that go along with them. We want to make the infrastructure of the Tenderloin ours. It’s that simple. Secure it. Hold it. Make sure it only goes to companies that are right for the community. Create a one-stop intake process and invite businesses to make their pitch. Stipulate that what goes into these storefronts has a workforce drawn from the Tenderloin. Seek out the wealth of hidden talent there and enable it to prosper. Market that. Brand it. Maybe call it ‘Tenderloin Industries: living, working, producing, spending — right here’. I recently created a Small Sites Acquisition Program to protect endangered housing. Now, I want a Work Sites Protection Program to protect the Tenderloin. … So there you have it, Willie. It won’t be easy to save this neighborhood, but I’ll just assume you’re in. Keep your head up down there. I know you’ll keep your hat on.”

I must say, in hearing this from Mayor Lee I would seriously have to consider voting for the man. I mean, the misgivings I had about the city’s willingness to delve into the deep recesses of the Tenderloin now seem so … so incredibly wrongheaded. What could I possibly have been thinking?

* * * *

Let me finish up here by mentioning a couple of young men who represent the sort of entrepreneurs Mayor Lee’s budding economic development intake-system should be on the lookout for.

Justin Aguinaldo is a bike builder. From 2010 to 2012 he operated the Bamboo Bike Shop in the Tenderloin, conducting classes for people who wanted to build their own bikes, until the company’s N.Y. office began to cut costs and decided that the SF shop was expendable.

While he was still in business, Aguinaldo briefly traveled to Ghana with his two N.Y. partners to train bike builders and oversee the construction of a bike factory. That factory, run by the Ghanaians, produced 20,000 bikes the following year.

Now back in the city, he’s interested in bicycle production in the Tenderloin again. He has since sourced a superior type of bamboo that he will use in his 16-lb. single-speed basic model. “These bikes are as strong as steel and will last forever,” he says.

Aguinaldo is looking for 7,000 to 8,000 sq. ft. of space, and at a two-shift full-production run could accommodate some 30 builders and an undetermined number of marketing, HR and accounting personnel. He would hire from the Tenderloin, operate as a cooperative, and utilize environmentally friendly production techniques. He will also include a bike-building shop in the factory for low-income locals who can’t afford to purchase a bike, providing them access to tools and materials and some initial supervision.

He says he can train someone to be basically proficient in two weeks and two frames, and can train a pro in one month or four to six frames.

Julian Dash is the owner of Holy Stitch, an apparel business in the Tenderloin. He specializes in denim and wants to expand his production run. He’s looking for around 8,000 sq. ft. in the area and anticipates that in time he can employ 50-75 people in a profit-sharing arrangement and turn out 150 pairs of jeans a day. His factory will be a seed-to-finished-product operation, and he has recently sourced his own cotton supply in Sonoma.

He holds jeans-making classes for neighborhood residents — “social entrepreneurship” he terms it — and conducts them as both on-the-job training for his employees, and general skills workshops for those just entering he workforce. Kids in the neighborhood who can’t afford to buy a pair of his jeans, can come in and make them themselves.

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