Affectionately nicknamed the ‘Loin, San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, bordered by Union Square on the east and the Civic Center on the west, and Mission Street on the south, Pine Street on the north, is one of the most densely populated areas in the city. Over 30,000 people are crowded into 60 square blocks. Many of the people are homeless. A large number of Tenderloin dwellers are outlaw types. The area has always been a magnet for drug dealers, prostitutes, hustlers and people who like to walk on the wild side. It has a history of vice—gamblers, bootleggers, speakeasies and pornographic movie houses. In fact, the famous Tessie Wall opened her first brothel in the ‘Loin at 211 O’Farrell Street in 1898.
There is an upside to the Tenderloin’s bad reputation. It is the one area of San Francisco that has not succumbed to gentrification and rents have not skyrocketed. This has brought in new immigrants including Indians, Arabs, Vietnamese, Chinese and Moroccans. Many of these newcomers have opened restaurants making the Tenderloin a good place to find authentic Southeast Asian food. Other inhabitants include African-Americans, Latinos, Filipinos and Russians. The large migration of Vietnamese prompted the city to designate a section of the Tenderloin as “Little Saigon.”
The architecture of the area is similar to working class neighborhoods in mid west cities consisting of three and four-story buildings with exterior fire escapes dangling from the walls. It is said these buildings house the world’s largest collection of single-room occupancy hotels
The Tenderloin’s claim to fame is that it is the most dangerous district in San Francisco. However, it can also claim some famous inhabitants. Academy Award winning director Frank Capra lived in the Drake Hotel in the 1920s. The Cadillac Hotel was home to Jerry Garcia. Mohammed Ali hung out in the Tenderloin. Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Gary Mulligan played at The Black Hawk in the ‘60s. Dive bars and night spots abound in the neighborhood along with O’Farrell’s the Bay Area’s most famous strip joint. The historic gay bar, Aunt Charlie’s still exists today.
The Tenderloin is worth a visit, but you may not want to pass through it alone at night.
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