An inconvenient ruling keeps one San Fran area the way the locals like it, writes Peg Fong.

There is a fine line separating San Francisco's high-paid tech workers in one of the world's richest cities from residents who live in its poorest neighbourhood, and according to some people, that's the line to the washroom.

No neighbourhood in as prime a location as the Tenderloin should have been able to stave off gentrification for as long as it has. But part of the Tenderloin's charm — and some say its curse — is that it has long defied any attempts to upscale its gritty shops, grimy apartments or even clean up its streets.

"Am I afraid there will be tech workers kicking out residents who live here?" asks long-time Tenderloin tour guide Del Seymour — often referred to as the unofficial mayor of the neighbourhood. "Not at all.

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As desperate as these workers are for housing in San Francisco, the truth is when you're making $100,000 a year, you're going to expect to have your own toilet."

Pit stop: In spite of proximity to Google and Apple, there aren't many tech workers in Tenderloin. Photo / Getty Images
Pit stop: In spite of proximity to Google and Apple, there aren't many tech workers in Tenderloin. Photo / Getty Images

Most of the housing available in the Tenderloin is in protected historic buildings where updates and refurbishments aren't permitted. In these buildings, there's usually just one bathroom per floor, forcing residents to share the facilities. The lack of private toilets, by Seymour's reckoning, has kept the neighbourhood free from market housing for workers in the tech sector.

In San Francisco, the richest city in the US by median household income, a single person who earns US$82,000 ($120,000) qualifies as low-income; for a family of four, that threshold is US$117,000 a year.

There aren't many tech workers living in The Tenderloin, despite the neighbourhood being a short distance away from the headquarters of some of the world's most recognisable brands, including Apple and Google.

Instead here, there's still room for immigrants to begin their American dreams, space for artists to create and for activists to advocate and agitate. For Fernando Pujals, who works at the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, and a transplant from Florida, his neighbourhood may be the last place in San Francisco where no one is transfixed with their phone screens or wearing headphones.

"People say hello here and if you begin a conversation, there are conversations back."

Visitors to San Francisco will always check out the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman's Wharf but most miss the Tenderloin.

"It's not for every traveller coming to San Francisco. They may read that it's dirty or gritty and dangerous," says Pujals. "The traveller who comes here is slightly adventurous. They'll find this is a place where there are children and seniors and families and this is the heart of San Francisco."

The Tenderloin has long had a raucous history as the vice area of San Francisco, with its gambling dens, speakeasies and bordellos. The name was given to the neighbourhood reportedly by an on-the-take police sergeant assigned to vice duties in the early part of the 20th century. As a vice cop in the Tenderloin, the sergeant could leave his hamburger-days behind. Instead, he declared, he would be paid by slabs of tenderloin.

The vegan special is the most popular dish at one of the neighbourhood's most beloved restaurants. Former cab driver Elias Shawel opened Tadu, named after his grandmother, after he got tired of telling passengers that there weren't any good Ethiopian restaurants around.

The vegan combo of collard greens and chickpeas, cooked with tomatoes, is a favourite of even meat lovers, says Shawel, who runs the restaurant with his wife Nani Tsegaye. The family, who immigrated to the US from Ethiopia a decade ago could afford to start their 10-table restaurant only because they received a community grant and could house the restaurant in a building owned by a non-profit organisation.

"The Tenderloin is special to me because it is America but it also reminds me of Africa," says Shawel.

"The diversity here, the look and the excitement around, it's just like being in Africa."

Walk down any street in the Tenderloin and the language heard could be Nepali or Vietnamese or Spanish and the food found in family restaurants come from anywhere from Yemen to Sudan to Cambodia.

The Tenderloin isn't all scrappy grit, completely sealed off by the grandeur and the wealth that dominates San Francisco's other neighbourhoods.

The Phoenix Hotel, with its themed rooms from the 1950s, is where you can channel your rock-star fantasies with a courtyard pool. If jazz is more to your liking, the Tenderloin was once the home of the Blackhawk Jazz Club where, for 14 years the greats, including Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk performed and recorded before it shut down in 1963 when musical tastes changed. Across the street, on the corner of Turk St and Hyde St, the recording studio Wally Heider Studios opened up in 1969. The Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all recorded there before that studio shut down in 1980.

These days, the Black Cat Jazz on Eddy St is where to go for cocktails and live jazz. A surprise guest may appear to join top performers from around the world. Recently, Golden State Warriors all-star and MVP Steph Curry went on stage with a tambourine while his wife, Ayesha Curry, a restaurateur, picked up a five-string bass for a raucous jam with a band.

If serenity and quiet are more your scene, the Tenderloin also has surprising pockets of tranquillity. The Onsen, also on Eddy St, is a restaurant and Japanese-style bathhouse in an old brick building. Visitors can have a communal soak, then dine on miso ginger soup with poached egg and chilled somen noodles with smoked white soy and pickles.

Flower power: In a city with such high costs per square-metre, the Tenderloin Peoples' Garden is a breath of fresh air. Photo / Getty Images
Flower power: In a city with such high costs per square-metre, the Tenderloin Peoples' Garden is a breath of fresh air. Photo / Getty Images

Co-owner Caroline Smith said the Tenderloin is the perfect location for Onsen, which opened in 2016.
"We really felt welcomed by the tight-knit community here," she said.

The former Cohen Alley between Leavenworth and Hyde had long been a cesspool in the neighbourhood with open use of illicit drugs. Over the years, the area was revived then reclaimed as one of the Tenderloin's few community open spaces. Today, planted trees and gardens have transformed the alley into the Tenderloin's version of a national forest with colourful murals on exterior walls and outdoor performances

PianoFight, a multipurpose venue for theatre for sketch comedy and live acts on Taylor St, runs regular shows including the largest audience judge theatre competition in the country.

"There's diversity here you won't find anywhere else in San Francisco, in terms of socio economics, ethnicity, view points and creative wants and needs. It's truly all over the map. You can take a tour of the world here," says PianoFight co-founder Rob Ready.

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