A new mural is taking shape in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, at the corner of Jones and Golden Gate, diagonally across from St. Anthony’s Dining Room where hundreds line up every day for a hot meal. Muralist Mona Caron and Project Manager LisaRuth Elliott can be found on scaffolds these days, grabbing the good weather when they can to paint on a nondescript building housing a local “sewing company.” In this first of two parts, I talked with LisaRuth Elliott about her experience with the street scene in the Tenderloin. In part two, I’ll explore Mona Caron’s murals from her well-known Bike Mural on Duboce and the Market Street Railway mural on Church, to her recent Noe Valley diptych, all of which make streets and transit central themes.
The Jones/Golden Gate mural is still in progress and thus, is not yet easy to describe in terms of its final “meaning.” (Muralist Caron wants you to come by and see it in progress, rather than have images provided here!) The project was instigated by the Community Benefit District (CBD), a private organization comprised of local businesses and residents, dedicated to improving the neighborhood.
Elliott describes the CBD this way:
“In neighborhoods like Noe Valley or the Castro [CBDs are] more oriented towards superficial beautification. But here in the Tenderloin it seems to be pretty effective in bringing people together with the goal of bettering the neighborhood, but not at the expense of the people who already live here. The CBD is made up of people who were active in the tenant’s rights movement of the 1980s and others. They’re residents, business owners and all kinds of engaged people. They seem to be on a good track. I’ve been really impressed. They’re trying to stimulate free programming and arts and culture for the neighborhood.”
The Tenderloin has been a contested neighborhood for many years. Thirty-five years ago a movement emerged based largely on community service organizations, and the legacy of their efforts has been a small but vibrant network, including Hospitality House, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the Cadillac Hotel (where a new Tenderloin Museum will open in a year or so), and a great many new affordable family apartment buildings built by Glide Church, Mercy Housing, and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. The decades-old political effort halted the rampant conversion of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) into boutique tourist hotels, and preserved a central city neighborhood several steps short of fullscale gentrification.
That in turn has meant that street life in the Tenderloin remains rather different than many other parts of the city. For one thing, a large population of Southeast Asians settled here after the Vietnam War, in the southwestern parts of the neighborhood abutting Polk Gulch, not far from this new mural’s corner. Preceding their arrival, the neighborhood has long been a home to the poorest of San Franciscans. The SROs that still fill much of the area just north of Market Street house many elderly retirees living on pensions and general assistance, transients of various types, and a fair number of alcoholics and drug users. Also, St. Anthony’s and Glide Church are the last stop for many homeless before going hungry. Our intrepid muralists have been immersed in this street scene, a place many fear to tread.
“In past mural projects we’ve been in less populated areas, but also in areas where people didn’t really care what you were doing, they didn’t really interact, perhaps more affluent areas, where people don’t really talk to each other. Here people talk to you, they are very volatile—due to their economic situation, their state of mind, how tweaked out they are—just where they’re at in their space. We’ve noticed that it gets a lot more tense towards the end of the month.
“When we started looking at it this last summer, we were apprehensive about taking up part of that space and being in the spotlight. We have a Greek Chorus across the street, a line of people waiting for a meal at St. Anthony’s. If anybody’s going to be tracking us and charting our progress, and commenting on it, it would be them.
“As we work week by week in that neighborhood I am less apprehensive and way more interested in engaging with people. A comfortability is setting in, and we’re getting such great feedback from people, everybody! 80 percent of the people we talk with are new people that we haven’t talked with before, and they love it. We’re beginning to recognize faces and we’re definitely feeling more recognized there ourselves.”
Across Jones Street from the mural is 111 Jones, sort of an affordable housing castle, built by the Catholic Church’s Mercy Housing in the 1980s.
“In many ways, that building, and the other nonprofit housing in the neighborhood, is a product of the community mobilization of the 1980s. Neighborhood activists put non-profit housing on the agenda as a way to house the Tenderloin’s poor, and to ensure that they would continue to be able to live in their neighborhood. Yet few previous residents of the Tenderloin actually live in the 108 units at 111 Jones, and only three African-American families… The limitations of their work are also clear. For every [person] who managed to get a place in the sun in a building like 111 Jones, there are scores of who wait in soup lines for their meals and spend their nights in cheap welfare hotels or sleep in doorways on the street."
–Rob Waters and Wade Hudson (excerpted from "The Tenderloin: What Makes a Neighborhood" in Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics and Culture, City Lights Books 1998; online here in FoundSF.org)
"What’s really great about what she’s doing with the mural is that she’s doing a flow of time and how perceptions of the neighborhood can change over time. So we’re looking at this nondescript building that we came to initially, on an unhappy corner, not a lot of great stuff going on there, and we plunked down a colorful building that you can see from Market Street coming up, and from Jones and Golden Gate along the sides. Also people are–because it’s a talkative neighborhood—people are asking what’s going on. The woman from the CBD overheard some people standing in line at St. Anthony’s. One woman said flippantly ‘Ah, there goes the neighborhood!’ But she quickly retracted it and admitted it was a good thing."