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July 10, 1998

In the street

Ellis between Hyde and Leavenworth. The heart of the Tenderloin. "San Francisco's most notorious neighborhood," according to a recent guidebook, where "the streets are the dirtiest and most litter-strewn in the whole city and form a kind of base for the city's increasing numbers of homeless, who cram the area's soup kitchens and flophouses, while, between the poorhouses and the porn shops, prostitutes do a brisk trade."

I am sitting in the middle of the street, laughing heartily as a lanky comedian named Jonathan Taylor gently coerces members of the audience into astonishing activities in the service of one eagerly awaited "Chicken Man." It is early June, a cold gray day. The event is the fourth annual San Francisco Street Theatre Festival, the brainchild of Darryl Smith of the 509 Cultural Center (located nearby on Ellis) and Amy Christian of the Mission-based Wise Fool Community Arts.

Taylor looks endearingly ridiculous as he prances across the street in a red body suit and droopy bermuda shorts, his face somewhat obscured by a round red clown's nose. A large man wanders out to join him, offering to share first his half-smoked cigarette and then his quart bottle of beer. Taylor pauses, nonplused. He takes the bottle and, holding it aloft, breaks into a triumphant cakewalk as he leads the intruder back to the sidewalk. Once there, a frail-looking older man dressed all in black courteously escorts the new-found friend away from the scene.

Like the people who frequent it, this block is richly varied. Customers leaving the Serv-Well Market and Liquor Store (where the proffered beer came from) are confronted with the sight of dozens of laughing children climbing the monkey bars and racing on tricycles in the Children's Tenderloin Playground. In the middle of the block, imposing in its whiteness, stands the Senator Hotel, which offers Section 8 subsidized housing. Residents who climb up to the hotel's roof garden can look down on mural-lined Cohen Place, which --- it has been promised --- is soon to be transformed into a tiny garden oasis in midst of the unremitting pavement. If they're hungry, they can buy homemade samosas at the Taj Market or eat better-than-mom's sausage and eggs at the Nam Thanh Ellis Coffeeshop on the corner.

At the festival, the TeoKalli Aztec Dancers have just finished performing. The onlookers include a row of five small girls, who sat cross-legged, transfixed, as the group of men and women crouched and leaped in a complex configuration of demanding steps. The accompanying drumbeat reverberated off the nearby buildings and set listeners' chest cavities to vibrating. The tempo accelerated. The dancers increased their pace, ornate metallic costumes glittering as they moved and feathered headdresses swirling like the tendrils of a giant sea anemone.

The description in the guidebook is not wholly inaccurate. A lot of people --- some 25,000, or about 4 percent of the city's total population --- are crammed into the Tenderloin's 50 square blocks. The Department of Human Services ranks the number of CalWORKS families that live here (539, or 6.4 percent) fifth among San Francisco's neighborhoods. The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, which houses 1,200 families, estimates that 96 percent of its tenants live on less than half the median income for San Francisco as a whole.

The Tenderloin also lays claim to one of the highest crime rates in the city. According to the Police Department, so far in 1998 there have been 2 murders, 10 rapes, 177 robberies, and 124 cases of aggravated assault here (citywide, 28 murders, 103 rapes, 1,652 robberies, and 1,256 aggravated assaults took place during the same period).

But it's hard to see the area as the exclusive lair of hardened criminals that so delighted the readers of turn-of-the-century pulp fiction. Since 1980, the Tenderloin Development Corporation estimates, the number of families living here has increased by 200 percent, including about 4,000 children. In an area traditionally distinguished by bars and massage parlors, it is not surprising that places to play are in short supply. But the character of the neighborhood is rapidly evolving to meet new needs. The Tenderloin Community School is scheduled to open in August. And children are visible everywhere.

That's the point about the Tenderloin. Everything is visible. Because personal space is limited, life unavoidably plays out on the streets. Traverse this one block and you're likely to encounter kids walking quietly, holding their mother's hand, and adults engaged in animated discussions. You'll see love affairs beginning tenderly and others ending in violence. Troublemakers and peacemakers. Drug deals and drug busts. All of this goes on in other parts of the city as well, but usually behind closed doors. Here the private becomes public.

Near where I sit, a trio of teenaged boys carefully trace around the oil stains on the pavement, turning the outlines into sophisticated chalk drawings: a spaceship blasting off, a curvy woman, a cluster of star-flowers. A magic carpet for a street fair.

The festival brings it all together: musicians, dancers, actors, and artists. It also brings together some of the best elements of this particular part of town: organization, respect, and imagination. Real street smarts.

In the weeks that follow, I come back to this block repeatedly. And I'll continue to return. To open doors. To talk to people who live and work here. To explore the organizations that offer structure and support. In the process I hope to find some good stories to tell. And perhaps I'll acquire a few street smarts of my own.


--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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