Saturday, June 9, 2012

Streetopia for the People

"Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
- Mr. Antolini’s advice to his student Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

It seems so fitting that The Free Farm’s neighbor Tenderloin is hosting Streetopia ( because it’s home to so many health and social services organizations with compassionate staff and volunteers who seek to improve community conditions closer to utopia. My own decision to volunteer at The Free Farm was partly inspired by my Getup training at Garden For the Environment (, where we put together the weekly CSA box of organic produce for Food Runners to deliver to Larkin Street Youth ( for homeless youth in the Tenderloin.

People’s history of the Tenderloin
As a fan of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I eagerly joined Streetopia’s “Every Building has a Story” Towards a People’s History of the Tenderloin Walking Tour organized by James Tracy (, a very compassionate and informed housing activist. As a youth, James visited the Tenderloin a lot when he came to visit his uncle who lived at Polk and Eddy; and later, he stayed with his uncle a lot as his in-home support service worker. James said he spent a lot of time walking around with his uncle, a sailor and member of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, who shared stories of SF.

About a dozen of us met at Luggage Store Gallery to meet our Tenderloin neighbors and learn about their struggles/successes to create their own utopia. To make this a real People’s History, James invited us to chime in with our own oral histories and recollections—and several in the group played major roles in the history of making the Tenderloin a better place to live. Also noteworthy is the prominence of gardens in people’s visions of utopia!
James points out San Cristina Hotel, 1000 Market St., one of 52 Safe Haven Program ( locations in the Tenderloin and SoMa, which provides “15 minutes of shelter and a phone call” to anyone in distress. Locations are identified by a green and yellow sign in seven languages, designed by a community artist who lives in San Cristina. The program was started in 2007 by Tenderloin residents who wanted to make their neighborhoods safer by relying on each other, instead of the police.
Compton Cafeteria (, 101 Taylor at Turk, was the site of one of the first recorded transgender riots against police harassment in U.S. history in August 1966, which preceded the 1969 Stonewall Riots in NYC.
A woman in our tour group said that she was one of the original “screaming queens” as a 15-year-old boy.
Empress Hotel, 144 Eddy, nearly lost its 88 residential rooms when a new owner attempted to convert rooms for tourists. In 2003, Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Coalition on Homelessness intervened to obtain the Planning Department’s ruling of Empress’ residential status. Today the Empress provides housing for the homeless through the City’s Department of Public Health’s Direct Access to Housing program (
Ambassador Hotel (, 55 Mason St., was a former slum hotel, which cleaned up in the mid-1990s after this woman made a video short of its dilapidated conditions (no community kitchen, residents relied on hot plates and meals from Project Open Hand; mold-infested showers; backed up toilets, etc.). The activities of community organizers resulted in 55% rent reduction. In 2000, nonprofit Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) acquired the property to serve as low-income housing.  
Alexander Hotel (, 230 Eddy, provided affordable housing as a HUD-insured Section 8 senior building. But President Clinton’s administration allowed private landlords to get out of Section 8 and go to market, if they prepaid their mortgages. As a result of tenant organizing, the City intervened to preserve Alexander for low-income people. In December 2000, TNDC and now defunct SFRA purchased Alexander to prevent the displacement of the building’s tenants and ensure long-term affordability. 
This Safe Passage (, marked by yellow brick road pattern on this Leavenworth block with Head Start Program, is a series of safe routes for youth throughout the neighborhood intended to ensure a secure walk home from school and to/from extracurricular afternoon activities. These routes are closely monitored by volunteers, neighborhood groups and SFPD to keep them free from crime and negative activity.
Senator Hotel (, 519 Ellis St., was where the American Indian Movement occupiers stayed for one night after they were evicted by federal marshals following the 18-month occupation at Alcatraz that ended in June 1971. In 1991, Community Housing Partnership acquired the building to house formerly homeless individuals and families in response to a permanent housing campaign led by Coalition on Homelessness and Council of Community Housing Organizations.
We take a break to eat at Free Café in Tenderloin National Forest.

Hastings College of Law, 200 McAllister St., was the site of demonstrations by a coalition of community groups in 2002 to protest Hastings’ construction plans for a new parking garage where two residential hotels destroyed in the 1989 earthquake once stood. While the parking garage was ultimately built, the action forced Hastings to fund 172 units of replacement housing at 220 Golden Gate Ave.

At this point, I’m going to interject to share my own recollection of teaching first-time juvenile offenders from Youth Guidance Center at the Hastings campus. At the invitation of a professor, I agreed to teach Street Law Project’s pilot program focused on criminal "justice" on Saturday mornings. The first meeting was rough because the sulking teens didn’t have breakfast and claimed that I was too strict when I required respectful manners like saying please, thank you and no profanity! So like the Black Panthers before me, I brought in breakfast and they opened up so we got into deep discussions about channeling their anger and frustration over injustice into positive actions to benefit everyone. I was so proud of my students when they formed a band and started getting offers for gigs—they were so good that they told me that they would give up selling illegal drugs! As they were still minors, I connected them with an entertainment lawyer to represent them on pro bono basis. 

Before I began farming on Saturdays, I volunteered at Tax-Aid every spring season to prepare income tax returns at Glide (and other sites) for low-income residents who are usually eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Because my colleagues and I worked for the 1% (i.e., many trust fund clients who didn’t have to work for a living, so they carried on lives of leisure going to retreats, sometimes to find a purpose in life or to detox), it was really refreshing to work with the other end of the wealth spectrum to maximize tax credits/deductions so they could get back some of their hard-earned money. Many came with multiple W-2 forms, and some were undocumented taxpayers using TIN or fake SSN so they didn’t qualify for EITC—but being a taxpayer may help for immigration amnesty. Some came with their children who helped with translation. I learned about how they came to the U.S. to escape persecution in their native lands only to be exploited in our land of opportunity—often because they weren’t fluent in English so they wanted to use any free time available to learn English. (And I thought my trust fund clients could find a purpose by doing meaningful work like volunteering to teach English to immigrants struggling with the language.)
Tenderloin People’s Garden ( was built over a concrete corner plot on Larkin & McAllister, as an all-volunteer community garden in a neighborhood regarded as a food desert that lacks affordable, healthy food options. Everything grown in this garden is communal property, and neighbors get together to harvest and share in the bounty.
This resident gardener mentioned plans to build a high-tech vertical garden against the wall of the Civic Center Power House.
Succulent circle
Federal Office Building, 50 United Nations Plaza, was where two HIV-positive gay men chained themselves to its doors to protest the U.S. government’s inaction in face of the deadly AIDS epidemic in October 1985. Soon, they were joined by volunteers who began the decade-long ARC (Aids Related Complex)/AIDS Vigil demonstration.

This site reminds me of the Power of 504 (, a 26-day sit-in during 1977 by disability activists until they won their demand for adoption of regulations to prohibit disability discrimination. I wasn’t around when this took place but watching this must-see documentary is so inspiring at!
Trinity Plaza (, 8th & Market, has a skyscraper and tower being built behind. In 2002, landlord Angelo Sangiacomo ( announced plans to demolish Trinity Plaza, potentially displacing 360 working-class households. As a result of community organizing, all residents were offered new units and lifetime leases in the new luxury towers.

James concluded our walking tour with his opportunity or displacement commentary on the impact of the so-called “Twitter Tax Break,” which provides generous tax incentives for new and expanding businesses in mid-Market area. This legislation brought in an affordable bike repair shop, restaurants, other small businesses and a new arts district coming in to fill vacant storefronts and create new jobs, thus making Market Street a safer and more desirable place to walk. However, James also noted that the arrival of new tech companies and gentrification pressures in the area have contributed to a 45% jump in rents in Tenderloin’s private, non-subsidized buildings. He mentioned that rent for a new, one-bedroom unit in the Tenderloin is about $1,400.

People gotta eat
From the back of a car parked in the heart of the Tenderloin, Mother Teresa group freely handed out fish fillet, bun, mac and cheese, and watermelon on these plates to anyone on the street. Where are veggies?
I paid $3.50 for my favorite banh mi, or marinated tofu Saigon sandwich with shredded carrots, radish and cilantro tucked in French roll.  This represents about 75% of the average $4.72 daily food stamp budget.

Views of utopia in mural art
Leavenworth mural with close-up shots of man carrying greens and “we need a garden.”

Windows into the Tenderloin mural by Mona Caron (, at Golden Gate & Jones, is so full of life with amusing street level details. Lisa Ruth Elliot of Mobile Bread Bicycle Cart was the mural’s project manager (
Goats eat turf for Dept. of Lawn Maintenance.
Vegetable garden sign reads, “Put work in, Get food out, Everyone welcome”

The Main Library hosted a screening of the documentary of the mural in the making, "A Brush with the Tenderloin."  Filmmaker Paige Bierma ( stands between Tenderloin residents Lisa and Indian Joe, who both appear in the mural/film and whose lives were transformed in the process, ending drug abuse and homelessness. Lisa said that she gives back by volunteering at Walden House.

The film begins with Mona asking why commission art in a place where many people are scraping by without basic needs—who can afford art in the Tenderloin? The answer: to bring positive activity and community engagement, which is what happens when Mona does her “slow motion performance art” with the “Greek choir” across the street, 300+ waiting in line for a meal at St. Anthony’s. As Mona interacts with the residents passing by, she’s inspired to insert their images in her murals that combine the present/historical/utopia at the same time. She says her aim is to get people to look up to surroundings and interact, rather than looking to the ground to avoid contact so we get to our destinations more quickly. The mural took longer to complete when a panel was vandalized, so Mona had to repaint and caved into pressure from warnings “don’t put in a cop car.” To avoid graffiti vandalism, she ended up painting a black car, which residents refer as “undercover cop car.” Since then, the mural has not been vandalized as the community respects the mural and keeps an eye out to protect it.

Paige said she filmed 50 hours of footage, but edited video to 23 minutes for a better chance of showing at the festival circuit. I look forward to the DVD with extra footage to learn more about the other characters in the mural utopia and the power of art to inspire transformation.

Like Mr. Antolini said: It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

Public Service Announcements:

Sun., June 17, 2012, 2-3:30 pm, An Armchair Tenderloin Tour
Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room, Main Library, 100 Larkin St. at Grove, SF
Cityguide docent Peter Field will present a slide show on the colorful history of SF's Tenderloin district.

Through June 23, 2012, Streetopia in the Tenderloin

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