When exactly did the Tenderloin become the city’s notoriously seedy neighborhood? It turns out the answer is harder to find than you might think.
In 1913, the city shut down the infamous Barbary Coast. This caused the action to shift to the Tenderloin. But in truth, the neighborhood has always carried a scruffy exterior that hides a fair amount of historical significance.
I met with Bill Fricker, the Executive Director of the Tenderloin Museum. His greeting was warm and his passion for the neighborhood was immediately evident. I decided to forgo a short bus ride, and opted to walk to the museum, located at Eddy and Leavenworth Streets. It had been a while since I had been to the Tenderloin, or as locals call it, the TL. I took in the sites along the way. The architecture is fantastic, all dating back to post 1906, with the exception of the Hibernia Bank.
While there are dotted signs of gentrification, the area still retains much of its gritty atmosphere. I passed several murals along the way, and a park filled with the sound of children playing. There was a police presence in the park.
According to the museum, the area has more SRO’s than any other district. I learned that the thing that distinguishes a residence as an SRO, is its lack of a kitchen. Much of the housing back in the day also didn’t have private baths. The residential limitations gave way to bathhouses and restaurants, which flourished in the area in the past.
In the early days, much of the working class population was single, and one third were women. This gave women the chance to assert their independence. Some of the women in the area were perceived to be immoral. In 1917 the city closed dance halls and parlors, including the popular Arcadia Dance Pavilion and Blanco’s Cafe. Some of the cafes had booths with beds nearby. These were wild times.
After the Barbary Coast was tamed, prostitution settled in to the Tenderloin. Some of the noted houses of ill repute, were “Diamond Jessie” Hayman’s on Mason and Eddy Streets and Tessie Walls on O’Farrell. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article dated September 16, 1908, Jessie was arrested and tried for employing an alien immigrant who had been in the country for less than three years. She tried, in her plea, to say that the immigrant had told her that she had been in the country for 3 years. The judge didn’t buy it. The Maximum sentence at that time was a $5,000 fine and five years in jail. “Diamond Jessie” was found guilty, and the immigrant was deported.
When going through the Chronicle’s digital archives, the earliest mention of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District was August 9, 1893. It was a story of a young man from the Tenderloin district, who wandered in to the Cosmopolitan District, located at Market, Ellis and Stockton Streets, complaining of feeling ill. Months later the moniker resurfaced when several saloon keepers in the Tenderloin were fined five dollars for selling liquor in back rooms.
Further research in the Chronicle’s annals revealed other quirks of the neighborhood. In 1923, Jessie, whose real name was Annie May Mellon, left one thousand dollars each to her beloved cats Beppo and Teddy. Jessie was living in London at this time. Beppo died a few days after Jessie. The article stated that he died not knowing that he was rich. The surviving cat, Teddy, stopped eating, possibly due to the loss of his companion and mistress. Per Jessie’s will, a woman named Belle Harte received a thousand dollars for caring for the cats.
Gambling was rampant in the Tenderloin. But in the 1930’s, slot machines and other gambling devices were outlawed. To get around this law, establishments used “payout pinball” machines. If a ball landed in a certain hole, you would win money.
Years later the Tenderloin boomed during World War II. It’s estimated that 1.7 million military members passed through the city in the 1940’s. That helped fill the coffers of the restaurant, bars and nightclubs.On VJ Day, the streets were flooded with thousands of celebrants. Bar girls aka B-girls would hustle men into buying overpriced drinks. It wasn’t against the law to be a B-girl. So, many of them were arrested for vagrancy.
Gay men and lesbians found a safe haven in the district’s nightlife, even though the area was supposed to be off limits.
The area saw more changes in the 1950’s. The cable cars were gone, cars raced up and down one way streets, and gambling was shut down. In 1959, Mayor George Christopher was accused by Russell Wolden, who was running against him, of turning the area into a “headquarter for homosexuals.” Christopher won the election by a landslide that year. The LGBT community continued to grow into the 1960’s.
Many of the SRO’s were home to some of the city’s transgender population. In 1966, they stood up against police abuse, in what was known as the Gene Compton’s Cafeteria revolt. One of the first gay liberation groups in the country, the Vangard, was created by gay youth, to protect themselves from abuse.
In the 1970’s, Dianne Feinstein tried to clean up the area. She was unsuccessful in closing the Mitchell Brother’s theater, which had its own infamous past. The artist R. Crumb created a poster that mocked her attempts.
The history cataloged in the current museum begins around 1907, with the rebirth of the neighborhood. Here are some excerpts from San Francisco Chronicle archives dating from 1895 to 1906, to give you a snapshot of the Tenderloin before the great earthquake and fire in 1906:
On April 16, 1895 – Gilbert Schock, “with and oath on his lips, and pistol in hand” set out to murder his lover, Miss Maud Lima, a “well known figure in the Tenderloin district.” The pistol misfired, allowing Miss Lima time to escape. Another article, dated April 24, 1895, told of Lord Sholto Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensbury, being arrested for lunacy because he wanted to marry a Tenderloin dive waitress. Lord Douglas was described as an ungainly looking chap, tall and gawky, stoop-shouldered, with a small head covered with light, weather-beaten looking hair, a large mouth, with broad, projecting upper teeth, like that of a backwoods country boy.
On July 14, 1895 – Joseph Cook, “the former gay and popular Police Court Clerk of this city, who made the mistake of having a rousing time in the Tenderloin District for several years with moneys belonging to the people, is now a wreck of his former self at San Quentin.” He was seeking parole due to poor health.
On that same date it was reported that another noted person, the petite Winnie Stanton, known to all habitues in the Tenderloin, was seeking parole from San Quentin. She was serving time for throwing vitroil [possibly a caustic agent] on her lover, Billy Stenzel, a few years prior.
September 7, 1895 – Mrs. Marion M. Allen, who resided at the Tenderloin end of Ellis Street, refused to pay her grocery bill. It was stated that a bottle of whisky is almost a daily item on the list, along with other liquors. $65 was due for flasks and quart bottles.
January 24, 1896 – Reel B. Terry, an attorney, stabbed Edward Phillips, ex-secretary of the Pilot Commission, inflicting three ugly wounds with a pocket knife. The fight, which took place in front of the James P. Dunne saloon, drew a crowd in the Tenderloin. Mr. Edwards was treated at the Receiving hospital and released. No charges were filed.
April 2, 1896 – Fred Healy, son of Captain Healy of Bear investigation fame, a law student and popular young man about town, met Miss Viola, well known among some circles, during one of his nightly rambles in to the Tenderloin. When “his brain was whirling through alcoholic reveries for about a week,” he asked Miss Viola to marry him. It was said that she “held her own” regarding drinking during that week. They married and realized, when they sobered up, that they had made a mistake. Fred decided to get the marriage annulled and sailed for Tahiti on the Tropic Bird.
December 28, 1896 Bertie Aldridge, a well known character in the Tenderloin, was arrested taking part in swindling Albert William Sisson, who had fallen heir to a small fortune, out of $3,500. Her alleged accomplice, Frank Hart, was no where to be found.
October 2, 1897 – a doctor “goes slumming” in the Tenderloin and claims that he was drugged and robbed of $400. It was later found out that he had pawned his watch for $2.
September 4, 1898 – Michael Crowley, of Tennessee, recently discharged from the military, received payment in the amount of $180. He went to San Francisco and proceeded “to do” the Tenderloin. He alleged that he was robbed of his money in a dance hall on Grant Avenue, after having been given knock out drops. When he came to, he was forcibly ejected from the establishment, and discovered that all of his money was gone.
October 9, 1900 – Peter “Pete the Penman” McGlade, self professed forger, was out on $3,000 bail, and free once more to roam the Tenderloin and clink glasses with his friends of the City Hall gang.
November 17, 1900 – Headline reports rampant gambling in the Tenderloin. Comes out of trance, Sullivan admits that he was bunkoed by the pool men. Wide open condition of the Tenderloin makes him talk. “Shoot Low” Sullivan awakened from his hypnotic condition, and spoke of the widespread gambling in the district.
April 21, 1901 – Ruined by a life in the Tenderloin. H. Anheiser, a young German came to San Francisco to study American commercial methods. While he came from a wealthy family in Cologne, he fell in with a fast crowd and turned to burglary to keep up with his associates. He was sentenced to three and one half years in San Quentin.
December 7, 1902 – Tenderloin squad under investigation for winking at vice. The tenderloin was a hotbed of vice where women roamed freely from saloons to other resorts bearing evil reputations. Allowed to rove unhindered, at their pleasure. The saloon keepers were their ready allies. And, the police looked the other way, until now. One of the six resigned. Some claimed that the reputation was more persistent and less qualified, with a motive to remove Chief of Police Wittman.
August 1, 1903 – Woman causes the arrest of her faithless fiance. “Kid” Horn, well known in the Tenderloin, courted the young and attractive Mrs. Cowdery, swindling her out of four thousand dollars in cash and diamonds.
February 9, 1905 – Ida Smith, of Fair Oaks Street, was arrested for “rending the air with howls.” The charges were dropped when it was learned that she was an heiress, receiving large sums of money from England, and was howling due to the loss of a diamond sunburst brooch.
April 28, 1905 -tax collector Edward J. Smith, was accused of stealing large sums of money, at least a quarter of a million dollars, from the city. He was lavishing Lillian Leslie, a well known, ostentatious figure in the Tenderloin, with gifts and money, including a car and house.
September 3, 1905 – Belden Place raided for gambling operations, as part of the effort to close down gambling in the Tenderloin.
November 5, 1905 – Schmitz vs. Partridge for Mayor. All through out the Tenderloin, Schmitz for Mayor buttons could be seen. The owners of open poolrooms, gambling dens and unspeakable dance halls, “the vices of the Tenderloin the municipal crib,” were for Schmitz.
April 30, 1906 – the first mention of the Tenderloin after the earthquake. Among ashes of the Tenderloin/Glimpses in the deserted places where the red lights shone. The writer, Waldemar Young, strolled through the ashes, looking for people he knew, particularly professional fighters. He encountered Mickey Smith, who used to stand guard at the Belvedere, where fights took place, was now standing at the doorway of a blacksmith shop. The club, like all of the district, was now a pile of rubble. They reminisced about Oriental cafes, the Poodle Dog, Pratt & Tierney’s, Alturas on the Haymarket…all places where liquor was sold. It was said by some that the decimation of the area was a good thing, But, this group sadly speculated that it would never be the same.
There is speculation about the origin of the name. One theory is that it was named after New York’s Tenderloin, which was a rough part of town. One theory of the name is that it’s the Soft Underbelly/ The tenderloin is the most tender, and most often most expensive, cut of beef, known as the “king of steaks.” Fancy filet mignon comes from the tenderloin. Some believe the TL is so named because it was the “soft underbelly” of vice in San Francisco. Another popular theory is that cops received hazard pay for patrolling the often dangerous streets, thus affording them the budget for tenderloin cuts of beef. The National Park Service has added the “Uptown Tenderloin Historic District” to the National Register of Historic Places.
The district consists of all or part of 33 blocks starting with Mason Street to the east and ending just before Polk Street on the west. It is roughly bounded by McAllister and Market Streets on the south and Geary Boulevard to the north.
The designation celebrates the area’s beautiful architecture, which includes the Hibernia Bank, the Alcazar Theater, the McAllister Tower and the art deco Hamilton building. A “downtown” Tenderloin has been identified in previous maps as an area east of Mason Street, and around Powell Street, but it is not considered an historic district.
The legendary venue Blackhawk Jazz Club where greats like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk and others played and recorded. Recording studio Wally Heider Studios where the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young crafted albums that changed music forever. There are stories on how the Tenderloin served as the geographic center for San Francisco’s emerging LGBT rights movement, and stories from a neighborhood that immigrants, office workers, retailers, bartenders, musicians, actors, dancers and prostitutes have all chosen to call home.
Most of the area was decimated by the 1906 earthquake and fire, along with the rest of San Francisco’s downtown. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and continued in the area for another quarter century.
The Tenderloin Museum, located on the corners of Eddy and Leavenworth, in a former Sizzler steak house, tells the ribald history with pictures, postcards, show programs, restaurant menus, bar matchbooks, interactive media and assorted ephemera.
Per Randy Shaw, the executive director of the non-profit that runs the museum, “The museum is not a sociological analysis of the current Tenderloin. It’s the story of the Tenderloin from 1907 to the present in the bars and restaurants, the gay and lesbian movement, the jazz and music.” Check the museum’s website for hours, tours and special events.
Bob Bragman is a producer for SFGATE. His writing reflects his love of the Bay Area, in addition to his passion for vintage pop culture, ephemera and vernacular photographs. To see more of his content, please click here.