Street Life

Sunday Streets SF: Love me Tenderloin Edition

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

Two weekends ago, San Francisco’s migrating street party known as Sunday Streets found itself a warm spot right smack in the middle of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. It was, as always, as much a celebration of human-on-human contact as it was human-on-bubbles.

Small ones…

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and large ones…

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With about 20 city blocks closed to automobile traffic, from Grove to O’Farrell and Larkin to Jones Streets, it was the usual large, temporary, public space affording people to bike, walk, run, dance, and have fun in the middle of the street in unlimited ways.

There was, of course, lots of music…

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scooting…

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face painting…

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a round of asphalt Jenga…

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and even a game of street hoops…

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And yet, what makes this traveling road show so unique in a place like San Francisco is that whatever neighborhood plays host to the festivities is sure to bare its distinctive soul.

For example, there is no other hood that brings out the kind of low rider pride as the Mission does

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and you’re most likely to run into these guys at an Embarcadero Sunday Streets.

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The Tenderloin has its own unique story and character. The following are a few more impressions of this storied SF neighborhood as it unfolded out in the open streets on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

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Let me just say that it’s impossible to do justice to the complexity of the Tenderloin in a few images or words, and seeing that I don’t live or have spent huge amounts of time there I wouldn’t be the right person to do so anyway. I think it’s fair to say that the Tenderloin has always been one of the edgier parts of the city, testing the boundaries of polite society dating back to the Gold Rush. Full of diversity and pizazz, it is home to one of America’s most storied music venues (Great American Music Hall), strip clubs (Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater), and to Reverend Cecil Williams’ radically inclusive, just and loving Glide Memorial Church.

Speaking of Cecil Williams, the honorable Reverend who along with co-founder Janice Mirikitani has been opening his doors to the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the newly immigrated, and the politically passionate for 50 years, had a block of Ellis Street at Taylor Street named after him. After the surprise dedication by Mayor Lee in the morning, the “Rev. Cecil Williams Way” street sign became the backdrop for much celebration throughout the afternoon.

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It is perhaps because of its big heart and compassion for those unable to withstand the heavy winds of a dog-eat-dog world that the Tenderloin has attracted a disproportionate share of lost souls and broken spirits. At the same time, the severe hardship and squalor found not only in the streets of the Tenderloin but in many other parts of San Francisco seems to be a result of a much larger, more systemic crisis in American society.

Whether it’s Reagan’s slashing of social programs for the poor in the 1980s that began to systematically weaken the social safety net across the country or the more recent revelations that Nevada mental institutions are buying their patients one way tickets to San Francisco (aka Greyhound Therapy), the Tenderloin’s disproportionate share of broken bodies and spirits is if nothing else a very visible reminder to the rest of America that there’s a price to be paid somewhere for abandoning those who for a number of reasons are unable to fend for themselves.

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To my European sensibilities, the Tenderloin represents both sides of the land of extremes that is America. While the extreme income inequality, lack of health care (hopefully changing), and brutal justice system make a permanent impoverished underclass a seemingly normal aspect of society (just like the super-privileged 0.1 percenter mega billionaires), there is at the same time a remarkable resilience, compassion, and generosity among so many Americans that shows a deep care on an individual basis for one’s fellow human beings that I don’t see on display in Europe very often.

Sunday Streets reflected that caring spirit. SF Impact, a ministry dedicated to intervening on behalf of the people in the inner city of San Francisco, had set up tents for medical,

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dental and visual check-ups,

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as well as a free Beauty Salon that included foot washing,

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manicures, and pedicures.

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There was even a barber shop

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and a dog wash station.

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While there was plenty of fun and play going on, all the services offered really gave the event meaning and definition. Aside from the many body care services there were also homeless advocacy and legal assistance groups as well as clothing giveaways, gardening workshops, and employment referrals. And, of course, food.

When I got up to Ellis Street, the whole block between Taylor and Jones was one big Glide offering.

From housing services…

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to free meals (10,000 Glide volunteers serve three meals daily, 364 days a year, amounting to over 750,000 free meals a year, totaling 65,000 hours of service)

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everyone was taken care of, both their tummies…

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and their hips…

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Each time the MC introduced a new performer on the Glide stage, he had us sing along the lines of the old classic:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

Having lived in San Francisco for 16 years (and the United States for 26) I’ve had a lot of exposure to the creative potential as well as the intense struggle inherent in America’s rugged individualism. Sunday Streets’ Tenderloin Edition felt like an open invitation to re-immerse myself in the juxtaposition of hope in the face of hardship, of raw beauty coming from a wounded heart.

If the signs I passed on my way home are any indication, the ostensible contradictions might all be part of the same journey in the eyes of the universe.

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About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

4 Comments

  • San Francisco seems like such a civilized place. I appreciate that you also present it as one that has issues to work on like any other place. I agree that in the 1980’s on Reagan’s watch we started becoming a less compassionate country where the needs of the shareholders became more important than the needs of the many.

  • well, it’s both, Al, civilized in some ways and pretty barbarian in others. One of the big problems right now is a huge influx of tech money and foreign investors that is driving up real estate and rental market, pushing out workers and low income people and gentrifying entire neighborhoods. What’s sad is that some of these positive creative movements are being used by developers to attract more and more rich people who want to live in the cool neighborhoods but in the process are destroying the existing communities that have made the neighborhoods what they are. As my geography professor used to say, we celebrate what we obliterate.

    Still, lots of good stuff happening here, but it’s good to have an eye on shadow of it all.

  • “…the ostensible contradictions might all be part of the same journey in the eyes of the universe.” I just LOVE this line. When I got to the part of this post about the foot washing, I shed a tear – such basic human respect and sharing. What a beautiful piece. Thanks!

  • Thanks so much, Naima. I thought I’d save the best for last. 😉 I’ve always loved finding meaning in contradiction, because I feel that the transcendence of mental divisions brings us just a little closer to the bright light that shines from the grand mystery of the universe.

    That foot bath photo really is powerful. It was a little awkward taking it, because it felt like such a deeply private, almost sacred moment. But the response I’ve received from you and a few others have shown that it was the right thing to do. The deep emotion and respect the whole sequence of body care photos have evoked is itself very touching to me.

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