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Touring the TL, Screwing Over Its People

April 13, 2010

by Thor Swift for the NYT

I honestly don’t have much to say about this article from the NYT (lead photo taken directly in front of our home at Fools’ Court) on a potential new tourism trade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (TL) district.  The backward priorities, exploitation, and opportunism seem pretty obvious to me.

Encouraging adventure-seeking San Franciscans to visit may be easier than selling the Tenderloin to tourists, city tourism officials say. Laurie Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the recent efforts “a step in the right direction,” but added that it was a “very, very long road” to make the neighborhood appealing.

Appealing to whom?  Not the people who live here, but outsiders — with money to spend.  The bright side here, I suppose, is exposing the persistence of the trickle-down mentality that drives city planning.  Promoting tourism will supposedly help businesses, which will supposedly help…homeless folks?  Not likely.  Most stores around here won’t even let you in to use the bathroom if you look like you’ve spent the night on the streets.  Which might appear to be the case even if you do sleep inside, in a shelter or SRO: single-resident occupancy.

Just a couple days ago, at the feminist Marxist study group at the Faithful Fools, we talked with Diane, a longtime visitor to the Fools, about her experiences living in an SRO.  It’s sort of like a jail, she said with a chuckle.  You’re permitted a limited number of visits every month.  (8 per month is the max at her place, she thinks.)  Since you can’t have more than 3 people per room, a single mother with three children is out of luck.  There are no kitchen facilities, turn-of-the-century wiring (making personal cooking devices surefire circuit overloaders), and one communal microwave for all 150 tenants.  You’re supposed to get 24 hour’s notice before anyone comes to inspect your room, but managers rarely honor rules like that.

Diane teaching Ryan some dance moves.

Not to say that SROs are no better than sleeping in doorways.  But investing in them as tourist attractions?  How exactly is this helping to create, as Gavin Newsom claims, “a positive identity for the Tenderloin”?  Why not tax rich people (a.k.a. wealthy tourists and corporations) and put funding directly into improving and expanding housing?  Making it a human right in practice, not just in theory?  Of course, the city instead assists landlords who evict low-income tenants in order to turn rental units into condominiums (through legislation like the Ellis Act, which Diane was explaining to us). Meanwhile, the thousands of housing units currently vacant could easily eliminate homelessness altogether.

Forget appealing to tourists.  Personally, I’d rather the folks of the TL follow the lead of Homes Not Jails, who just a week ago occupied a vacant building, resisting eviction and declaring the duplex public property.  Organizing in opposition to state-supported capitalist institutional violence would give the Tenderloin a much more “positive identity,” in my mind, than million-dollar slum museums and “hundreds of [fucking] plaques on buildings throughout the neighborhood.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2010 12:44 pm

    I should add that when I say vacant units could eliminate homelessness, I don’t mean that being housed should be compulsory. For various complex reasons that I’m learning about while meeting people through the Faithful Fools, it turns out that some people, for some or much of their life, would rather be outside. So when we say that housing should be a right, we’re not trying to foist it on anyone, but making it truly accessible *in practice.*

    Also, it’s interesting to read this article and remember my own initial discomfort with the Faithful Fools’ street retreats. I assumed that the retreats operated under a similar logic of slum tourism: learning about the dismal material conditions of the Tenderloin. A more altruistic framework, perhaps, but still deeply problematic. But actually, the street retreats are much more about confronting our own judgments around the TL, and continuing to ask ourselves: “What holds people separate? What keeps us separated? As we walk the streets, what still connects us?”

    As a practice, it provides a sound basis for self-knowledge and non-dualistic relationship with others. Both are essential to radical humanism and community well-being, as well as many varieties of healthy community organizing.

    So maybe the money for those SRO tours could go to the Fools instead? ;-)

  2. Roger Nehring permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:56 pm

    Fierce and honest! I love it!

  3. George Luis permalink
    April 14, 2010 7:49 am

    Hm, I totally missed the part where tourists screw over people in the TL. Are they kicking bums on the sidewalk or something?

  4. April 14, 2010 9:05 am

    You’re right, George — the culpability lies largely with the city planners and tourism developers who are using public/private funds in wasteful, elitist ways, and essentially “pimping” the Tenderloin. Beyond the title (which could still include them, in a sense), that’s what I focus on in my piece, yeah?

    But I do also think that it puts tourists in an interesting position of magnified complicity, since the first ones will be actually participating in the ‘transition’ of the neighborhood toward this supposed more “positive identity.” What if, instead of ‘visiting an SRO’ or throwing money at a slum museum, tourists simply walk the streets of the neighborhood, like anyone is currently free to do, take some time to re-examine their own assumptions about the type of poverty happening here, and then *invest tourist dollars directly into local survival/resistance programs?* You can’t go a block in the TL without hitting a soup kitchen, the Coalition on Homelessness, a trans health clinic, the up-and-coming Free Farm, shelters, the national headquarters of Radical Women, etc., etc. If you’re going to tour the TL with money to burn, you have options as to how to spend it, is what I’m saying. Please don’t give it to tourguides and museums that capitalize on place-based human suffering. Contribute instead to the community’s politicized (ideally) a.k.a. clear-sighted survival — material and spiritual.

  5. George Luis permalink
    April 14, 2010 11:20 am

    My favorite quote from the article is how those hundreds of plaques are “to create great visual interest for those walking down the community’s streets.” I think there’s already a lot more interesting things to look at in the TL than plaques! I don’t see any harm in the plaques though, since I like knowing what buildings are named. I’m not sure if my building has a name but if so I’d like to know what it is. It kind of adds something to your appreciation when you can refer to a building by name.

    I agree that the best way to see the TL is just walk around here and hang out. I’m not sure I would go to a museum of SROs. It sounds pretty boring, like that dumb Beatnik museum where Black Oak Books used to be. Maybe its so Europeans can come see what “American conditions” are like.

    I don’t know if there’s net value in bringing tourists to the TL or not. It would be great if those tourists went home and said “Gee it’s really embarrassing that our country can’t take care of its old and crazy people” and voted to fund some kind of socialist program for people who can’t take care of themselves. On the other hand, if my favorite liquor stores start getting replaced by American Apparel outlets, I’ll be pretty cheesed off about that. Nobody has ever told me to “put that bottle away” in the TL and I hope it stays that way.

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