Vagrants, hookers, and drugs.
That’s what used to come to mind when I heard people mention San Francisco’s “Tenderloin” district.
But when I came across The Phoenix Hotel when I was looking for a place to stay in town, I found myself lured in by what its website promised — an “irreverent, mid-century motor lodge in San Francisco’s Tenderloin with a rock ‘n’ roll soul and more than a little edge” — and decided to put it (and its neighborhood) to the test.
After being heckled for change in the hotel parking lot, I walked into a colorful lobby with a Cuban Art Deco vibe.
Jesper, the friendly late-night desk attendant greeted me and showed me to my room, which was outfitted with a bamboo xylophone and Rolling Stone magazine. When I asked what I needed to see, he suggested Tenderloin National Forest, and mentioned something about an abandoned lot on Ellis Street near Leavenworth that had been “transformed.”
Transformed into what? That part was still a little vague.
When I saw the mock National Forest sign, I knew I’d found it.
I started snapping photos of the impressive iron entryway and the striking murals that climbed the walls of the surrounding buildings, but was soon overwhelmed by people welcoming me in to have some food, to paint, to come share my stories in the “story house,” to garden.
Before I realized what was happening I found myself inside one of the buildings, surrounded by eclectic installations that had been created by local artists.
I quickly met Freud Reia, an engineer by trade who was cooking food for whoever happened by “the forest.” He explained that Streetopia San Francisco was curating this roving art exhibit and that this was its temporary home until July.
“Is the city okay with this?” I asked.
“Uh, I don’t think they know,” he said as he stirred together a pea and carrot concoction, “but we’re feeding and caring for people and making this space better than it was before. It’s hard to argue with that.”
Some of the other masterminds (who asked to remain nameless) revealed Streetopia’s next move: to another vacant lot, this time on Market Street, where they aim to start up a permanent cafe and another mini-forest. They’ve already lined up the first artist that will be featured — New York street artist, Swoon.
I learned that the idea for TNF was born back in 1989 when the founder of the Luggage Store Gallery planted a redwood seedling in a crack in the concrete in the alley when it was rife with drugs and prostitution.
The tree prospered, the community rallied around it, and the forest was born.
Now affectionately referred to as “Mama Tenderloin,” the redwood stands tall, watching over all the goodness below.
If Mama Tenderloin can thrive in an asphalt lot in this part of San Francisco, there is surely hope for her human brethren.
Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer
Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.