Welcome back to Urbane Studies, in which our Tenderloin correspondent digs out the finer points of city lore on individual street corners. This week: the Uptown Tenderloin Museum, Don Fisher's pre-Gap architectural interests, a tiny flea market and the best place to stop for frozen treats at Leavenworth & Eddy.
Etymologically, the word "museum" is derived from the Greek Musaeum, or temple of the muses. The classical source of inspiration, muses are often portrayed in the form of beautiful nymphs. Luckily for us, inspiration has moved past scantily-clad tarts with lyre in hand, and accommodates differing aesthetics. There isn’t a brick-and-mortar museum at Leavenworth and Eddy yet, but seeing as stories go a long way in this town, who’s to say the entire Tenderloin isn’t a living museum, unaccredited though it may be?
Architecture is one kind of story, and the Cadillac Hotel tells it big. The one-time fancy-pants hotel is considered to be the first SRO west of the Mississippi, having been constructed as a showpiece of post-quake recovery. Built in 1907, the structure was meant to inspire investors to build fast and high, an encouragement that required no small measure of optimism in the leveled metropolis. In this 1918 negative from the SFPL History Center, one can see that the neighborhood had a long way to go, but by mid-century, business was well-established. Muhammad Ali once trained in the hotel’s Newman Gym, and a pre-The Gap Don Fisher owned the site. Most citations remark that Fisher was responsible for removing period details, architecture perhaps serving as a precursor to his stripped-down Gap styling.
The Cadillac’s return to glory arrived with Leroy Looper, who bought the hotel from Fisher with the intention of renovating it for low-income residents. There’s a real pride of place here, and despite Looper’s death last year, the hotel continues to serve as a model specimen of a changing Tenderloin. Free lunchtime jazz and blues shows take place on selected Fridays, and don’t miss the opportunity to say hello to the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a lovingly restored 1884 Steinway. You may not know the name Patricia Walkup, but chances are you know her work. When next you stroll through the world’s most beautiful freeway off-ramp--aka, Octavia Boulevard south of Hayes Street--notice the sign announcing “Patricia’s Green.” The activist was instrumental in bringing down the last terrible vestiges of the Central Freeway, a blighty bit of infrastructure that divided the neighborhood.
(Note: for the recently arrived who’ve no idea what we’re talking about, there once was a very dangerous place...called Hayes Valley. Yes, that place with the expensive ice cream and $400 denim. Ask an old timer to spin you some yarns of harrowing walks home.)
Meanwhile, back in the Tenderloin, the future Uptown TL Museum resides where the first Naan-N-Curry was located ten years ago. The curry stalwart then moved down the street, and eventually spread across the city like a spicy rash. No word on whether this will be part of the story that the museum tells. As for the institution (the TL Museum, not the curry house), it’s currently online only. We’re hopeful that when it does open, in addition to historical content, we’ll have the opportunity to see some locally-produced art.
Across the street, we find The Little Flea, where we’ve never gotten fleas but have sourced a few useful household items. We’re broke these days, and like a good San Franciscan we’re only spending our money on necessities like food and drink. This works out well, given that our other corners are flanked by the Empire Market and New Star Cafe.
The latter has been here a long, long time--at least in Tenderloin years--and regulars know the names of the restaurateurs, else they call them mama and papa. For less than six bucks, a diner can sit down to a filling rice plate amply spiked with garlic and pepper, or if you’re into that sort of thing, some heavily Americanized fried rice and chow mein. The restaurant serves as a default kitchen for many of the SRO neighbors, and the long-suffering owners have the kind of relationship you’d expect given the locale: orders are paid for upfront, and no one gets real plates or silverware--unless you’re this writer, which must mean we have a trusting look about us that says we’re not about to abscond with plate and fork (or that we don’t appear to live in an SRO). Fun with racial profiling?
Kitty-corner from New Star, Empire Market is staffed by a cadre of very nice, very firm ladies. One of them occasionally yells at someone--usually because they’ve gently shoplifted--but a sense of goodwill brings the errant thief back with a handful of change and a sheepish look.
"I was just sleepwalking, and dreaming I bought it." A scowl admonishes but comes with a laugh: "I hope you dream better next time."
The ladies always seem a little put-off by how excited we get that they stock Sno-Cones. Are Sno-Cones even worth it? No; but nostalgic imperialism demands the sugarwater and glacially hard treats. On hot Tenderloin days, should you wander near, do treat yourself to the Empire's well-stocked freezer case.
From Leavenworth and Eddy, one can't quite see the ascent of mid-Market's new builds, those former holes in the ground that now sprout renewed economy in the wake of financial collapse. It's not so difficult to imagine a similar optimism a century past, when the city was shaken by a more literal collapse, and illusion was as good as the real thing. Investors want for a good story, something to build a dream upon. And so what can we remember, in the not-so-distant past? The dreams that money could buy, of kingly pleasures and unlimited shrimp: that once--oh, wistful word!--there was a Sizzler here. For the muses of the Tenderloin, this, too, is a valid kind of history.