Every week we bring you Urbane Studies, in which our Tenderloin correspondent digs out the finer points of city lore on individual street corners. This week: The Tenderloin as a desert, the once-splendid Arlington Hotel, Yucatecan cuisine and the TL National Forest at Leavenworth & Ellis
We here at The Society are not overly fond of metaphors, but are given to understand that for some writerly types, the trope is literary bread and butter (or if you want to get personal about it, whiskey and coffee). But metaphors just aren’t our style--while not strictly slavish to cold, concrete realism, we like to keep the pussyfooting to a minimum.
However, it has come to our attention that after a fashion, the Tenderloin might offer an urban parallel to Disney's 1953 documentary, The Living Desert. It’s easy to play upon the notion of the TL as a kind of desert, worth little notice, with few signs of viable life. Visiting travelers are often warned away from the inhospitable environment lest some calamity befall them. If the foolhardy do venture in, it is with maps clenched in front of them, useless shields against cruel nature; the vultures circle. Besides, what lives in a desert? Terrible beasties: venomous snakes, creatures with more legs than mercy, skittish and scraggly mammals that serve as food for predators. But as that unsubtle bit of Disney edutainment showed generations of impressionable young minds, first impressions can be wrong.
Perhaps it's the weather, clement and a little warm--maybe it's the presence of bouncey castle and freshly twisted balloon animals at the nearby Tenderloin Children’s Playground--but on a mid-August day, the junction of Ellis and Leavenworth seems almost in bloom. To the northeast, Mercy Housing is engaged in the arduous process of refurbishing the once-splendid Arlington Hotel, built in 1907. The undertaking offers an object lesson in the challenges of San Francisco's current regeneration.
Before beginning restoration, the Arlington’s hundred-plus residents had to be relocated, not to mention the commercial tenants. The process was not untroubled. Whereas wholesale destruction of a place (here, 1906) or abandonment (Detroit, now) allows for tabula rasa-style urban planning, the Bay Area's inability to accurately gauge future population growth is already forcing a dilemma for low cost housing solutions. With multiple properties in the works, we're looking forward to a more aesthetically pleasing (and one hopes, kinder) landscape, but where will everyone fit?
Let's not get all Tomorrowland just yet, and take a look back to what the corner looked like in the late 19th century. Having touched on the relevance of aspirational architecture in last week’s column, we can imagine how heavily the loss of so much tourist revenue weighed on humbled city fathers, especially in this tourist-rich area. For visitors who wanted to distance themselves from the wilds of the Barbary Coast, hotels of the Tenderloin may as well have been in the Sunset District (or in today's terms, The Wharf). Thanks to the SFPL's History Center, we've finally put a face to a hotel ad from our archives. Some measure of affluence may yet be returned to the neighborhood, as local conjecture welcomes a future tenant, “a high quality restaurant.” Perhaps Tu Lan's triumphant return?
Due south, you'll find a restaurant, one that thrills those who appreciates the regional specialties of Yucatecan cuisine. Doña Marta, being properly Yucatecan, is off limits for the lily-livered soytarians. What, you want food reviews? We’re leaving that to to the professionals.
Across the street, the men of Amigo’s Market will not only sell you some of the Tenderloin’s finest produce, but will also validate your existence. During our last visit, the proprietor managed both an uncreepy compliment and pleasant chat about the weather. Far be it from us to seem teetotalitarian, but it could be the business’ lack of alcohol sales that keeps things on this corner relatively civilized. A few years back we almost set up operations in this part of the neighborhood and the presence of the market was a strong draw. This is where you’ll want to purchase all of your Boing from now on.
Not much happening on the southwestern corner, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t urge you to take a hike through the Tenderloin National Forest, that tiny timbered gem brought to you by the good people of the Luggage Store Gallery. Some have joked that having an unwieldy title in the Tenderloin is hyperbole--a national forest, indeed?--but again, we’d like to point out that nothing seldom is as it seems, and even in the desert forests can take root.