Every week we bring you Urbane Studies, a regulary feature in which our Tenderloin correspondent digs out the finer points of city lore on individual street corners. This week: architectural gems, sad histories and getting chatted up at Jones & Turk.
We turn disaster into a cult, but to behave otherwise seems positively un-San Franciscan. And so it goes, that we're as responsible as the next historian for perpetuating the myth, whether perverse or not we're the last to say. But we'd like to think that we come by it naturally, taking into consideration that the flag of San Francisco, emblazoned with a fiery phoenix, pre-dates the earthquake. There's a sort of drug there, in history, that one can't get enough of: archives and imagination spur us on to wonder at the progressively larger and more ornate engineering marvels that rose up just prior to 1906, to imagine another kind of skyline.
Advancements in building materials saw cities go vertical, and newly erected steel-framed and fireproof buildings were all the rage, earlier incarnations of the tinder-like city having endured so many conflagrations already. At Jones and Turk, visitors could find the fire-proof Linda Vista Hotel, where the only pretty view must have come several floors up, given that the intersection provides no great promontory. Sadly, it would be another half century before it was determined that fireproof doesn't equal safety. As was demonstrated by that great defining moment, even structures that survived a proper shake were done in by high, prolonged heat, making for quite the mess.
Speaking of mess: the advice we give those just visiting the Tenderloin for the first time is simple, and goes against what is ordinarily considered good form if you want to look like you're from here. Look up, and look long (and yes, a little bit down, if you value your shoes). But up is better, not just for the fact that the architectural augmentation at ground level leaves much to the imagination. Aloft, among the reeling flocks of spooked pigeons and pink plastic bags on the wing, one spies the dentils, pediment, cornices, and countless other details of workmanship that hint at the ghosts of this place, put there by architects who wanted to leave something of value to future generations. If you're feeling underwhelmed by what's going up Mid-Market and Mission around 8th Street, consider an afternoon wander through the Tenderloin, where even the most run-down of residence hotels manages to exert an outward charm that flies in the face of so much bland from-the-box-modernism, the birthright of future generations. We won't, one supposes, miss them too much if they fall over.
Antonia Manor presents a bright face courtesy of the TNDC, but was built in the mid-1920s, sturdily facing Market Street. It’s not the most effusive of the neighborhood’s structures, possessing a minimum of detailing, but there's a touch of drama to the entrance. A salute, if you will.
A sad bit of history clings to the residence from its days as the Governor Hotel, when an AWOL soldier leapt eight stories to his death in 1944. The current residents seem considerably less inclined toward such dramatic exits, being mostly comprised of senior citizens.
G&H Liquor & Grocery doesn’t have a motto, but if they did, it’d be “you’re family.” Having walked in a handful of times on the way to or from Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the good people behind the counter have never been anything less than warm. Or maybe it was the presence of the endlessly rolling bacon-wrapped hotdogs. Currently accepting guesses as to what G&H stands for.
If you dislike interacting w/ strangers and being chatted up, then Turk and Jones is not for you. As with the rest of the neighborhood, there are at least two locals engaging in tenderloin telephone--which is to say, a conversation carried out by two parties hanging out of windows, or shouting from opposing sidewalks, although by no means is tenderloin telephone limited to these instances. On this round, it’s happening inside L.A. Cafe. We've had good intentions to visit the cafe for a long time, but the chance never materialized owing to the presence of the excellent Manor House just up the street.
If this little corner cafe had a motto, it would be "Be Patient." But we were happy to wait for fresh coffee to be brewed, for our off-menu sandwich to be lovingly pieced together. L.A. Cafe is, you see, a front for a much better cafe--there are plastic-wrapped pastries and they’ll make you a sad cold cut sandwich, but there are also Bánh mì (and word on the street says Phở,). It’s not the cheapest coffee and Vietnamwich in these environs--that can be had several blocks west--but at L.A. Cafe you will get a special order sandwich packed with do chua (the pickled daikon and carrot duo), very fresh cilantro, and as much jalapeno as your inner masochist allows. You’re going to get mayonnaise whether you asked for it or not, so just nod and enjoy the view. We like the high tables near the odd glass Dutch door, just don’t steal the art.
And of the parking lot across the street? It is fall; shadows deepen and the violet hour bestows the eastern sky with a becoming cast, such that even a parking lot is allowed a special grace. Our favorite part, however: the Helen (née El Rosa) Hotel's 7-UP ad. Everything's history, if you get the angle right.
Previously: All Urbane Studies entries on SFist