« | Home | »

In the Tenderloin National Forest


I took a walk in the forest the other day, a national forest. I’m not, customarily, big on walking in the forest unless there’s a Hansel and Gretel Bar & Grill about 300 yards in, but I’m glad I did. It was an uncommonly sultry April afternoon for San Francisco, and windless, rarer still.

At the entrance to the forest was an impressive, handcrafted wrought-iron gate, about 15 feet high, and just inside was a small wattle-and-daub hut with a watchman inside, a good-sized African-American chap who seemed a bit wobbly on his feet but not unvigilant. On the other side of the fence were a group of chaps, also African-American, of varying size and age, busily conducting commerce of some kind. The smell of marijuana around them was strong enough to knock a bullock sideways, but a not unpleasant, or unfamiliar, aroma on a fine spring afternoon in these parts.

I espied many a plant and tree in the forest, most of which, but not all, are commonly seen in northern California: a couple of fine redwood saplings, a baby sequoia, yucca, staghorn, nasturtium, a handsome white pine, Japanese maple, redbud, cactus, herbs. Above the wattle-and-daub hut was a hydroponic vertical garden, and above that a plaque that read: ‘Tell Your Story Here.’

It is a most refreshing forest, and really quite manageable: 25’ x 136’. I appreciate that in a forest. On either side of the narrow rectangle rise the sides of four or five-storey apartment blocks, one room, or resident hotels, with bright murals painted on, and in one patch there’s a group of painted tiles, the work of children from the nearby Vietnamese Cultural Center. It must be a pleasure for the inhabitants of these rooms to look down on this patch of greenery, which goes by the name of the Tenderloin National Forest.

It used to be called Cohen Place, after the Central Pacific Railroad attorney Alfred Andrew Cohen. A couple of do-gooders, Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer, have succeeded, over 25 years or so, in turning an alley filled with unspeakable filth and rubbish into a tiny oasis in the middle of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The Tenderloin is a catch basin for drug dealers, prostitutes, the mentally unstable and homeless, the streets lined with fleabag hotels and residences, bars, billiard parlours, hoochie-coochie joints, cheque cashing and social service storefronts. Hep C and Aids are rampant. The place is depressing in the extreme, if fairly harmless during the day, but it bares its teeth at night. Darryl’s father, a policeman, drove him through the neighbourhood forty or so years ago and told him: ‘You don’t want to be winding up here, son.’ But he has indeed wound up here and set up shop. He describes the Tenderloin as ‘the most diverse and fascinating neighbourhood in San Francisco’. There’s a good novella about the Tenderloin entitled Whores for Gloria, by William Vollmann. If you want to catch a whiff of the neighbourhood while passing a lazy spring afternoon on your sofa in Somerset, you could do worse.

San Francisco is very much a city of neighbourhoods, with a not terribly interesting downtown. I used to travel on the streetcar down to the Tenderloin in the early 1990s when I was working at 44 McAllister, around the corner from the forest, with homeless veterans. The neighbourhood hasn’t changed much in twenty-odd years and there’s absolutely no good reason to come here, by my lights, unless you’re looking for hole-in-the-wall South-East Asian beaneries, the best in San Francisco. There’s been a large Vietnamese presence in the Tenderloin since the 1970s. Had the forest been up and running when I was spending time here I would almost certainly have come here as often as possible for spiritual refreshment, which is surely what Darryl and Laurie, who run a nearby community arts centre, had in mind. Probably not so much for well-educated, middle-class white boys like me, but all are welcome, and have been since May 2009, and before, when Cohen Place was reclaimed as the Tenderloin National Forest, leased from the city for $1 per year.

The thousands of tech workers from offices around the Tenderloin would be welcome here as well, should they be curious enough, or ‘brave’ enough, to venture to this part of the neighbourhood, adjacent to the busy intersections of Leavenworth and Ellis. It would involve walking over the occasional body or two and past gatherings of unhappy, argumentative characters down on their luck. I think these new visitors, as well, would find themselves refreshed.

There’s a fair bit of chitchat about population density and the changes wrought to San Francisco by the influx of tech types and the building frenzy around the mid-Market area of downtown. If you ask me, I think it’s a bit of a red herring. The most densely populated area of the United States begins about a block south of where I grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, along the Palisades, directly across the Hudson from Manhattan, including five of the most densely populated municipal townships in the country. The list goes like this: Guttenberg, Union City, West New York, Hoboken, Kaser (NY, on the border of NJ), New York City, and Cliffside, next to Fort Lee. San Francisco comes 20th on the list.

The Tenderloin is roughly the size of Hoboken, fifty square blocks, forty or fifty thousand people. They’re very different sorts of places, always have been. Hoboken has experienced, over the past twenty-five years or so, a wave of high-rise development and affluent new, younger residents. It’s still Hoboken, more restaurants, less crime, arguably less ‘flavour’; but, truth is, I don’t know just how much of a treat that ‘flavour’ was.

Jan Morris once wrote of San Francisco that it could do with a few thousand more people. The notion didn’t strike me as wrong at the time, and still doesn’t. Stir the waters a bit. Complacent, self-regarding San Francisco could do with some serious stirring up. Morris didn’t specify what sort of people were needed. One always hopes for the right sort. But then, you and I, and Jan Morris, might well have different opinions on that particular subject.

Comments on “In the Tenderloin National Forest”

  1. RobotBoy says:

    I began this piece with high hopes – Kleinzahler is an engaging stylist, he mentions Vollmann! and the Tenderloin is a fascinating place – then watched with dismay as it turned into an odd apologia for gentrification. The problem in SF has nothing to do with increased population density, far from it, but from the fact that SF, and many other American cities, have become unaffordable to even those in the upward fringe of the amorphous middle class (an issue covered today in the NYTimes, no breeding ground for socialists), not to mention folks who haven’t been gifted with trust funds or MIT diplomas. Kleinzahler elides this issue in the tricky bit of business he does when he makes the swing to ‘chitchat about…the changes wrought in San Francisco.’ I don’t know what kind of people Mr. Kleinzahler would like to see in his SF, but I’m guessing you need to earn mid six-figures to number among them. If he would like to read about the devastation and loss of diversity visited on the ‘complacent, self-regarding’ city in the wake of the tech boom, the lucid fury of Rebecca Solnit would be a good place to start.

  2. markymark says:

    Love these stylish miniatures. Would like to see more.
    –Mark from Cliffside Park

    PS – Its Cliffside Park, not Cliffside.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement