By Jack Stubbs
The Tenderloin, an especially iconic historic San Francisco neighborhood, is set for big changes in the coming years following the official opening of the much-anticipated Tenderloin Museum at 398 Eddy Street located proximate to the Civic Center. On Thursday, July 16th, members of the media and the public joined Mayor Ed Lee, Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church, Randy Shaw, executive director of the non-profit Uptown Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and Seth Meisler of Perkins+Will, lead architect for the project, to celebrate the Museum’s grand opening.
The inauguration marks the culmination of nearly seven years of organizing and planning to make the vision a reality, says Shaw, one of the primary motivators behind the project. The formation of the museum was well and truly a collaborative effort brought together by several different entities: the structural engineer for the endeavor was Santos and Urrutia; the contractor was Webcor; the interior exhibit designer was West Office Exhibition Design; the graphic designer was Mucho; and the lead architect was Perkins+Will’s Seth Meisler, who is also the regional director of the architecture firm’s Social Responsibility Initiative—of which the museum is a part.
For to Randy Shaw, however, the people who truly care about the Tenderloin were the ones to make the project come to life. “We didn’t get any philanthropists to contribute; the owners in the Tenderloin were the ones who said ‘we believe in the neighborhood,’ and they’re the ones who funded the museum.” The museum is located on the ground floor of the historic Cadillac Hotel, which will continue to function as an single room occupancy (SRO) building. “[The hotel] is really historic, both as a historic landmark and with the history of the Loopers running the place very well. When someone visits the Tenderloin Museum and sees how well it’s integrated into the SRO, they will see what the fabric of the Tenderloin really is,” Meisler of Perkins+Will said.
According to Meisler, the Museum’s association with the hotel will be one of the main drawing points; and it’s easy to see why: The Cadillac—built in 1907 after the earthquake—was the first non-profit SRO hotel west of the Mississippi and will continue to provide housing for around 160 tenants. Kathy Looper, who operated the hotel with her husband Leroy until his passing in 2011, remains the hotel’s executive director.
First and foremost, though, the Museum’s prominent location in the heart of the Uptown Tenderloin neighborhood will serve as a way to celebrate the area’s vibrant history, according to Meisler. “The museum will really help people to understand that when they think of the neighborhood, they should first think of a really rich historic [place], a neighborhood that has and still does bring a lot to San Francisco,” he said. Indeed, the neighborhood used to house the Blackhawk Jazz Club and Wally Heider Recording Studio, venues graced by countless musical icons including Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, the Grateful Dead and Santa, among others.
The Tenderloin also served as the epicenter for San Francisco’s emerging LGBT rights movements following WWII—a historical component especially important to an understanding of the Museum and the neighborhood that it commemorates, according to Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church. “We felt very strongly that the voice of those folks who came through [the city] needed to be heard. We began to relate closely and openly with gay and lesbian [groups]. We had ways by which to find a way into their community—that was very important, that we could identify with what [their] movement was,” Williams said.
Aside from the poignant historical narrative and movements to which the museum pays homage, the hope is that the various exhibits will serve to transform the fabric of the Tenderloin in the present, as well. From a practical standpoint, the museum has the potential to make the surrounding neighborhood a safer environment, according to Meisler. “People have different visions for the Tenderloin, but everybody agrees that safety is the number one priority. When people actually walk through a neighborhood, it adds to the safety, more eyes on the street and fewer lonely streets. The Museum will attract a lot of people walking to it at different times of the day, which will really make [the neighborhood] safer,” he said.
Along the same lines, Meisler hopes that the museum will serve as a way to ingratiate the Tenderloin into the city at large. “The Museum will mobilize the neighborhood—people will think of the neighborhood like they think of other sections of the city. It’ll be [somewhere] that people will integrate into their lives, not an island that we want to avoid.”
Indeed, the museum also represents a broader-reaching revitalization of the entire neighborhood, as well. “[It] is part of a larger [effort] that is happening with all of our revitalizations, particularly in the Tenderloin area. There’s investor confidence and there will be companies that will appreciate this [area] even more. The investments always [happen] because of the people who want to create an even better place and time,” Mayor Ed Lee said.
The museum might not only represent a catalyst for a larger renaissance of the Tenderloin—it might set a future precedent for other like-minded endeavors as well, according to Meisler. “I think [The Museum] definitely might set a precedent. Now when I think of the Tenderloin and it’s rebirth, I think of 826 Valencia, I think of CounterPulse—I think of a critical mass of really great organizations,” he said. Just as the museum is part of a larger chain and domino effect of revitalization projects—past and future—throughout the city, the opening of the museum itself is only the first of many steps in a longer process.
Kathy Looper, executive director of the Cadillac Hotel’s Board of Directors, asked those in attendance at the museum’s opening for their sustained backing. “My point is that we need your continued support. Not just one-time [help]; we need you to support every business,” she said; her sentiments echoed by Shaw. “Please don’t just walk out of here and forget what you’ve seen today.”