“Elvin! If it weren’t for the Tenderloin all these people would be living in Vallejo!”
A flash-argument broke out while chowing on some slammin’ phở at Turtle Tower on Larkin. Supervisor Kim had me at a disadvantage: I didn’t know where Vallejo was. I could only wonder: Do the apartments there have toilets?
“The city exploits the Tenderloin,” I responded, “to avoid paying for quality affordable housing. There are numerous quality SROs, but much of the housing is substandard, if it can be considered “housing” at all. Are you saying there’s no such thing as substandard housing in the Tenderloin?”
“No, there is not.”
And with that the brief argument ended as quickly as it began. There’s no debating with someone who thinks all the 8 x 10 rooms without toilets or sprinklers qualify as decent housing. Different, and ironic, world views I suppose: one’s money Upper East Side Manhattan and one’s no-money East New York Brooklyn. One prioritizes place over people, often accompanied by the argument that we can’t provide any better. The other prioritizes people over place, and wants to force us to provide better.
I’ve heard similar arguments on numerous occasions from various progressive friends: the Tenderloin is the last affordable neighborhood downtown is a common refrain. This always mentioned geographic factor overrides all other considerations, like healthy living conditions and environment. It makes me wonder what’s the great privilege in living downtown that the city would concentrate poverty so intensely – is it so we can be close to Macy’s?
Displacement in East New York Brooklyn
I can understand the emotional attachment to place at any cost. I grew up in a no heat or hot water, rodent and roaches infested apartment in East New York Brooklyn, one of the most violence-plagued neighborhoods in the country. Each night before I went to sleep I would rehearse in my mind the emergency evacuation sequence in case we woke up to one of the fires burning down the buildings all around us: I’d jump down from the top bunk, open the window, grab my kid brother, and climb out onto the awning over the convenience store beneath us. Then we would slide down onto the safety of the sidewalk below. I used to worry about the fall from the awning to the sidewalk, but always concluded that a broken leg would be better than burning to death.
Fires, gunfights, chains, bricks, bottles, knifes, gangs, heroin, bodies, human feces, needles. Fear was omnipresent. As a kid leaving in the morning on the way to school I would routinely have to step over someone to get out the front door downstairs (or jump, if there was more than one body). Coming home at the end of school, I remember wondering if there was someone waiting to assault me in the stairwell upstairs. I would start talking out-loud, in the deepest voices I could muster, with a make-believe companion to scare away would-be assailants. Strength in imaginary numbers.
But there was also Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas tree and presents, visits from kings on el Día de Los Reyes, weekend mornings café con leche, rolling Matchbox cars on the crooked floor, making fun of my sisters as they sat under the hair dryer with their rollers, mami’s awesome pollo guisado con arroz blanco y tostones, watching the Mets on Channel 9 with pops (the best), my brother and I celebrating when pops’ car got stolen and he would stay home, and music, always music: Tito, Celia, Hector, Willie. In all this there was a lot of love and happiness, and the nightmare around us was kept at bay.
So, when our place got condemned by the city as “Unfit for Human Habitation,” I felt a powerful sense of loss. Our place was dangerous and substandard, but it was home. We moved to a gigantic Section 8 project – Starrett City, the biggest in the country – built on a former landfill on the outskirts of East New York and Canarsie. Our high-rise apartment had heat, hot water, the toilets flushed, there was grass out front – real grass! – walking paths, and handball courts free of feces and needles. There were no roaches or rodents; no bodies to step over or assailants waiting at the top of the stairwell. No smell of burned-down buildings. In short, it was heaven. The old corner of Rockaway Avenue and Fulton Street vs. the new apartment in Starrett City was no contest.
Home, above the TV repair shop, after condemnation by the city. That fire escape was my great outdoors.
My favorite toy shop around the corner on Fulton Street. That window above the Coca-Cola sign is where my brother and I would escape the fire we always waited for.
The vestibule where we had to step or jump over bodies on our way to school.
Take the A train! The subway right below us, we could tell whether it was the C Local or A Express by the way the apartment shook.
Starrett City. That’s real grass!
Pops and his Plymouth Fury III. A monster V-8 with huge torque steer, I learned to drive in that car around the factory in Greenpoint without killing anybody.
I hear rumblings now of gentrification coming to East New York, which has always been considered impossible. From what I’ve read the neighborhood needs to go up to keep costs down, and that is a cultural problem for a place characterized by old 4 story walk-ups. Mayor de Blasio has proposed a major upzoning of East New York to add more affordable housing. Rebuilding East New York, like my old building that was constructed in 1910, would introduce over a thousand new affordable units, but would it still be East New York? Activists and preservationists are opposing upzoning/new development while offering in return nostalgia for the old days and the myth of a neighborhood that will be affordable in perpetuity. Today’s protectionism laying the foundation for tomorrow’s displacement.
But maybe I’m calling balls and strikes from 3000 miles away; even worse than what Bay Area progressives do to the Tenderloin. Best I shut up before my old ENY homies come find me at farmerbrown’s and bust me upside the head.
Segregation and the Intense Concentration of Poverty in the Tenderloin
I’ve heard Supervisor Kim say on a couple of occasions the goal is to make the TL a stable low-income community like Chinatown. I don’t know if Chinatown is a stable low-income community, but in this we are in agreement. It will be impossible, however, for the Tenderloin to achieve this socioeconomic equilibrium until the Department of Public Health (DPH) and Human Services Agency (HSA) treat the Tenderloin and Chinatown on equal terms, and on this measure we’re not remotely close.
This, of course, would require an advocacy that does not exist in the Tenderloin. Unlike Chinatown, without DPH and HSA programs, many Tenderloin SROs would be economically obsolete and sit empty. And if our goal is historic preservation of buildings at any cost – even at the cost of constructing new high-quality affordable housing – then we won’t push back against DPH or HSA. Our policy is poor people – or, more specifically, the government funding they bring with them – in the service of buildings, rather than the other way around.
If President Obama and HUD argue that neighborhood poverty at or over 40% constitutes “Extreme Poverty” and segregation hurtful to poor people, why are they funding a city with placement programs that far exceed that number in the Tenderloin? (Mere “High Poverty,” by the way, is considered 20% or higher.) In the Tenderloin, and adjacent blocks in mid-Market, the number exceeds 90%. Indeed, given all the literature dating back to William Julius Wilson, the War on Poverty and the more recent research on Social Determinants of Public Health from major public health foundations, a strong argument can be made that the worst offenders to the public health interest of the Tenderloin’s poor have been the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency.
Since Supervisor Kim’s office tried to prevent DPH and HSA statistics from being made public (see Housing, page 24) it’s no surprise she would not challenge this strikingly inequitable status quo that renders her comparison to stable low-income Chinatown completely absurd. How would she challenge DPH and HSA? – by telling them to take their bean-counting bureaucratic boots off the neck of the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin doesn’t belong to city hall to exploit. (Though through its Master Lease Program, much of the Tenderloin is de-facto controlled and exploited by the city; effectively privatized public housing, without the toilets.) Or, if parity with Chinatown is truly Kim’s goal, she could tell DPH and HSA to apply the same placement practices to both.
Who’s Afraid of the Black Cat?
Now that I’m back in the neighborhood I’m noticing what appears to be a conversion of SRO hotels back to tourist hotels. Heretofore illegal but now going unchallenged (perhaps the new owners have the right connections to avoid legal action being taken against them), it will be interesting to see if and how this trend continues, and the impact it will have on the city’s 90%+ placement number. If the result is more income-diversity, local spending on small businesses and a drop in the concentration of poverty, this would be a good development for the Tenderloin’s poor. Maybe we can get the placement percentage down to a mere, say, 45%; that still qualifies as egregious, unhealthy segregation per government and public health policies, but would still be far less oppressive for the Tenderloin’s poor.
How about Tenderloin low/moderate income entrepreneurs? The conversion back to hotels, if this is indeed happening, could be a benefit or threat. Many low/moderate income entrepreneurs took a giant hit and went out of business years ago when hotels converted to 100% residential; hundreds of low-cost lodging rooms that catered to low-income travelers were lost. These low/moderate income travelers patronized the Tenderloin’s small businesses. Maybe some of these travelers will come back now as a result of these conversions. Or perhaps we’ll see another wave of extinction as more mom & pop New Star Chinese restaurants and Lafayette Coffee Shops give way to sleek and high-end Black Cat “Uptown” establishments.
Ideally, the extensive inventory of ground floor commercial space owned and/or controlled by nonprofits can be made available at below market-rate rents to displaced low/moderate income entrepreneurs. That can be tricky, however, as some affordable housing developers don’t see providing affordable commercial space as part of their mission (not unless they’re subsidized for it, like they are for residential units). Hopefully the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) will, given that the organization’s name suggests a holistic focus above and beyond affordable housing. (Perhaps TNDC’s opposition to public funding for neighborhood-serving facilities and improvements was an aberration.) Between TNDC, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Mercy Housing, Community Housing Partnership and Chinatown Community Development Corporation, there’s plenty of commercial space that arguably should be protected. Will they help?
Back to the quiet conversions – like the Warfield Hotel at Turk & Taylor for example, or the Adrian Hotel on Hyde – the historic preservationists at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic must be happy. Whether facilitated by poor people’s or tourists’ money, the buildings remain intact and the gentry are visiting. A return to the glory Uptown days of yesteryear. They’re drinking Champagne at the new high-end bars after indulging at the new luxury spas, i.e. the kind of community serving retail the Tenderloin Housing Clinic advocates for in Community Benefit Agreements with market-rate real estate developers. The socioeconomic chasm between rich and poor in the Tenderloin may be worse than ever, but the party is on.
Mayor Ed Lee getting himself some Uptown. The decades old Chinese family restaurant is out.
Community-serving Uptown Champagne and Caviar are in.
I’ve heard concerns from Southeast Asian community activists (all API children of refugees, none progressives) that hotel landlords have been harassed to evict Southeast Asian moms & pops to make way for the Uptown Black Cats. But I don’t buy that: Taking poor people’s Supplemental Security Income to keep the 8×10 rooms/one-sprinkler-per-floor buildings economically viable, while squeezing out low/moderate income moms & pops on the ground floors to make room for Champagne and caviar joints more befitting the Uptown profile, would constitute the most insidious and disgusting example of poor people exploitation and gentrification ever witnessed. Besides, I’m sure HUD and/or HHS would have investigated.
Maybe once upon a time it was about protecting poor folks, but at some point the focus in the Tenderloin turned a corner and became principally about protecting nostalgia, not the people. I know from experience the vast majority of poor folks in the Tenderloin care little, if at all, about the history stuff or plaques; they’re just fighting to get through the day. If it were about the people, we would not accept the extreme concentration of poverty. And we would go up, give them better housing, fire sprinklers, and maybe even toilets, like I suspect they have in Vallejo.
I’m not suggesting the Tenderloin goes high-rise like Starrett City. I’m suggesting we rebuild obsolete buildings – and go higher in the process – that haven’t served the needs of poor people or the city for a long time, except maybe to save an expedient buck in the short run. In some instances we may want to rebuild entire blocks (we’ll take a look at an example later). Put the needs of the people, not the buildings, first.
Despite the harsh environment I come from, I’m the beneficiary of a loving family and privileged education; I’m an incredibly lucky person. Still, given the history of substance abuse and mental illness that runs in my family, and maybe a little “residual stuff” carried over from childhood (you never forget the fires, the smell of burned buildings, the fear), I occasionally wonder about the possibility I’ll someday wind up in a placement program of some sort, somewhere. If that day comes, I hope I’m nowhere near the likes of SF public health/human services officials or progressive, status-quo protecting politicians that have such complete disregard for the welfare of poor folks and decades of public health research.
And I’ll especially keep a lookout for nostalgic preservationists who would exploit me – and what little money I have – for their own poverty theme-park creation purposes.