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Tenderloin Museum Celebrates a History Just as Funky and Weird as the Present

Sex, crime, jazz, and rioting: That's San Francisco, baby.


"The Tenderloin isn't always easy on the eyes," says a sign at the entrance of the new Tenderloin Museum at Leavenworth & Eddy. Right next to it there's a sign explaining how the neighborhood got its name: With bribes for protecting local rackets, old-timey crooked cops could afford steak instead of chuck. The building itself is even the site of the Tenderloin's original SRO (and a gym once frequented by Muhammad Ali). This place doesn't think the Tenderloin is misunderstood. We all understand just fine.

Originally slated for April, the museum finally opened its doors at 11:00 this morning at a ceremony presided over by Mayor Ed Lee, eight years and a few construction delays after its original conception. The exhibits focus primarily on the Tenderloin's importance as a vanguard of social change. As guests move counterclockwise across the single gallery (the space was designed pro bono by Perkins+Will) we discover a mecca for working women, then hippies, musicians, the porn industry, and LGBT activists.  The latter gets particular emphasis; the Tenderloin was the site for the U.S.'s first major transgender riot at Compton's Cafeteria, where trans women resisted a police crackdown on "cross-dressing" in 1966. 

Also celebrated is the neighborhood's overlooked musical history.  A touch screen offers selections from the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock, Neil Young, and CCR, all of whom recorded at the Tenderloin's Wally Heider Studios.  Another wall celebrates the legendary Black Hawk jazz club, which opened in 1949 and hosted everyone from Miles Davis to Dave Brubeck to Billie Holiday.

Save for some matchboxes from historic SROs and a pinball machine once used for gambling, the museum is light on artifacts. Most of what's on display are photos or newspaper stories. This kind of history doesn't leave behind many antiques. But supporters hope it will give fresh perspective on the much-maligned neighborhood. At the opening, the mayor was optimistic that the new joint would "attract investor confidence and to bring people together."

"As people come through, they'll come to all the other neighborhood shops they haven't been exposed to," says Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. "This part of our city is going to become an even bigger contributor." San Francisco's history is a little dirty around the edges, but the Tenderloin Museum doesn't turn its back on it. "A city without a Tenderloin isn't a real city," declares a t-shirt in the window. Amen.


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