The Tenderloin has a long history of social activism and community organizing. Residents aren’t shy about taking their grievances with City Hall to the streets. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)

Tenderloin residents excited to start the protest and street closure for safer streets in the neighborhood. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)Residents in the Tenderloin gather early to protest for safer streets in the neighborhood. The woman speaking into the microphone was hit by a car that ran a red light at an intersection in the Tenderloin. She is now an activist for safer streets. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)The dangerous intersection of Taylor and Eddy streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is on a popular route to and from school for many local children. Residents gather to demand that the city implement traffic safety upgrades. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)After a long day at work in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, Curtis Bradford and his dog usually take a walk, but his dog would rather be carried. “People on the street know me, I stop and talk with neighbors all the time and shop owners know me by name,” said Bradford, a 10-year neighborhood resident. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)A group of children cross the intersection of Taylor and Eddy streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood during a protest over dangerous traffic conditions. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)A woman pauses to observe the protest. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)There are an estimated 3,500 children in the Tenderloin District, which houses the highest density of kids in San Francisco. They often take an active role in advocating for their own safety in the neighborhood. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin, partners with neighborhood residents and community organizations to develop strategies intended to protect it from gentrification and other ills. (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow)Bradford stands in the middle of Taylor Street after a successful and safe street closure protest. “There’s really a lot of great people in this neighborhood,” Bradford said. “It’s not just a collection of drug dealers and drug users and homeless folks. But I’m not hating on them, they’re a part of our community, too. It’s sort of like living in a small town in the middle of the big city because everybody kind of knows everybody.” (Photo by Felix Uribe/ CatchLight Local Fellow) To hear Curtis Bradford tell it, San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is engaged in an existential struggle for its very survival. 

The long-maligned neighborhood south of affluent Nob Hill and east of shiny Union Square has struggled with homelessness, drug addiction, crime and poverty for years, but these aren’t the forces that threaten to strike the fatal blow, according to Bradford.

“The impact of homelessness and the housing crisis are dramatic citywide,” said Bradford, a 10-year neighborhood resident and a leader of the Tenderloin People’s Congress, a local nonprofit advocacy organization. “But the impact in the Tenderloin is much more profound than that and the reason is the city has historically and continues to use the Tenderloin like a containment zone.” 

Bradford says that on one hand the forces of gentrification are encroaching from all sides, with new residential high-rise projects, a hospital and a city transit project all carving off pieces of the neighborhood, shrinking its footprint, driving up rents and displacing locals.

“There are folks that I know personally that are sleeping on the sidewalk out front of the building where they used to live,” he said. “It’s just insane.”  

On the other hand, the neighborhood has seen an increase in its homeless population which is increasing the profound tensions and frustrations that already run through its streets, according to Bradford. 

“Folks on the outside will always try to talk about the Tenderloin in a way that makes it sound like it’s the Tenderloin’s fault that it is the way it is, and it’s really not,” said Bradford. “It’s a direct result of the policies of the city that have created this environment that is so unhealthy for everyone.”

Despite all that, the Tenderloin is still the city’s friendliest, most welcoming community and its residents are fighting to keep it that way, Bradford said. 

People stay, enduring the struggles and complications that are seemingly inherent to the neighborhood, because for many there’s nowhere else to go.

But many also stay because of the Tenderloin’s strong sense of community and the availability of its social services network that, while overwhelmed, is a critical part of many residents’ lives. 

“It is a place where people feel like they actually fit in and belong,” he said. “They have a sense of belonging and family and community, especially the immigrant communities.”

Because of this, the people of the Tenderloin have a long history of organizing to defend themselves “against these outside pressures and forces,” Bradford said.  

For example, community organizers like himself, along with everyday local denizens, are working to implement a plan – Vision 2020 – that seeks to combat gentrification, displacement and other ills by coordinating with the city’s planning department to develop real protections for the neighborhood. 

He said the city also needs to put serious resources into combating homelessness and drug addiction in the Tenderloin, because if they can’t do it there, it’s unlikely they’ll be successful in other parts of San Francisco. 

“The city can’t heal until it treats the wound that it’s already created right here in the middle of itself,” he said. 

  [divider line_type=”Small Line” line_alignment=”default” line_thickness=”2″ divider_color=”accent-color” custom_height=”20″]The Bay City News Foundation, with support from PolicyLink, is excited to partner with CatchLight Local on this project, given our shared interest in telling stories about how inequality plays out in the Bay Area. We are currently producing a series of data-based stories and aim to develop more visual packages like this one in the months ahead. CatchLight Local is a new visual storytelling initiative working to engage visual journalism at the local level, in partnership with The GroundTruth Project and with the support of The Kresge Foundation. It connects talented visual storytellers directly with newsrooms, including the Bay City News Foundation.