In the Tenderloin, corner stores sell more alcohol than food, drug-addled panhandlers shake paper cups at passers-by and churches vie for real estate with strip clubs.
Now, the federal government is on the verge of crowning this neighborhood a place of national historic significance. Each of the area's 410 historic buildings — flophouses, parking garages, delis and theaters — now awaits a gold-colored placard, proudly stating its vintage and history.
This month the neighborhood's bid for historic district status will be submitted to the National Park Service, following state approval of the designation in July.
The Tenderloin will join some 80,000 listings already on the National Register of Historic Places, a roster of locales throughout the country worthy of preservation because of their significance in American history, architecture and culture. Mount Rushmore is on the list. So are the boyhood homes of the nation's presidents, along with lesser known buildings, barns and cemeteries.
The Tenderloin was not always a tangle of parking lots, liquor stores and residential hotels. During the Gold Rush, the district was a stretch of sand dunes dotted with scraggly coastal grasses. A building boom began in the region after the 1906 earthquake and by the end of World War I, the blocks were crammed with single room occupancy hotels renting rooms to merchant seamen, young professionals, musicians and migrant laborers.
"Chicago, Seattle, New York, Boston, all modern cities had these cheap lodging houses around the turn of the century," said Paul Groth, a professor of architecture and geography at the University of California at Berkeley. "But San Francisco has always been a leader in preserving them."
Preserving low-income housing
The money and time spent to protect historic places, however, is often aimed at saving something other than a storied past, distinctive facades or ornate cornices.
"Very often what happens with historic buildings is that they are rehabilitated for low-income housing," said Paul Loether, Chief of the National Register of Historic Places. "That is something we encourage."
The vast majority of the property owners in the Tenderloin district approved of the historic designation. Some were spurred by the federal tax credits that flow to such historic places. Others are committed to providing a roof to the homeless and working poor.
A few owners wrote letters protesting the fact that new development is curtailed once a property is listed on the national registry.
"This isn't about history. They're really just trying to preserve low-income housing," said Tien Lee, whose family owns a parking lot in the district that they had hoped to commercially develop. But low-income housing advocates contend aspirations like those can lead to gentrification.
Once officially on The National Register of Historic Places, the whole neighborhood will be celebrating the Tenderloin's infancy, when buildings rose triumphantly from the earthquake's rubble.
‘We all watch out for each other’
At last year's 100th birthday party for the Cadillac Hotel, the first built after the earthquake, a woman played a Steinway grand piano in the hotel's downstairs lobby. Christmas lights festooned the balconies.
Upstairs, Richard Mathena, 81, and his 83-year-old brother Robert have shared a room without a kitchen since 1965. The Mathena brothers say they remember that in those early days, senior citizens and young office workers would congregate in the hotel lobby to watch TV and smoke pipes.
But all that has changed, Richard said. "The new bunch who live here are homeless people," he said. "It's getting awfully loud. Everybody has those cell phones and they play boom boxes."
Now, the Mathena brothers stay inside most days to avoid the modern "riffraff." They watch black and white Bette Davis movies and savor the past.
Beneath their room, a neighborhood museum is planned for the hotel's ground floor, following the lead of New York City's Tenement Museum.
A few blocks south of the Cadillac, 57-year-old Ozell Williams stands on the sidewalk outside the Boyd Hotel, where he has lived since his wife died four years ago. He is jobless, with a criminal record, but he says he chases drug dealers away from the entryway and welcomes residents home.
"There are kids in here and old ladies," said Williams. "We all watch out for each other."