Prime Time in the Tenderloin

Barely open three months, the Tenderloin Museum has already established itself as a San Francisco must-see unlike any other—in a part of the city that’s oft misunderstood. Located two blocks from the Phoenix Hotel, it provides a space for locals and visitors alike to celebrate the neighborhood’s unique culture and community, while acknowledging its economic challenges and colorful past. The result is a more complete story, one largely unknown even among longtime residents.

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The museum occupies the ground level of the historic Cadillac Hotel on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth, the first building in the neighborhood to be rebuilt after the devastating 1906 earthquake. Designed by pro bono by Perkins+Wills, the interior (while small) is packed with fascinating history and multimedia exhibits, like a rotating “then and now” photo screen.

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What’s in a Name?

The story goes that, way back when, police officers would collect bribes from the owners of illegitimate local businesses and, with the money, buy the choicest cuts of meat. Thus, the neighborhood began to be colloquially called the Tenderloin, and then officially so. But beyond the seedy underbelly was a history of glamour, too. The Tenderloin has long been home to cultural institutions—like the Black Hawk, a club that was once the epicenter of jazz music on the west coast.

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Gritty But Authentic

Today, the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District encompasses 33 city blocks and 409 landmark-designated historic buildings. While it has certainly gone through its share of growth and change, zoning restrictions put in place in the 1970s have prevented the influx of towering high-rises and luxury condos seen elsewhere in San Francisco.

The community is gritty but authentic, says the Tenderloin Museum’s Executive Director, Bill Fricker. The museum’s message is one of inclusion, consistent with the neighborhood’s history of welcoming those who were turned away elsewhere—from gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer communities, to refugees fleeing the Vietnam War in the 1960s. (Many of the latter settled here, started families, opened businesses, and never left.)

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Ultimately, the museum aims to fit into the existing fabric of the neighborhood, celebrating locals instead of alienating them. “The people of the Tenderloin are the Tenderloin,” Fricker explains.

Walking tours depart from the museum twice daily, led by expert local guides. Plus, there is a growing calendar of evening events, including movie screenings, jazz musicals, poetry readings, and more.

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