Tours of San Francisco’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood, the Tenderloin

If there was ever a city radical enough to conjure up an idea like this, it would be San Francisco. The city by the Bay has long been known for its outlandish behavior. Often characterized as being overly liberal, it has always been a place where anything goes.

Some of the cities more famous achievements would include the hippie movement, gay rights, universal health care, and their extremely liberal stance toward immigration and drug use. The bay area is also the birth place of the Silicon Valley dot com boom in the late 1990’s. Essentially, it’s a pretty progressive town. So, it’s not surprising that the cities’ newest attempt at encouraging tourism is a little aggressive as well. It’s essentially Urban Adventure Travel, or in other words adding to the tourist track, a glimpse into one of San Francisco most run down, dilapidated, and often scary yet historic neighborhoods known as the Tenderloin.

What is the Tenderloin?

When most people think of San Francisco they are likely reminded of its beauty. Images of street cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, and its many distinctive neighborhoods probably come to mind. Little do they know that just around the corner (literally a few blocks from tourist-central) lies a whole other world; the world of the down-and-out folks of the Tenderloin. This is a place where the streets are lined with the disabled and homeless, where crack is consumed along side malt liquor in plain sight, and where gangs, refugees, and prostitutes live side by side. Interesting to say the least.

Why so sketchy?

The neighborhood lies in the heart of the city, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the country. And actually the price of some housing in the Tenderloin can be very expensive despite its seedy appearance. So what keeps this tiny stretch of land in the heart of one of America’s most expensive cities so dingy? You might say it goes back to policy and historic preservation.

San Francisco is a town that fights gentrification, in this case with tight zoning restrictions, and because the Tenderloin has the highest concentration of  Single Room Occupancies (SROs) in the country within its 60 square blocks, it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These SRO’s have always been slightly more “basic” than your normal apartment or hotel. They typically consist of one small room with a kitchenette and a communal bathroom. So as you would expect, the poorest people tend to stay in them. Under normal circumstances, these buildings would have probably been converted into more upscale apartment complexes or hotels based on their location in the heart of downtown. However, city policy prohibits the conversion of these buildings. And with a neighborhood of poorer individuals, there hasn’t been enough money to “modernize” the area. Thus we see its current state; a dilapidated area that has maintained its original look and feel.

What does this mean for tourism?

Well, this means that if you want to brave the “mean streets” of San Francisco’s most crime ridden neighborhood, you can catch a glimpse into one of America’s most unique sub-cultures. For most people, this is something that can only be seen on television. Its gritty, its historic, its seedy and its definitely more interesting than Fisherman’s Wharf. In another sense, this may be a good way to pump a bit of money into the area without changing it or relocating the people who live there.

How does the city plan to promote tourism here?

The city plans to implement a number of things to actually draw tourists there, most of them are pretty basic. First off, a new museum will be built in the area with hopes of creating a type of “art district”. There will also be plaques put up that will point out any historical significance such as where the Grateful Dead had recorded, or where Mohammad Ali trained. Finally, guided walking tours will be given. The significance of these walking tours is that they will actually bring tourists into SRO’s currently occupied by residents of the Tenderloin.

Whether this works or not, only time will tell. Nevertheless, if people know about the Tenderloin I have no doubt that some will be very interested in seeing it. My main concern is if it’s really a good idea to send tourists into an area so full of drugs, prostitution, and violent crime as the Tenderloin.

My advice if you do decide to go; do it during the day, act like you belong there, and be prepared to see some craziness.

Daniel Royse Written by:

Daniel Royse is the founder and editor in chief of the online travel publication, This Boundless World. He has written numerous articles on travel, business and politics and has recently completed his first full-length novel titled The Watermelon King. Daniel is an obsessive writer and explorer who has backpacked to over 50 countries, spanning five continents. To the disbelief of many, he still enjoys long, hot bus rides through chaotic places. More information about The Watermelon King can be found at Contact: danroyse(to)