San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, right in the heart of the city’s downtown, can sometimes feel like an overwhelming place to walk around. But the area that HI San Francisco City Center hostel calls home can also be full of stunning surprises. If you’re a fan of beautiful buildings, or just enjoy walking around a city’s streets to get to know it a little better, we recommend gathering a crew from the hostel and taking the time to appreciate the underrated artistry of the Tenderloin. Along with intricately adorned apartment blocks, you’ll also find some of the city’s best Indian, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants, dark dive bars, and quirky independent retailers to help you fully immerse yourself in the community. Let’s take a walk!
Geary Street, which marks the northern border of the Tenderloin, is a good place to find the jumble of styles, from Roman and Greek, to Byzantine and Art Deco, which characterize the buildings of this neighborhood. In the 1920s and ‘30s, this part of San Francisco was a hub for artists, musicians and wheelers and dealers of after-dark activities, and you’ll still find a number of theatres, like the stunning Alcazar (a designated city landmark) and the Curran (currently under construction), as reminders of this cultured past.
A long time ago, before the big earthquake and fire of 1906, the Tenderloin was a residential neighborhood with wooden family homes taking up most of the space. After they were all destroyed, the Single Room Occupancy Hotels that are now the signature of the Tenderloin were constructed in an assortment of architectural styles adding to the vibrant culture that’s a big part of the area’s history.
The apartment buildings along Geary have so many wonderful details that you’ll find yourself stopping to admire a window here or a doorway there every couple of steps. The Alhambra Apartments near Larkin Street are particularly interesting with their Turkish elegance and old school charm, though you’ll happen upon such a range of colors and ornate decorations all the way down to Mason Street (stop and say hello our friends at HI San Francisco Downtown hostel!) it will be difficult to choose a favorite. Keep walking along O’Farrell, Taylor and Turk Streets for more unique structures and street art.
In its heyday, the Tenderloin was where famous jazz musicians played for excited crowds in venues like the Black Hawk, which is now a nondescript parking lot on the corner of Hyde and Turk Streets where the only reminder of its monumental past is a bronze plaque. The Lyric Hotel on Jones, where sheet music and instruments used to be sold to local artists, is now a nationally recognized historic place and serves as an affordable housing block for homeless adults. And there’s also the still functional Hyde Street Studios, which boasts residencies from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Green Day, and Tupac, plus many yet-to-be-discovered San Francisco acts.
If anything, the Tenderloin is a posterchild for the old adage to never judge a book by its cover, since all it takes is a glance upwards to be reminded that beauty can happen in the most unexpected places. And in the end, that’s why we travel: to see cities for what they really are with our own eyes, to discover the parts that are never mentioned in guidebooks and travel sites, and to gain a better understanding of these new places and the people that call them home.
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HI USA tip: Ask the friendly and knowledgeable staff at HI SF City Center for their recommendations on the best cheap eats in the Tenderloin. If you’d like to help out the community during your stay, ask Engagement Coordinator Anthony Jones for more information about volunteering with GLIDE, an organization that’s been offering community services in the Tenderloin for many years.