Issue 504

Linked Fortunes: Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin

They thrived together, then declined together. Now these
key neighborhoods are primed for a joint revival.

Urbanist Article

San Francisco’s recent payroll tax exemption for the Mid-Market and Uptown Tenderloin reaffirmed a century-long connection between these neighborhoods. From the 1890s through the 1950s, Mid-Market theater patrons and shoppers dined and drank in Uptown Tenderloin bars and restaurants. Through the 1930s, Market Street movie theaters picked up their films from the many film exchanges in the Uptown Tenderloin. Market Street also attracted people to Uptown Tenderloin bordellos and gambling houses, the latter often tucked in the back of cigar stores. Both neighborhoods promoted a “bachelor culture” of pool halls, bathhouses and cheap restaurants that helped make them a popular destination for sailors during World War II. Mid-Market Street and the Uptown Tenderloin experienced decades of great economic times. Both had clear functions in San Francisco’s broader economy. Mid-Market was the “Great White Way,” where people from the entire Bay Area came to see first-run movies at historic movie palaces. The Uptown Tenderloin was San Francisco’s center for gambling, bordellos and other vices, which helped support the area’s legal entertainment and legitimate businesses. But just as Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin prospered together, they experienced a parallel decline. Suburbanization ended Mid- Market’s near monopoly over major first-run movies, and the 1960s saw the demolition of the Fox Theatre and other historic theaters. In addition, urban reformers promoting “beautification” eliminated many of the gaudy facades that distinguished Mid-Market, and BART construction in the 1960s tore up the street, hurting the area’s retail stores. Mid-Market never established a new function in the San Francisco economy after the theaters departed. Though it hosted some less-than-legal businesses, the Uptown Tenderloin had a vital economy through the 1950s and was never the city’s Skid Row. As late as 1960, the U.S. census found not a single block in the neighborhood to have “Skid Row characteristics,” a term that included the homeless and/or alcoholic single men who predominated in the South of Market and Mission areas at the time. But as Mid-Market declined in the 1960s, the Uptown Tenderloin followed. Restaurants and bars that long depended on patronage from Market Street theatergoers could not survive. San Francisco waged what some called a “war on fun” against Uptown Tenderloin bars (particularly gay establishments) and entertainment venues. The biggest impact came from the city’s crackdown on police corruption, which gained force with the election of Mayor George Christopher in 1955. The drive to root out corruption put the Uptown Tenderloin’s longtime gambling operations out of business. Gambling and vice were the economic lifeblood of the neighborhood, and by the early 1960s the Uptown Tenderloin, like Mid-Market, needed a new function in the city’s economy.


Many San Francisco neighborhoods declined in the early 1960s, but Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin still have not recovered. Instead, starting in the 1960s, these two areas increasingly became home to those whose poverty, sexual orientation or gender identity denied them access to other neighborhoods. Porn movie theaters and live sex shows replaced the storied first-run movie palaces of the past and proliferated in both neighborhoods. Street prostitution took the place of bordellos, and public drug dealing — unheard of in these neighborhoods through the mid-1950s — was now commonplace. The decline of Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin continued into the late 1970s, a time when much of San Francisco was on the rebound. Young urban professionals returned to the city, fueling the first waves of gentrification. Gay men and lesbians, attracted by the city’s social tolerance, migrated to San Francisco in droves, further Urbanist > July 2011 11 increasing demand for housing in the Mission, Haight-Ashbury, Castro and other neighborhoods near downtown. But Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin remained largely isolated from this upsurge of the late 1970s and 1980s and could not capitalize on San Francisco’s economic growth. In the late 1970s, the Uptown Tenderloin got an unforeseen break with the arrival of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. As Asian-oriented businesses filled long-vacant storefronts and refugee families moved into empty apartments (refugees were placed in the neighborhood due to its high vacancy rate), there was a sense that the Uptown Tenderloin was on the verge of a great transformation. As the 1980s began, optimism about the neighborhood’s future was so high that activists moved to enact critical laws to prevent the Uptown Tenderloin’s gentrification. These included citywide rent-control and “just cause” eviction laws, and a measure restricting the conversion of residential hotels to tourist lodgings. The neighborhood’s most important anti-gentrification measure was a rezoning proposal to end the Uptown Tenderloin’s long-standing downtown commercial zoning, which had allowed 40-story high-rise towers to be built throughout the community. The new zoning plan was submitted to the city in May 1981. It immediately reduced most neighborhood heights to 80 feet, or to 130 feet in some blocks with conditional-use approval. New tourist hotels were banned, as were nonresidential uses above the second floor. The new zoning law was enacted in 1985. When these land-use restrictions and tenant protections were added to the Uptown Tenderloin’s unique absence of homeownership opportunities — an essential part of every gentrified neighborhood in the nation — activists and residents were confident that, unlike elsewhere, the neighborhood’s rise would benefit low-income residents. But hopes in the community’s progress — and in the ability of the Southeast Asian influx to revive the Uptown Tenderloin’s long-stagnant business life — proved illusory. Most immigrants had little disposable income, and often those who became more financially successful quickly moved to a better neighborhood. Even worse, during the 1980s the neighborhood’s single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels were transformed into city-funded transient housing, driving out long-term residents and affirming the area’s status as a home for the downtrodden. Market Street movie theaters also became unofficial homeless shelters during those years, with the Embassy and Strand theaters providing cheap lodgings (anyone could sleep in the theater all day for the cost of a $2 matinee) for those unable to afford an SRO.


From the 1980s through today, there has been no shortage of plans for reviving Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin. In reference to the former, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1967, “The dreamers talk vaguely of pedestrian malls and islands of shrubbery, but there is doubt even in the pretty drawings; they will end up in the files (or the wastebasket) along with a thousand other plans bravely titled, ‘What to Do About Market Street’” [the title of SPUR's 1964 plan for Market Street]. I have a file drawer full of failed plans for Uptown Tenderloin projects; considerable time has been spent trying to create a viable economic function for the neighborhood. Today the Uptown Tenderloin and Mid-Market Street show signs of an upswing. I believe their revivial began with their formation of Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The CBDs have improved both neighborhoods’ physical appearance and increased the commitment of property owners — who are now paying a special assessment — to improving their neighborhood. This latter point is critical, because inactive property owners unwilling to invest in the area’s improvement have prevented progress in both neighborhoods. After decades trying to find a function in the city’s economy, the Uptown Tenderloin and Mid- Market Street are now playing to their strengths. In 2009, the former’s large collection of historic buildings paved the way for the federal government to designate 33 blocks as the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District. The area’s history offers a road map for revitalization, as its authenticity attracts patrons to its restaurants and bars. Mid-Market’s location near transit lines makes it a perfect site for new arts and theater uses, the key to its successful past. Mid-Market also has highquality historic office space, which made the city’s recent deal to retain Twitter possible and opens opportunities for the street to become a home for high-tech companies. The Uptown Tenderloin’s small businesses need patronage from Mid-Market office workers, and Mid-Market cannot thrive if it has a troubled neighborhood on its northern border. Two neighborhoods that prospered together for decades, and then declined almost in lockstep, are now primed for a joint revival.

Randy Shaw is the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and editor of THC sponsored the application for the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District. Shaw is currently working to create a museum and event center at Eddy and Leavenworth streets in the historic Cadillac Hotel.