We’ve all heard it when traveling to a city. “Oh, you’re going to XXX? You need to avoid going to that area; it’s really bad.” “Bad” is a relative term but it’s a blanket word to cover anything tourists would want to avoid. Whether it’s drugs, crime, homelessness or prostitution, these are things you generally don’t want to see when you’re on vacation.
I remember the first time we went to San Francisco in 2004. When reading guidebooks or looking at what was available online, the one place that everyone said to avoid was “the Tenderloin.” That wasn’t a problem, as most of our first stay involved spending time at Fisherman’s Wharf and taking the boat to Alcatraz. What can I say, we’re tourists.
Here we are, 15 years later and a lot has changed in San Francisco since then. When we booked a hotel on the border of the same neighborhood, did I regret that choice?
When you look up the area, here’s the Wikipedia description:
The Tenderloin is a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, in the flatlands on the southern slope of Nob Hill, situated between the Union Square shopping district to the northeast and the Civic Center office district to the southwest. It encompasses about 50 square blocks, is a large wedge/triangle in shape (point faces East). It is historically bounded on the north by Geary Street, on the east by Mason Street, on the south by Market Street and on the west by Van Ness Avenue. The northern boundary with Lower Nob Hill historically has been set at Geary Street.
The area is surrounded by the shops of Union Square to the north and the Civic Center, including City Hall and the Theater District to the south.
Our hotel was on Geary St. and when we were talking to friends from SF and said we’re in Lower Nob Hill, their response was “No, you’re staying in the Tenderloin.”
That can’t be that bad. All we needed to do was walk from the BART station to our hotel. Right as we exited the station with our bags, we were approached by a man who said he was the “official greeter” and if we needed directions, he could help.
Yeah, we’re from NY and we know this scam. We’re fine. Thanks, but no thanks. Go hit some other tourists. We walked up Powell to Geary and to our hotel. For most of the way, we were surrounded by fancy stores and then by trendy looking restaurants. It felt like we were walking down 9th Ave. in New York’s Hell Kitchen. We were just on the edge of the areas we didn’t want to enter.
It wasn’t until I had to walk from our hotel to the theater where I was going to see a Mystery Science Theater 3000 show (cuz you know it’s totally normal to fly across the country to see a show). From what I could see on Google Maps, it was a straight shot 10-minute walk from our hotel to the theater.
I decided I could walk it. It didn’t really register the neighborhood I was walking through. Just a few blocks from the hotel, I came across a tent city set up along the sidewalk. There was an unmistakable smell of urine present that I haven’t experienced since the NYC Subway at Jamaica Station. I walked to the theater, head down, ignoring but aware of my surroundings, like any trained New Yorker.
For my trip back to the hotel, I considered taking an UBER. After looking at a map, I decided to walk down Market to Powell and onto Geary, skirting the Tenderloin neighborhood and sticking to “safer” streets. Granted, I didn’t feel unsafe on my walk to the theater in the middle of the afternoon, but it was uncomfortable. Why should I put myself in such a situation on the walk back if I don’t have to?
What does that say about me? I was willing to pay for a ride or walk an extra 10 minutes to keep me from feeling uncomfortable. I was feeling unsure about my decision until I talked with one of our friends. She shared a story about how her purse was stolen from her car while driving through the Tenderloin. She heard a bump in her car and stopped to look. Someone nearby said that she ran over a dog. Upon getting out of her car to look and tend for the injured animal, someone else reached into her car and grabbed her purse. There was no animal. Someone hit her car with a bat to make the noise and to get her to leave the car. She said that she later found out this was a common practice in the area for people to steal ID’s so they could buy Sudafed and make it into meth.
Every word of this post reeks of “privilege,” depending on how you look at it. I totally understand that I’m opening myself up to the arrows of those who will see me as just another entitled blogger complaining about having to deal with the socio-economic problems in cities he’s visiting. This is the furthest thing from the truth.
I took the time to read the article about why the Tenderloin hasn’t gentrified like the rest of San Francisco. I appreciate how issues like the drug epidemic and mental illness are part of the homeless problem and how areas like the Tenderloin that offer low-cost housing to people who are trying to get back on their feet are necessary. Churches that provide free meals to those in need are a beacon and draw the less fortunate to their doorstep.
It still doesn’t mean I want to walk through those areas on my vacation on the way to see a show. If I can walk an extra 10 minutes and avoid seeing and smelling that, am I a bad person? Does it mean I don’t care?
I don’t know the right answer to this question. I’ve had to deal with it twice in a few months so it’s on my mind. While staying at a hotel that’s not in a great area may cost less, is it worth it? Am I worse for asking the question?
What would you do if in the same situation?
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary