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Communicating Care by Creating Safe Passages, Safe Havens, Cleanliness & Beautification - A Tenderloin Neighborhood Success

The Tenderloin (TL) is commonly known as one of the roughest parts of San Francisco with a combination of drug rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, a thriving night industry (including x-rated theaters, strip clubs, night clubs, bars, and "massage" parlors) all alongside assisted living facilities and the populations of new immigrant groups raising their families in the neighborhood. I began my investigation of the TL in 2010 for a grad school group project focusing on outreach and community engagement. Despite its dire reputation, I was completely invigorated by what I found – community groups and business owners working together to transform and beautify their neighborhood, focused actively in making it safer for everyone.

Photo of Ivy Young
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The following is an excerpt from our 2010 research, much of which appears to be continuous today:

Community Concerns and Needs

Certainly striking are the Tenderloin’s issues of safety and wellbeing. San Franciscan residents both outside and within the Tenderloin district share concerns for community safety in the Tenderloin, sometimes referred to as the ‘Containment Zone’. The alternative name refers to the neighborhood’s high concentration of social service providers in which people struggling with drug addiction, illicit activities in the cycle of poverty, and mental health issues are nearly all located within the same neighborhood.


With such a dense population of children, families, and seniors, safety is a primary issue that many neighborhood agencies and groups are committed to addressing in collaboration. With safety, comes positive foot traffic and with positive foot-traffic, also comes safety – as it has been recognized by the Community Benefit District (CBD), a non-profit organization established by Tenderloin community members in response to the neighborhood’s most pressing needs. Positive foot-traffic and safety come together in stride.

As neighborhood efforts work to make walking safe, the Tenderloin has invited pedestrians by deliberately working to beautify and clean the neighborhood streets. Cleaning up the streets literally involves weekly street-cleaning, Monday through Friday, in a program begun in 1999 by the CBD. The street cleaning program is funded by property owners who pool their money together to pay workers selected from the neighborhood. Workers are also carefully selected by CBD, either once homeless or on the route to recovery. By 2010, the Tenderloin Economic Development Project of the North of Market Neighborhood Improvement Corporation (NOMNIC) began to lead the street cleaning efforts. The project’s mission is to “help transform the Tenderloin into a vibrant and livable neighborhood through economic, social, cultural, educational and safety initiatives.” Collaborative community groups such as the CBD, NOMNIC, and the Luggage Store, to name just a few, also work to beautify the neighborhood by adding city lights, planting trees, commissioning public murals, and greening alleyways throughout the neighborhood [see included photos]. The CBD seeks to provide opportunities for residents to engage in community pride “through art, murals, tree planting [all of] which gives people ownership of the trees, ownership of the murals, ownership of the identity of the neighborhood,” claimed Elaine Zamora, a founding leader of the CBD, in a personal interview.

Wellbeing through Beautification

Along with beautifying the neighborhood, organizations have also teamed together to create safe routes for children, teens, seniors, and anyone, for that matter, who may not feel safe as they walk the city streets. The CBD, under Elaine Zamora’s guidance, has also begun an important safety task force for the community, known as the The New Tenderloin (TNT). TNT meets regularly to discuss safety issues and make changes in the neighborhood. One change the TNT has made, in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club, is the Safe Passages Project and the After School Escort Project. These projects assist in providing supervision for children when walking to and from their schools, after-school programs, and homes. In response to violence in the Tenderloin and 6th street areas, Safe Havens for the Central City is another prevalent community response campaign initiated by community groups, including the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Since its inception in 2006, 39 Safe Haven sites have since joined the campaign and have declared local businesses and properties as a safe place for pedestrians to turn to in need. Safe Havens are identifiable to all passersby with a logo on bright green paper posted on storefront windows and doors [see included photos].

As the neighborhood becomes more and more uplifted through direct community action to make the streets clean and create solutions for “harm-reduction” as Darryl Smith of the Luggage Store termed it, the involvement is a visible and immediate message for all to take in: The Tenderloin is a vibrant community where people live and take care of one another – together. 

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While the Tenderloin is still a distressed neighborhood today, often avoided by other city residents, the differences that these community efforts have made are sustained. You may follow these active links to learn more about the Tenderloin's progress and community activism:

Bay Area Women's and Children's Center - responsible for building the neighborhood's parks, a children's recreational center, and a new elementary school

North of Market Tenderloin Community Benefit District

The Luggage Store and the "Tenderloin National Forest", an alleyway turned community garden and gathering space (as referenced in the uploaded photos & video)

A Google map of Tenderloin Safe Haven Sites seeded in 2009

Other San Francisco Safe Havens for Youth (an article from 2013 that has no awareness of the previous Tenderloin Safe Haven Project mentioned above, though clearly similar)

Interested in just how much people outside of the Tenderloin regard it? Yelp sums it up.


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Photo of Meena Kadri

Interesting to read about initiatives in Tenderloin and the changes it's gone though in terms of cleanliness. I have to admit I was totally freaked out when walking through there a year ago when visiting SF. I ended up there by accident, around 6.30pm. I felt like I stood out a mile as I was well dressed, having returned from a meeting, and was carrying a large bag. I was especially nervous as the area I walked though had few shops that were open to run into if something went wrong. When I got to the other side of town (mildly traumatised :^) the friend I was staying with laughed it off and said she works in Tenderloin and it's fine. This made me reflect on familiarity and the perception of safety. I've worked in Dharavi, Mumbai (one of the largest slums in Asia) and never felt scared there – possibly because I was first shown round by someone who was familiar with the area and then made local acquaintances and very soon knew my way around. Also alcohol and drug use is much, much lower there than what I could gather from the Tenderloin. Though I'm guessing that folks who are not familiar with Dharavi might be quite scared walking around there.

All this said – I'm really glad to hear that strides are being made to enhance a sense of community and safety in the Tenderloin. Thanks for sharing here.