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I ran into some really good writing on the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco on Salon.com today:

“For decades, the Tenderloin has been carefully protected by the city and various non-profit organizations. It’s not that these officials, social workers, homeless advocates and low-cost housing activists want to maintain a zone of misrule, crime and filth in the heart of the city: it’s simply an inescapable consequence of their laudable commitment to defend society’s most vulnerable members. The problem is that by saving the baby, you also save the bathwater. No one has figured out a way to protect the  No one has figured out a way to protect the “deserving poor,” to use the condescending 19th century parlance, without also protecting the creepy, kooky and dangerous poor. The result is, in effect, a protected urban wildlife zone, a Bottle City of Squalor.

But the Tenderloin is more than that. It is also a memorial to a rich and vanished era – what geographer Richard Walker has called “the high tide of dense urbanism.” For it was here, in the neighborhood’s unique collection of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and apartment houses, that the great army that once made up the blood and guts and sinew of American cities lived. Tens of thousands of clerks and salesmen and stenographers and hobos and longshoremen and cops and dressmakers and carpenters and factory workers inhabited these cheap but decent rooming houses. Most of them were single. Many of them were women. They were drawn to the city because they could find work here. As Paul Groth notes in “Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States,” for these newcomers, these inexpensive rooming houses offered freedom, anonymity, sexual liberation – all in the heart of the city.”

What is remarkable about the Tenderloin is that it has remained physically unchanged for more than 80 years. It is a time capsule. The same progressive forces that have kept out “progress,” and inadvertently created a Museum of Depravity, have also created a Museum of the Lost City, a vanished world memorialized in the neighborhood’s extraordinary collection of residential hotels. There are hundreds of these historic SROs in the Tenderloin, the largest number in the world.

I’ve stayed in the Tenderloin, and this explains the sources of the weird beauty I sense from gritty cities with a lot of history to them better than I could. But I want to save that for a later post, titled “The Union Square Backpacker’s Hostel: An anachronistic time-capsule of SF history” or “Why you should stay at the Union Square Backpacker’s Hostel” or something like that.

The whole time that I stayed in the Tenderloin area it kept reminding me of the semi-autobiographical novel Down and Out in London in Paris by George Orwell.  It’s set in the slums of Paris and in London, and boarding houses are a central part of his experiences.

“The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.”
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Remind you of any other place?

The other way Down and Out in London and Paris was in my thoughts when I stayed in the Tenderloin was the Orwell’s argument that the homeless are despised not because they are “parasitic”, but because they don’t have money. Many occupations, when it comes down to it, do not contribute anything to society. “…as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout–in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite” But, those occupations are respectable because they keep someone in a respectable income.  Beggars don’t earn any money, so the attitude people take to them is, “Get a job, man”.  But if were possible to become rich by asking for money on the street and contributing nothing in return, suddenly it wouldn’t be viewed as parasitic but instead as a respectable capitalist enterprise.

“It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary ‘working’ men. They are a race apart–outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men ‘work’, beggars do not ‘work’; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not ‘earn’ his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic ‘earns’ his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no ESSENTIAL difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout–in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?–for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.” ― George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

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