Museum Celebrates Groundbreaking Tenderloin Newspaper

by Jean Schiffman

In “Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-1994,” its most in-depth temporary exhibit yet, the tiny, elegant Tenderloin Museum offers a perspective on an aspect of the history of the neighborhood that’s both surprising and inspiring.

As the Tenderloin Museum’s new exhibit shows, the The Tenderloin Times—a newspaper of, by and for the culturally diverse people of one of San Francisco’s most challenged neighborhoods—was proactive, innovative (recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in 1991 for “groundbreaking use of desktop publishing technology”—Apple had donated computers) and influential. Comprising seven panels, including an introductory chronology, the exhibit illustrates—through text, archival images, cartoons and artwork—the major components of the free monthly. The panels represent, respectively, languages, cartoons, arts, investigative reporting, the homeless crisis and deaths.

Founded as a newsletter in 1977 by three homeless men who mimeographed 150 copies in the basement of Hospitality House, a community center on Turk Street, the Times evolved into a full newspaper, with a circulation of 15,000 at its peak, and was edited consecutively by journalist Rob Waters, local activist Sara Colm and others. It went on to win awards and acknowledgment. 

Perhaps most significant are the panels on investigative reporting, homelessness and deaths. Colm, exhibit co-creator—with museum founding program director, now executive director, Katie Conry—points to several of the Times’ early editorial battles on behalf of the community it represented: fighting to require developers to contribute toward low-cost housing in the neighborhood (“That set a national standard,” says Colm, who worked at the Times from 1980 to 1992, initially as a volunteer reporter) and promoting legislation to protect residential hotels from destruction. Those victories, Colm asserts, led to the rezoning of the Tenderloin to prohibit further high-rise encroachment. 

The ongoing story of homeless deaths was one that “we literally stumbled on,” says Colm, “when a resident came into our offices and said, ‘There’s a body in the parking lot around the corner.’…We assigned a reporter but decided to take it further than the death of one homeless man… [we wanted to] see what the pattern was.” From 1986 on, the Times wrote a “homeless death” story every year, regularly interviewing people in shelters and studying records of hospitals and morgues using the Freedom of Information Act. “When the coroner’s office didn’t provide access, a pro bono lawyer helped us,” she says. “We put a human face on the tragedy of people dying alone and homeless on the street—the individual stories of veterans, alcoholics, refugees.” The mainstream media took note, and the stories helped to launch medical services and emergency shelters for the homeless.

The languages panel shows how the Times was printed not only in English, but, beginning in 1985, also included sections in Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodian (hand-calligraphed until the advent of computerized fonts), with local translators brought in thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Foundation. The Times was the nation’s first-ever four-language newspaper, covering not just neighborhood events but also news from afar; reporters and editors traveled to Southeast Asia and sent back stories. “By the mid-1980s,” according to the exhibition panel, “Southeast Asian refugees made up nearly half of the [Tenderloin’s] population of 25,000, of whom 5,000 were children.”

One of the paper’s major goals was to “further communication and interactions between the different communities in an extremely diverse neighborhood,” comments Colm. “If there was an African-American celebration in Boedekker Park, like a Juneteenth celebration, we’d write about it in Southeast Asian languages, to share traditions among different cultures. 

“The paper didn’t just focus on hard news or fluff,” she adds, “but on a wide spectrum, showing how diverse and colorful the neighborhood was.” In fact, declares the “Cartoons of the Times” panel, “Life in the Tenderloin provided ample material for dark humor and satire.” On display are the politically slanted works of such neighborhood cartoonists of the era as homeless artist Felix, and “Eddy Jones,” the nom-de-plume of Times reporter Andy Andrews. 

Arts coverage was also an important element: The Times published poetry, art and a serial story by neighborhood residents; sponsored an annual art contest; reviewed local productions (Exit Theatre was, and still is, an important Tenderloin theater) and more. “We helped expose how incredible the arts scene was, everything from Cambodian dance to Filipino theater,” says Colm. 

The Tenderloin Museum itself, which opened in 2015, is a welcoming beacon amidst the 31-block Tenderloin area. Located on the ground floor of the nonprofit SRO Cadillac Hotel, it houses a permanent history of the neighborhood, a rotating art display in the entry lobby and special events (opening on February 1: a contemporary art exhibit by former Times contributor and Tenderloin resident Dennis Conkin). The main gallery has the ambiance of a cozy library, with little glass-topped tables, a glowing lamp atop each one; digital screen displays; an old Victrola; a pinball machine; listening stations (for example, you can hear songs recorded at Black Hawk, a jazz club on Turk and Hyde that closed in 1963); and other artifacts and interactive tools.

The Tenderloin Times, published by Hospitality House and partly supported by funders and advertisers, folded in 1994. By the early ’90s, says Colm, with the economic downturn and the crack cocaine epidemic, which hit hard in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Hospitality House redirected its focus to human services and could no longer support the paper. “Hundreds of people were touched by the Times, quoted in it, distributed it, learned from it,” reflects Colm. “The death of any newspaper is a sad thing. But now we have the museum!”

Says Conry, “When people come here and see the history of marginalized communities presented in such a professional way, I think that’s really important. We’re carrying on the impulse of The Tenderloin Times and giving the community a voice…giving the Tenderloin back its lost history.”

Through Mar. 30

Tenderloin Museum

398 Eddy St., San Francisco
(415) 351-1912