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Museum and tours show a hidden slice of San Francisco's Tenderloin

"Look up! Look up!" Kathy Looper beckoned to the small group embarking on a Tenderloin walking tour here last week. "It's important to look up and not just watch where you're stepping."

This neighborhood is known to many for its homeless and impoverished residents, for single-resident-occupancy hotels and the needles and human waste that litter the sidewalks.

But there is a hidden Tenderloin, with a rich past and a surprising present.

It is that history that the Tenderloin Museum and its walking tours seek to illuminate.

Rebuilt in decorative pale masonry to convey a "city of light" after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Uptown Tenderloin — between the Civic Center and touristy Union Square — now boasts 409 buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places.

On display inside the small museum are matchbooks of the bars, dance halls and cafes — among them Marge's Three Little Pigs and the Poodle Dog — that once flooded the neighborhood, spurring scandal over women who lived on their own and wanted to eat and drink in mixed company.

Photos and news clippings tell of the unsuccessful push in 1917 to shut down bordellos and gambling halls that attracted the city's elite. (Gov. Jerry Brown's grandfather at one time ran a sought-after poker game here.) Of the crackdown on cops on the take — so flush with cash they could afford the choicest cuts of meat. Of the gay, lesbian and transgender civil rights movement that flourished here long before the Castro district was born.

"The Tenderloin was a haven for misfits," said Looper, who for decades championed the rights of residents at the Cadillac Hotel, which her nonprofit owns and operates just upstairs from the new museum. "If you just didn't fit in to general society, there was a place for you here. And there still is."

A $3.5-million project funded by donations and lauded by Mayor Ed Lee for its potential to spur investment, the museum is the brainchild of Randy Shaw, who for 35 years has run the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

Shaw dreamed it up after a friend came back from Manhattan raving about the Lower East Side's Tenement Museum eight years ago. Working in tandem with an architectural historian, he pored over news clippings and scoured autobiographies for details of a neighborhood largely left out of mainstream histories.

"We hadn't had a reason to get people to come here. So we thought, 'Let's market our history,'" said Shaw, who has also just released a book, "The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco."

Just a month old, the museum has so far drawn small crowds. But evening documentary screenings have sold out, including "Screaming Queens," which details the 1966 protest against police harassment at Compton Cafeteria by transgender women fighting police harassment, and "Drugs in the Tenderloin," which aired on public television here in 1966 and revealed an open-air drug market teeming with beatniks in turtlenecks and women in beehives.

For tourists who favor riding a bike with E.T. at Madame Tussaud's wax museum, the social and political history packed into the museum and its walking tours through a neighborhood rife with the addicted and the homeless may not sell.

But "it provides a window into a time in San Francisco that a lot of people aren't aware of," said Laurie Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Travel Assn. "It's also going to start conversations about what's happening there now and what can be done."

The museum — less than a mile from Twitter's headquarters — opened at a time when San Francisco housing prices have pushed low- and middle-income residents out of other city neighborhoods.

That makes the Tenderloin — an exclusively low-income neighborhood situated in the center of a major American city — an increasing rarity.

It contains just one single-family home. And the multi-unit buildings packed with small rental apartments or single rooms with shared bathrooms are protected by a zoning ordinance from being converted into condominiums. Many of the SROs are now operated by nonprofits under contract to city and other government programs to house the homeless and otherwise disenfranchised. That takes much of the housing "off the speculative market," Shaw said.

Still, much is changing.

A payroll tax break that brought Twitter to the Mid-Market neighborhood also included the Tenderloin, and though there is little if any appropriate office space for big companies, some smaller ones have moved in, along with new galleries, watering holes and restaurants.

Shaw believes that foot traffic to the museum will help make the Tenderloin safer. Looper, meanwhile, worries that residents who can't afford the new amenities will not last in the neighborhood forever.

But both — longtime allies in neighborhood advocacy who sit on the museum's board — embrace the opportunity to root residents in a stronger sense of place, show off the history and introduce visitors to people who live and work here now.

Inside the museum, Looper pointed out a poster of the Blackhawk jazz club, a frequent haunt for greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, where underage patrons sat in the "cage."

As a child in the 1950s, she had visited with her Greek-born father on his social rounds. In a framed photo nearby, Looper's uncle sits in a private dining room during Prohibition flanked by the sheriff and two top San Francisco Examiner editors — the table strewn with wine bottles.

Then there is the section on sexual freedom, revealed in part through a photo of Richard Mathena proudly sporting a dress in the 1960s and posing next to his mother. He and his older brother Bob both worked as chefs in nearby hotels.

They moved into the Cadillac Hotel in 1966. Richard recently died, but Bob, now 90, still lives there. He was sitting in the lobby when Looper's tour stopped there.

"I came with a little suitcase and said, 'Do you have a room for the night?'" Mathena recalled with a laugh. "And I took one."

Resident Gayle Wood, 70, later took the small group up to her tiny room, festooned with art she has made, and was soon talking about the changes.

She had recently overheard a couple on Market Street raving about a new public food-court — on the ground floor of the Twitter building. Holding a Safeway bag containing $3 worth of roast beef, she wandered through the costly artisanal wonderland "and literally felt like I was walking onto another planet."

"The more I walked around," she added, "the more uncomfortable I felt."

Not far away, on Ellis Street, the group got a glimpse of a project bearing the tongue-in-cheek name Tenderloin National Forest. Long a barren, trash-strewn alley, it has been transformed over the last decade by a nonprofit arts organization into a lush garden with koi ponds, mature trees and a pizza oven.

Sheltering himself from the sun with a yellow-and-white umbrella, tour-goer Paul Throop, 44, shook his head in amazement. Throop has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years at a board-and-care in a nearby SRO.

"It's like a sanctuary here," he marveled. "Before I probably walked right by it. … It turns out things you get so used to all around you are full of so much history."

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

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