Histories intertwined

The line for a free breakfast snaked around Glide United Memorial Methodist Church. Police busted two men in a restaurant doorway. Panhandlers provided a neighborhood soundtrack.

It was Sunday morning in the Tenderloin, and Mark Ellinger had pictures to take. Clutching a camera in his meaty right hand, cigarette poking out between his fingers, the photographer marveled at the carved stone lintel of the Marathon Hotel.

He gestured toward the building that once housed famed madam Tessie Wall's last "parlor house." Then he pointed out the muraled back of a single-room-occupancy hotel called the Fairfax.

"I used to live on the third floor," he said. "People would climb up the fire escape, break in, do drug deals, sleep in the hallways."

It would be hard to find a better photographer for the work in progress that is the Tenderloin than the work in progress that is Mark Ellinger. Where others see blight, the recording engineer turned homeless heroin addict turned self-taught historian and artist sees beauty.

When advocates pushed to have the neighborhood designated a national historic district (an honor awarded in 2009), they enlisted Ellinger to document parking garages that once had been stables, offices that used to be brothels and the largest concentration of SROs (single room occupancy buildings) still standing in America.

Now the photographer, a lanky 62-year-old with a shock of white hair, and his favorite subject have been captured by playwright/director Annie Elias. "Tenderloin," which opens Friday night at the Cutting Ball Theater, details life in the beleaguered heart of one of America's most beautiful cities.

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The Cutting Ball is in the southeast corner of the Tenderloin, 30 or so of the poorest, most densely populated blocks in San Francisco, an area roughly bordered by Union Square, Nob Hill, the Civic Center and Market Street.

Before the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed it, the Tenderloin was a respectable residential area -- as well as home to gambling joints and brothels, restaurants and theaters. It was rebuilt as an experiment in multiunit urban living, with what is believed to be the first studio apartment building in the country.

The other enterprises also rebounded after the disaster. A 1940 Works Progress Administration guide described the Tenderloin as "a region of apartment houses and hotels, corner grocers and restaurants, small night clubs and bars, gambling lofts, bookmakers' hide-outs and other fleshpots of the unparticular."

The balance between legal and illegal began to tip in the 1960s -- and was largely upended a generation later with the advent of crack cocaine. Today, pain and promise skirmish here.

There are efforts to build a Tenderloin museum and attract tourists. Two days before Elias' play had its first preview last week, the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District unveiled a series of sidewalk plaques commemorating its "lost landmarks."

In front of Wally Heider Recording, sound engineer Stephen Barncard reminisced about the Grateful Dead and the Doobie Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane. The concrete Moderne building on Hyde Street "was the best place to be in 1969," he said as a disabled, homeless woman scuffed her way across the bronze plaque lauding "the city's first modern recording studio."

At the same time, the North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District is also working on more basic services, like trying to design public toilets that won't double as shooting galleries. The organization has partnered with another nonprofit group to sweep and scrub the sidewalks, water trees and dispose of what its website delicately describes as "hazardous waste."

Because, as one character in "Tenderloin" notes halfway through the play, "Who said that poor people have to live in squalor?"

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Ellinger's rise and fall and rise is seen in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

There he is in 1987, a successful composer and sound engineer, commenting on the death of avant garde filmmaker Curt McDowell, a close friend. They met at a San Francisco Art Institute painting class that, Ellinger said, "ended up with everybody fiddling around in the fountain with their clothes off late into the night."

All that is left of that time can be found on a website Ellinger calls "Music From Another Lifetime" -- a handful of scores and songs he composed when he still owned a piano.

Sixteen years later there's a newspaper photograph of a homeless Ellinger -- 53 but looking much older -- in the Tenderloin's St. Anthony Dining Room being served the charity's 30 millionth meal.

Between the obituary and the free beef bourguignon, Ellinger lost everything.

His closest friends died, and so did his adoptive father. His adoptive mother disowned him. He suffered a series of manic-depressive breakdowns, walked away from his recording studio, Truth and Beauty, and never went back.

"I had no idea," he said, "why I was alive."

In 1995, Ellinger was introduced to heroin. "Three months after that," he said, "I was on the streets."

Ellinger tried to kick his habit. By the middle of 2000, he'd been clean for about six months and was working as a contract laborer, digging ditches one day, moving boxes in a warehouse, living in a shoddy residential hotel in the Mission District. The work was "god-awful, soul-numbing stuff," he said, and the drug beckoned.

Right before that Thanksgiving, Ellinger shot some tainted dope into his hip. A friend later found him wandering the streets, delirious. He woke up in a hospital two days later, watching sea gulls dip beyond the window of his fourth-floor room.

"If your friend had brought you in five minutes later, you would have been DOA," were the first words out of the surgeon's mouth. Ellinger had contracted a flesh-eating bacteria, he said, and "we almost cut off your leg."

Ellinger left the hospital in February 2001, with just a cane and the clothes on his back. He spent the spring bouncing from SRO to SRO, each with its own particular horrors. These days he finds beauty in their crumbling exteriors, but life inside, he said, was anything but lovely.

When he landed at an SRO called the Shree Ganeshai, he knew he was home. The walls of his room were riddled with holes, the bed a pile of old mattresses covered by a torn and filthy blanket. Unlike every other residential hotel he'd lived in, however, it was quiet and safe.

"I reinvented myself," he said, "in that hotel room on Sixth Street."

Reading helped. And drawing. Ellinger painted water colors, with stanzas by his favorite poets captured in calligraphy: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all about pain and loneliness and loss.

He kept a journal, useful, he said, "if you're deliberately trying to get your mind back." He became a tenant activist, fighting for things like sprinklers in SRO hotels. Then a neighbor, a Hungarian house painter named Jozsef Orgovan, gave Ellinger a 1-megapixel digital camera he planned to throw away.

"I was shooting the architecture with that little camera because, well, I was surrounded by it," he said. "I love the architecture of decay. One of my favorite parts of town before it was totally gentrified was South of Market, all the old rotting warehouses, the train yards, the tracks."

As his cameras improved, so did his pictures. He photographed the views from his window -- a moody streetscape with a pawnshop at its center; a roofscape with smokestacks suffused with the rosy light of dawn. He shot SROs inside and out: their peeling walls and twisting staircases scenes of abstract beauty.

His first shows were on the same day in 2003, one in a bookstore, the other in a satellite office of the district attorney. In 2005, he had an exhibit at City Hall.

Making photographs changed Ellinger, but he wanted those images to do more -- "to change the way people see this architecture, this part of town, to shift their perceptions."

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Six years ago, Ellinger won a housing lottery and now lives in a low-income studio apartment on a busy South of Market thoroughfare. He survives on a Social Security disability check of about $900 a month, along with sales and commissions from his photography.

He's also the resident photographer at Intersection for the Arts, a nearly 50-year-old institution that develops new works and uses art to inspire social change. It's a six-month position with a small stipend.

"Who I am and what I have now is what I have created since 2001," he said. "That's it. That's all I've got."

Ellinger has become the "boots on the ground historian" for groups like San Francisco Architectural Heritage, where he has lectured on the landscape of his favorite neighborhoods.

He was the first person Elias called when she was commissioned by the Cutting Ball to create "Tenderloin." She had stumbled on Up from the Deep, his website about San Francisco's Central City, saw his photographs, read his stories and thought: "This person really knows this place."

They walked through the gritty neighborhood. He took her drinking at the Brown Jug on Eddy Street and talked about the neighborhood's key players -- SRO owners and tenants, police officers, neighborhood advocates, artists.

Ellinger's story bookends the two-hour production. Early in the first act, slides of his most-prized images flash across a small screen on stage, and the Ellinger character muses about San Francisco's troubled but hopeful Central City.

"I, I've always loved, um, not just architecture," he begins, "but old, rotting, neglected and forgotten things."

The play is a documentary, woven together by Elias from lengthy interviews with dozens of Tenderloin denizens -- people like Kathy Looper and her late husband, Leroy, owners of the Cadillac Hotel; Capt. Gary Jimenez from the San Francisco Police Department; and a man who works at the Boys and Girls Club and has spent 26 of his 27 years in the same three-block radius.

And Ellinger.

"This is the Tenderloin," Elias said recently, "a little bit through Mark Ellinger's lens."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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