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Originally published Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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San Francisco goes for reality tourism in the down-and-out Tenderloin

San Francisco civic activists want to add a highly unlikely stop to the tourist itinerary — the Tenderloin, the ragged, druggie and dingy domain of the city's most down and out.

The New York Times

Visitors know San Francisco's sights well, from Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf to the clang-clang-clangy cable cars.

But now the city's boosters have decided they want to add a highly unlikely stop to the tourist itinerary — part of the Tenderloin, the ragged, druggie and determinedly dingy domain of the most down and out.

And what is the appeal?

"We offer a kind of grittiness you can't find much anymore," said Randy Shaw, a longtime San Francisco housing advocate and a driving force behind the idea of Tenderloin tourism. "And what is grittier than the Tenderloin?"

Armed with a recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places, community and city leaders are readying the Tenderloin for its big moment, complete with plans for a new museum, an arts district and walking tours of "the world's largest collection of historic single-room occupancy hotels."

And unlike, say, the Tenement Museum in New York, which offers tours of a long-unused Lower East Side apartment building — a trip to the Tenderloin could go a step farther.

"We can bring people into an SRO and show them where people are living now," Shaw said, referring to the single-room occupancy dwellings, or residential hotels, in the area. "And that's a real plus."

Wedged between tourist-friendly Union Square and liberal friendly City Hall, the Tenderloin is one of the mostly densely populated areas west of the Mississippi, officials say, with some 30,000 people in 60 square blocks, almost all of which have at least one residential hotel.

The district's drug trade is so widespread and open that the police recently asked for special powers to disperse crowds on certain streets.

Deranged residents are a constant presence, and after dark the neighborhood can seem downright sinister, with drunken people collapsed on streets and others furtively smoking pipes in doorways.

Encouraging adventure-seeking San Franciscans to visit may be easier than selling the Tenderloin to tourists, city tourism officials say.

But Shaw begs to differ, saying the area is chockablock with historical nuggets, like the Hotel Drake, where Frank Capra lived as a starving young director in the early 1920s; or the Cadillac Hotel, built a year after the great 1906 earthquake and fire, and where Muhammad Ali later trained.

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Jerry Garcia also lived at the Cadillac, and he and the Grateful Dead recorded several albums in the area at what is now Hyde Street Studios, as did other Bay Area bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane.

Shaw, who plans to open a $3 million museum in the Cadillac, believes baby-boomer music fans — and particularly Deadheads — will be a core demographic for the Tenderloin, as well as those interested in the neighborhood's "rich vice history," which includes gambling dens, speak-easies and pornographic-movie houses.

"Most of which are gone," the museum's brochure notes, almost sadly.

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