Tenderloin National Forest Brings Green To San Francisco’s High Crime Neighborhood

The Tenderloin National Forest Being Enjoyed By Some Visitors© Bonnie Hulkower

The Tenderloin, one of San Francisco's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, lies in the middle of the city, not far from city hall and the tony neighborhood of Nob Hill. Some travel brochures even caution tourists to stay away from the Tenderloin. The neighborhood earned its name and reputation in the 1920’s, when the police needed to be bribed with choice cuts of meat to provide enforcement in the area where construction and dock workers lived. It remains a neighborhood defined by poverty, homelessness and drug use. But in a narrow alley off Ellis and Leavenworth Streets is an urban sanctuary, known as the Tenderloin National Forest.

History of the Tenderloin National Forest

The Tenderloin National Forest, or Forest, is one of the few open spaces in a dense neighborhood of over 40,000 culturally and ethnically diverse residents. The Forest came to life about twenty five years ago when Darryl Smith, an artist and San Francisco native, was living in a Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) managed apartment building adjacent to the derelict alley, then known as Cohen Alley. The alley served as a dumping ground for hypodermic needles and garbage. Smith and his partner, Laurie Lazer, along with fellow artists and community activists decided to transform the dingy alley into a safe, relaxing space for people to congregate. It wasn’t easy. In 1989, Smith planted a redwood in the shady asphalt. It was at that time that Smith and his artist collaborators formed the nonprofit Luggage Store Gallery. The space at 509 Ellis, previously a bar, became a garden annex to the Gallery and a site for the Gallery’s Artist in Residency (AIR) Program. Plant by plant, the alley was being transformed into a community garden and temporary performance space.

But the Forest was still a place of transition. Even with the burgeoning garden, garbage was still collected by a truck coming through the alley until the late 1990’s. In 1997, the forest caught the attention of then Mayor Willie Brown and the permits began to fall into place. In 2000, Lazer and Smith obtained a lease for the Forest from the City of San Francisco for the symbolic price of $1.00 per year, which permanently closed the alley to traffic. A steel gate that welcomes visitors was designed and built by Kevin Leeper; it added a measure of security and beauty. In 2005, a load of sod was hauled in as the floor for some butoh performances, and ever since then the Forest has grown into a more verdant garden. In May 2009, the Alley was renamed “the Tenderloin National Forest.” The name “Tenderloin National Forest” came from Marco Crescenti, a student at San Francisco State University.

The Plants

Tenderloin National Forest Boat and Plants © Bonnie Hulkower

When they began, Smith didn’t know much about gardening, so he worked collaboratively with the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. The forest today consists of cherry, cypress, Japanese maple trees, and a couple of redwoods -- the taller one is the one that Smith planted in 1989 and is now thirty feet high! The forest is diversely planted with succulents, cacti, edible plants, herbs and some tropical plants. Flowers abound. The alley now resembles a forested canyon with a lush understory.

The Art

Tenderloin National Forest Murals© Bonnie Hulkower

Vibrant murals cover every wall of the forest, some depicting local artists. In the center of the Forest, is a mosaic made of stone from Portugal in the shape of a bird. There is a wattle-and-daub hut annexed to the gallery next door. The wattle is woven together from tule rushes from the San Francisco Bay. The hut serves as an art space for the Artist in Residence Program. The artists who work in the hut also serve as stewards of the garden. The garden is open whenever an artist is there, usually most days between noon to five. Vandalism still occasionally occurs despite watchful eyes. One sculpture in the garden was a figure in a cage bending down to reach keys to escape. One day the keys were stolen and on the following day, the figure was stolen. At first Smith was dismayed that art was being stolen from the Forest, but then he chose to view it symbolically. Perhaps the trapped figured had finally learned to escape by releasing his shackles and overcoming his obstacles, as one would hope might also one day happen to Tenderloin residents.

The Community

The Forest's Web site says that "the Tenderloin is known for its hardy outdoorsmen; people who have learned to live outside in all kinds of weather as an adaptation to San Francisco's through-the-roof housing prices." While I was visiting the garden, Sharon, a resident of a nearby building, who tends bar around the corner, was complaining about how her landlady would love to evict her. She told me that the garden was an escape for her and that she had been coming almost daily, but had never heard the story behind the garden until she overheard Darryl telling me about how the space came to be.

Cooking and Sewing

In the center of the garden, there is currently an oven. It was built without permits as an “art installation.” The forest now hosts a monthly Potluck food party anchored around the oven, called, Fresh from the Oven, where people bake Arizmendi Pizzas and bring home-cooked food. The food parties are always free, and although it is a potluck, people are not turned away if they do not bring food. In addition to the monthly pizza potluck parties, on the 15th of the month, the artist Michael Swaine comes with his mobile sewing cart and repairs clothing in the Forest for people without charge.

The Green Patches Are Growing

Lately, the Forest has been gaining more attention. It recently won the San Francisco Beautiful Award and had a lot of visitors this past summer when Sunday Streets went through the Civic Center/Tenderloin neighborhoods. The neighborhood is starting to evolve and become known as a place for local artists. Smith and Lazer also began greening Market Street this past spring when they commissioned a living wall on the façade of their gallery storefront titled City of Green. The living wall was created by David Brenner and Keith Agoada, with the goal of revitalizing the community by integrating natural life and greenery into a neighborhood known more for boarded up buildings than green facades.

Both the Tenderloin National Forest and The City of Green Living Wall hope to inspire people to look at a historically disadvantaged neighborhood through a new green lens.

Tenderloin National Forest Brings Green To San Francisco’s High Crime Neighborhood
Tenderloin National Forest is an urban oasis in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods.

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