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Why I love The Tenderloin’s Neon Lights

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Ha-Ra sign before it was redone. Photo by Michela on Flickr

Herb Caen once said “Any city that doesn’t have a Tenderloin isn’t a city at all” which, despite my general distaste for Herb Caen, is a pretty accurate take. I have mixed feelings about people who write about the Tenderloin. Nothing about the commentary comes off as balanced. The area is either stigmatized to the point of dehumanizing the people who live there, or it’s romanticized to the point where I have to question whether or not the author’s kink is human misery. While the Tenderloin is undeniably a fucked up part of town, it is visually striking. There is something unmistakably beautiful about Downtown San Francisco’s de-facto poverty containment area. 

Which makes sense, it is San Francisco after all. And one thing that can’t be said about San Francisco is that it’s ugly. 

The large brick buildings that hover about the chaos below are soaked in atmosphere and rich with history. When walking around the neighborhood it’s hard not to feel like you’re an extra in some kind of 1950’s noir film about a hardboiled detective who’s seen it all, but under his rough exterior has a heart of gold. Or maybe I’m insane, I’m don’t fucking know. But if you don’t feel like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver when driving down Turk Street at night, are you even alive? 

What further enhances the Tenderloin’s unique aesthetic is how the area is illuminated: Neon Lights. Neon lights are everywhere in the neighborhood and give it an unmistakable glow that is unfortunately absent from other, more affluent parts of the city.

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There’s a strip of Eddy Street in the heart of the Tenderloin that is home to numerous residential hotels, more commonly known as SROs. Many of these hotels have large, beautifully restored neon signs that make an otherwise somewhat depressing sight mesmerizing. 

In the middle of these glorious lights is the Tenderloin Museum – a community non-profit that works to preserve the history of the neighborhood and fights to keep its legacy in tact through education and entertainment, and has also worked hard to prevent the neighborhood from losing its neon glow. They recently got their own neon sign to add to the neighborhood’s ethereal radiance. 

There’s a part of me that is attracted to authentic, spontaneous novelty. I don’t mean novelty in the way a hipster on a unicycle is novel. I mean something that is different in some way due to history, chance or fate, and the Tenderloin’s lights are exactly that. 

When most major cities around the world were ditching their neon lights, the Tenderloin kept many of theirs because no one really cared about the neighborhood enough to switch them, but people cared enough to keep them. 

And in a city like San Francisco, where the only guarantee is change, there is something to be said about people working diligently in the darkness to keep a little bit of light. 






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Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff is an Oakland-based writer, editor and digital content creator known for Bay Area Memes, a local meme page that has amassed nearly 200k followers. His work has appeared in SFGATE, The Bold Italic and of course, His book of short stories, personal essays and poetry entitled Don't Drown on Dry Ground is available now!