What’s Dividing the City?


The red zone seen on the map is Tenderloin—the neighborhood with the highest crime rate and homeless population in San Francisco. Everyone in the Bay Area knows not to walk through there at night. My roommates and I avoided it like a plague when apartment hunting. But look what’s located just to the top right of the red box. Union Square–the busiest and most attractive district of SF. The adjacency of the two districts seems odd enough on the map, but I can say after two weeks of living in the city that the contrast is only more drastic in real life.

I went to a volunteer at a senior home in Tenderloin last Sunday morning. I figured it’d be okay to go alone since it was 10 o’clock in the morning. From my apartment, I navigated between tourists and shoppers through Union Square with its usual buzz. Almost instantly, I stepped into a completely different territory. The streets were dingy and smelly; shops along the road became shaggy; homeless people were loitering in every street corner. But I could still hear the jingling bell of the cable car just down on Market Street! The dividing line was so apparent that it was as if someone physically drew the boundary. There was no transitioning area—the change from glamorous and touristy to rundown and neglected happened so quickly that I wondered if I was still in the same city that I was a minute ago.

Even in bright sunlight, Tenderloin was not somewhere I’d go alone again. I watched to make sure I didn’t step on anything unpleasant. I looked straight ahead and picked up my feet when men whistled at me from the windows above. At one point a man that seemed to have some mental issues walked towards me with extended arms until a deliveryman shooed him away. True, they were probably harmless people. But it was not the time to avoid stereotyping. I took my pepper spray out of my purse and clenched it in my hand as I power walked across the neighborhood.

Tenderloin is not the only case of harsh dividing lines in the city. When I was looking for apartments, a friend told me that “anything in SOMA past the 5th street is dangerous but before that it’s fine.” The difference one block can make. How can the neighborhoods be in such close proximity but so different in terms of poverty and crime rates? What’s the invisible hand that’s segregating and labeling the neighborhoods?