Photography by Jeff Hunt
In Part 1, we get to know Tenderloin Museum's executive director, Katie Conry. She's originally from Oceanside, California, just outside of LA, where her parents are from. They were both teachers but were priced out of the big city, a situation all too familiar around here.
Katie left home as soon as she could—when she was 18 and it was time to go to college. She had felt lonely and alienated in her hometown. But almost from the moment she arrived in Berkeley, she loved it and felt connected. In the 20-plus years since, she hasn't left the Bay Area.
She moved across the Bay to San Francisco after graduation in the mid-2000s, settling in the Mission, the neighborhood she's lived in ever since. Katie and Jeff reminisce about several Mission spots they both frequented around that time.
In the early 2010s, Katie got a job at Adobe Books, helping the bookstore raise money to make the move from 16th Street to its current spot on 24th Street. In that fundraising process, the store was turned into a co-op and its art gallery a non-profit.
This experience is how Katie started in events and working with artists. She later worked part-time at museums like the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and The Exploratorium, working on private events for those institutions.
Katie was originally hired at the Tenderloin Museum as their program manager when the museum opened in 2015. The next year, she became its executive director (Alex Spoto does a lot of public programming now).
From here, we dive into the history of TLM. It was the brainchild of journalist and activist Randy Shaw, who was inspired by what he saw at New York City's Tenement Museum. The non-profit that runs TLM was formed in 2009 and they opened their museum doors to the public in 2015. The permanent collection in their gallery spotlights stories of working-class resistance movements and marginalized communities. The museum was successful early, largely because of its public programming. They sponsored showings of the film Drugs in the Tenderloin (1967), which turned out to be very popular.
From here, our discussion pivots to the history of the Tenderloin itself. Katie shares that it (not the Castro) was the first gay hood in San Francisco. It was a high-density neighborhood filled with affordable housing, a liminal space in an urban setting. Then we hear the story of the neighborhood after the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed just about everything except the Hibernia Bank building.
The Tenderloin was rebuilt quickly, though. The Cadillac Hotel, where the museum is located today, opened in 1908 and was meant to house folks who were working to rebuild The City. The single room occupancies (SROs) left people hungry for entertainment, of which there was soon plenty.
Women were living on their own in the Tenderloin, and in response, moral crusaders came after them. These high-and-mighty types had successfully shut down the sex-worker presence in San Francisco's Barbary Coast in 1913, forcing members of that industry to the Tenderloin. And so, perhaps naturally, those same crusaders came after sex-industry women in the Tenderloin.
The first sex-worker protest in the US happened in the TL after Reggie Gamble stormed a church and gave an impromptu speech. But it wasn't enough. Those same self-righteous white men effectively shut down the Tenderloin in 1917, an occasion for which TLM did a centennial celebration in 2017.
Part 2 is a deep-dive into the history of the Tenderloin, which we began toward the end of Part 1. Katie digs into the infamous Compton's Cafeteria Riot and shares the background and what lead to that fateful event.
After the moral crusaders successfully passed new laws essentially controlling the lives of women, the Tenderloin bounced right back thanks to Prohibition, when the neighborhood's nightlife effectively went underground. Katie says that in the 1920s and Thirties, the TL was the glitzy, seedy nightlife capital of the Bay Area, replete with bars and restaurants, some of which doubled as gambling halls and brothels. Then came the 1940s, and World War II impacted all of San Francisco, especially the Tenderloin.
Many servicemen were housed in SROs in the TL before leaving for the Pacific. This situation allowed gay members to explore their sexuality. And it was this that established SF as a Gay Mecca. Interestingly, the Army gave servicemembers a list of places not to go in the Tenderloin, and the smarter ones took that as a map of where to go.
Then-Mayor George Christopher had it out for the TL. His brother had gotten into some trouble in the hood, and the mayor blamed the Tenderloin itself, calling it a blight and generally scapegoating the area. He led a crack-down on gambling, removed the cable cars, and created one-way streets.
By the time the Fifties rolled around, many came to see the TL as a hood to get away from. But just a short decade or so later, in the 1960s, a significant migration of young people to The City began. Many queer folks landed in the TL and soon found that churches in the neighborhood were a safe haven, especially Glide Memorial Church.
From this point in the story, Katie shifts briefly to discuss the museum's work with Susan Stryker, a trans historian and director of Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria (2005). Stryker rediscovered and wrote a history of the riot. She described Glide as a "midwife" to LGBTQ history in San Francisco.
In the early Sixties, sex workers didn't have legal means of employment. Many of them frequented Compton's because it was one of the few places in town that served them. The joint was frequented by trans women, sex workers, and activists on most days. Then, in 1966, SF cops raided the place. The story goes that a trans woman poured hot coffee in a cop's face, and all hell broke loose. It came to be seen as a militant response to police harassment.
Screaming Queens was the first public program at TLM. In 2018, the museum produced an immersive play about the riot called Aunt Charlie's: San Francisco's Working Class Drag Bar. Katie takes us on a sidebar about Aunt Charlie's, the last gay bar in left in the Tenderloin.
TLM's plan was to produce play again in 2020, and they've been hard at work since the pandemic to bring it back. They now have a space on Larkin to produce play year-round, so, stay tuned.
We end the podcast with a discussion about the new neon sign outside the museum. Katie explains that TLM is a fiscal sponsor of SF Neon, a non-profit doing neon sign restoration, walking tours, and other events.
We recorded this podcast at the Tenderloin Museum in November 2023 and January 2024.