Tenderloin lives, deaths
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Lives and losses in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods are the subject of Death in the Tenderloin , a recently released book that shares the stories of people whose passing generally received little notice.
A launch event for the book, which the nonprofit Study Center Press published in December, is set for Monday, January 14 from noon to 2 p.m. at the main library, Latino/Hispanic meeting rooms A and B, 100 Larkin Street. The event, which will include a panel discussion, is free.
The collection of 99 stories was drawn from the obituary pages of Study Center Press' Central City Extra, the free, monthly newspaper devoted to the neighborhood, which is home to many LGBTs and people living with HIV/AIDS. Geoff Link, the book's editor, is executive director of the Study Center and Extra 's editor and publisher.
"I think for anybody who's interested in the Tenderloin, this book gives an understanding not only of the people who live here and die here, of course, but of the neighborhood itself," Link, who's been with the Study Center for almost all of its 40 years, said in an interview. "The fact is that in a lot of ways there's a lot of community here, and you don't realize that from the outside."
Hank Wilson, the longtime gay and AIDS activist who died from lung cancer at age 61 in 2008, is one of the people portrayed in the book, which notes he was known as the "Mother Teresa of the Tenderloin."
The story on Wilson tells how he came to San Francisco in the 1970s and was eventually involved in founding numerous organizations, including some devoted to AIDS.
In 1978, Wilson, who later became infected with HIV, leased the Ambassador Hotel, which "became a haven for the poor and afflicted," the book recalls. "Wilson seldom said no to anyone."
Death in the Tenderloin tells how most of the memorials for those remembered take place in single-room occupancy hotel lobbies or community rooms.
"Sometimes only a couple of people show up and a few who do may not even have known the deceased," the book says.
The Reverend Glenda Hope, a Presbyterian who's director of pastoral ministries for San Francisco Network Ministries, oversaw most of the memorials and is profiled in the book.
The Tenderloin is known for drug dealing, robberies, murders, and other crimes, and in an interview Hope said people tend to think of the neighborhood and its residents as "scary."
However, she said, "I think what this [book] does is show that the people who live here are individuals like people who live anywhere else, and that they have names and faces and lives and stories and people that care about them, and that we regard them as God's children, no different from anybody else."
Besides Wilson, the book shares the stories of people like Steven Alexxis Silva Jr., a transgender woman who died in a car crash in 2005 at age 30. The story, in which a friend recalls Silva having "the most hilarious sense of humor," notes her parents came to her memorial. Hope is quoted as telling them, "We so rarely have parents at the memorials here in the Tenderloin, and I know coming was an act of courage for you."
The portrayals, most of which two Extra staffers wrote, don't appear to gloss over any details.
People who knew Ted Carson, who died in 2009 at age 79, mostly remembered him for his "wittiness and generosity," and one nurse recalled dancing with him in her office, his obituary says. But several also described him using words like "ornery, grumpy, [and] a hoarder," according to the book, which doesn't list Carson's cause of death but says he had diabetes and other ailments.
Link said of the book, "We hope we will get back enough in sales to be able to cover at least the cost of printing." Anything that comes in beyond that will go toward publishing Extra , which has a circulation of 8,000.
Death in the Tenderloin is available in color for $29.95, or in black and white for $17.95, plus tax and shipping.
Copies will be available at the January 14 event for $20 (color) and $10 (black and white only).
For more information, visit http://www.studycenter.org or call (415) 626-1650.