Downtown, Mid-Market & Tenderloin

The Downtown neighborhood of San Francisco is one of the busiest parts of the city, encompassing Lower Nob Hill - a less affluent neighbor of Nob Hill, sometimes referred to as “Tendernob” (located south of California Street and north of Geary Street) and Union Square. This neighborhood is influenced by it close neighbors such as Mid-Market, Tenderloin and Civic Center.

Of most interest here are the Union Square and adjacent Mid-Market and Tenderloin, the latter being designated as a separate neighborhood in District 8 (for information on the Civic Center neighborhood, please refer to a “Civic Center” section of this website).

Union Square is a central shopping, hotel, and theater district of San Francisco, bounded by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton streets. Pro-Union rallies that were held here on the eve of the American Civil War gave name to this area. Originally a tall sand dune, what is now known as Union Square was set aside to be made into a public park by the city’s first American mayor John Geary in 1850. Since then the plaza has undergone many changes, one of the most significant taking place in 1903 with the dedication of a 97ft (30 m) tall monument to Admiral George Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. A statue at the top of the monument, “Victory”, was modeled after the famous Alma de Brettevillle who later married one of San Francisco’s richest citizens, a sugar mogul Adolph Spreckles (coincidentally, he happened to be on the Citizen’s committee which selected the entries for the contest). The couple subsequently founded the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park as well as San Francisco Maritime Museum.  

Another significant change for the Union Square took place between 1939 and 1941 when a large underground parking garage was constructed under the square (designed by Timothy Pflueger), becoming the world’s first structure of this kind. During the late 1970s and throughout 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood started becoming somewhat derelict as the homeless started to camp in the area. San Francisco’s rowdy New Year’s parties used to take place at the plaza, usually with some sort of accompanying civil disruption and rioting. In 1998, city planners began Union Square’s renovation, creating paved surfaces with outdoor cafes and more levels for the underground garage.

Today, Union Square serves as the ceremonial “heart” of San Francisco, being the central site of many public concerts and events, art shows, protests, winter ice rink and the annual Christmas tree and Menorah lighting. Many of the city’s major department stores, upscale boutiques, art galleries, gift shops and beauty salons are housed here, making Union Square one of the most visited sites in San Francisco. Maiden Lane, situated east of Union Square off Stockton Street, houses exclusive boutiques and cafes as well as Xanadu Gallery, San Francisco’s only building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (with its interior being the predecessor for New York’s Guggenheim Museum), warrants a mention. Maiden Lane’s notorious and raucous past – prior to 1906 earthquake and fire it was known as “Morton Street” and was one of the vice hubs in San Francisco – places it on the historic Barbary Coast Trail ( which links many of the city’s landmarks.

Union Square is not just a plaza in itself, the blocks surrounding it offer a plethora of shopping, dining and entertainment options, with the nearby theater district (featuring American Conservatory Theater, the Curran, Golden Gate and Orpheum theaters among others) and TIX Bay Area (a ticket booth offering discounted tickets for most of San Francisco’s shows on the day of the performance) deserving a separate notion. Union Square is steps away from the retail corridor of Market Street and South of Market area, French Quarter filled with many French restaurants and cafes (centered around the Belden Place alleyway), Chinatown with its famous dragon gate at Grant and Bush Streets, Nob Hill with its grand mansions and hotels, and the Financial District. Union Square has excellent transportation with two cable car lines (Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason), Muni Metro, BART, several trolley and bus lines as well as the F Market heritage streetcar serving the neighborhood.

Union Square’s lesser known but up-and-coming neighbor is the Mid-Market redevelopment area, starting at Fifth Street, ending at Van Ness Avenue, and including a number of buildings down to Mission Street. Many agree that it is effectively a sub-neighborhood of the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods for the purpose of redeveloping the area. This neighborhood was completely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire but was quickly rebuilt thereafter, serving as a lively portion of the Market Street corridor. Starting in the mid-1980s Mid-Market went into a rapid decline due to a consolidation and expansion of homeless social services in the area. There were several unsuccessful initiatives aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood (such as sponsored street murals) and in 2011 San Francisco government had to resort to tax incentives to encourage businesses to move to Mid-Market. The most noteworthy of businesses at the moment has been Twitter, which moved into the old SF Furniture Mart building at Ninth and Market Streets in 2012, followed by quite a few others. Today, Mid-Market is being transformed into a hub of high-end condominium towers, cool restaurants and bars, great food markets as well as a vibrant entertainment scene.

The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco is well-known for the wrong reasons. Immediately adjacent to its famous and posh neighbor Union Square, Tenderloin (or some of its parts) is often described by tourists as "the worst neighborhood in San Francisco" and is designated as a separate neighborhood in District 8 due to its special character. Some portions of this neighborhood historically maintained a seedy character and a reputation to crime. While the Tenderloin is perhaps the last frontier in San Francisco's gentrification trend, those not afraid to walk its less than clean streets can find great cooking, unpredictable bar scenes, independently owned stores and great live music here.

The Tenderloin is situated in the flatlands of the southern slope of Lower Nob Hill, immediately adjacent to the Union Square and Civic Center neighborhoods. It is said that Tenderloin got its name from the days when policemen were paid more to work its mean streets, thereby affording the better cuts of meat.

Tenderloin has been a downtown residential community starting from the early days of the California Gold Rush in 1849. It was initially labelled “Downtown” - the name “Tenderloin” did not appear on San Francisco’s maps prior to 1930s. Starting from the late 19th century, this neighborhood had an active nightlife, with many theaters, restaurants, hotels and brothels. Tenderloin was completely destroyed as a result of the 1906 earthquake and fire but was rebuilt quickly thereafter. By the 1920s, it became notorious for its gambling, boxing gyms, billiard halls, and nightlife of all sorts. This neighborhood housed several jazz clubs in San Francisco, the most famous being Black Hawk, where many jazz legends recorded live albums in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Tenderloin’s housing historically consisted almost entirely of single-room-occupancy hotel rooms, studios and one-bedroom apartments, with single adults and couples comprising the bulk of its residents. After World War II, Tenderloin was losing its population, creating a large amount of vacant housing units by mid-1970s. Beginning in the late 1970s, after Vietnam War, Tenderloin welcomed large numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia who were attracted by the low costs and area’s proximity to Chinatown via Stockton Street Tunnel. A number of Southeast Asian restaurants, coffee shops and ethnic food stores opened in the neighborhood. Part of the western extent of the Tenderloin (Larkin and Hyde Streets between Turk and O’Farrell) are referred to as “Little Saigon”.

Tenderloin also has a long history as a center of alternate sexualities, including several historic confrontations with police. Prior to the emergence of The Castro as a major gay village, the center of the Tenderloin at Turk and Taylor streets as well as the nearby Polk Gulch were San Francisco’s first gay neighborhoods, with a few historic bars and clubs still in existence.

Tenderloin houses some of the city’s famous bars dating back to prohibition years and before (Bourbon & Branch at Jones and O’Farrell streets is a trendy speakeasy with restored original decorations is noteworthy) as well as several of San Francisco’s large music venues such as the Great American Music Hall and the Warfield Theater. Many strip clubs, the most well-known being Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater also found home in the neighborhood.

Many of San Francisco’s social services, religious organizations and public housing projects are located in the Tenderloin, including Raphael House, the first provider of shelter for homeless parents and children (since 1971), the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the Care Through Touch Institute (offering free seated massage therapy) as well as Glide Memorial Church and St. Anthony’s which provide meals and other socials services to the poor.

The below links provide further details on this neighborhood and its attractions:

This neighborhood has an impressive average Walk score of 99 and Transit score of 100.


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About Kate

As a long-term resident of San Francisco, Kate is well familiar with the city’s past and present. With her professional background and deep knowledge of the local housing market, Kate is in the position to best assist with your real estate needs. Should you be looking for a recommendation on the upcoming cultural or social events and/or if you need a trusted local real estate advisor, ask Kate – San Francisco is her HOME.

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1801 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94123

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