St. Anthony’s is located in an old San Francisco neighborhood: the Tenderloin. Many view this neighborhood as never changing — it’s always the poorest, toughest grid of streets in this otherwise glorious city. For those who’ve lived here it seems like it’s always changing. Over the decades, various immigrant groups have landed here, gotten their feet under them and then moved on. Old buildings get renovated by a nonprofit housing group; run down parks are resurrected; new restaurants open. Some of these changes scare us. Are improvements to the neighborhood signs of gentrification? Are the all-powerful real estate interests going to claim this scarce and valuable property? Will the poor be driven from one of the last neighborhoods in San Francisco that will have them?
In this past year one of the improvements that has signaled the on-going change of the Tenderloin has been the completion of St. Anthony’s new Dining Room at the corner of Golden Gate and Jones. In some ways it’s the epitome of those two views of this neighborhood. Built by an organization that’s celebrating its 65th anniversary and that was founded by Franciscans who helped establish this city, this new structure speaks of the constant, never changing commitment to those who are poor. At the same time, the new Dining Room reflects change — change that stands against any force that threatens the neighborhood’s future or disregards its residents’ right to remain. This new space and other exciting efforts in the neighborhood proclaim the Tenderloin as a vibrant and caring community in this city.
There are many things to celebrate about our new Dining Room. Every day we discover new ways that our new space is enhancing our work: we’re able to provide better meals; we can make better use of the food donations that come in; and more volunteers can engage with our guests. But my most cherished story of this past year is about an elderly woman standing at the entrance to our new Dining Room. She glanced over at one of our staff, presuming that she was another guest in line. In a quiet but assured voice she said, “You know, they built this place for us.” This woman’s simple observation best summarizes all the work that went into funding and building this beautiful new structure. We have provided a space where people connect with the best in themselves and the best in one another. We work for change in the entire neighborhood, confident that what was said of our Dining Room can be proclaimed by every child, every senior and every homeless person of the Tenderloin: “You know this neighborhood is for us.”
Barry Stenger is St. Anthony’s Executive Director