Skid Row to the Tenderloin National Forest & back again

Tenderloin National Forest in San Francisco

This past May, I came upon an article in the NYTimes that struck me as highly
relevant to what I am striving to achieve here, in Skid Row. The article was titled, “Tenderloin National Forest” ( ). Having grown up in the Bay Area, I knew the Tenderloin to be a place with a nasty reputation. The crime there had always been high to my recollection, and it was a place known for lots of illicit activities. I have had friends over the years take me to fashionable clubs there, sure, but some acquaintances I knew who rented apartments there lured by the cheap rents, told tales of rough living. I knew the place had a lot in common with Skid Row. I knew I had to get up there to investigate this “Forest” and see what lessons could be learned for my tree planting efforts.

Luckily, my friend Catherine knows the area well as she currently lives in SF. I was up north visiting her last month and she took me to “TL” (her term for the Tenderloin) so I could see this forest up close and personal.

Walking around the Tenderloin, I noticed a few things about the neighborhood. It’s public spaces looked a lot better that Skid Row’s. I saw dozens of new trees
planted, most with wire mesh around them for protection (note to self- can this
mesh around trees be done with new trees in Skid Row?). And, I saw numerous
vibrant businesses, children’s play spaces and even a community garden close
by. Skid Row is a different animal, yet I feel strongly that I can extract some
wisdom on how to green and beautify my neighborhood from the green shoots I saw sprouting there. Maybe I just need to ask the right questions…

When I got to the gates of the Tenderloin National Forest, I observed a street concert in front with all sorts of people gathered around and getting
down to the jams. It was a fun, active and lively atmosphere. The forest itself
was spectacular. I was in awe. Below are some photos of the place. Here is the
official website for the forest: (

the custom gate in front

me, posing with the plant life

I wanted to know how this was achieved. I asked some folks working a table at the front entrance gate, but they said I had just missed the main man in charge,
Darryl Smith. I was given his card and figured we’d speak sometime in the

Darryl emailed me a few days ago to tell me he was coming down south, Skid Row way- and we almost met, but our schedules did not allow it. Seems like we are two ships passing in the night. Eventually we will meet. In the
meantime, I emailed him some questions about his forest.

Hi Darryl! I know you were just recently in Downtown Los Angeles, and you said you might stop by Skid Row. Did you get a chance to make it here? If so, what were your observations?

A close proximity to areas of affluence and commerce, wide and open streets , relatively low building scape thus an abundance of direct sun to support a diverse street/landscape engagement to complement what sidewalk trees that already exist – we walked mainly in the area from San Pedro to Towne and from 4th to 6th– attractive wall space afforded by a number of warehouses, 2 of which feature contrasting approaches to mural making one dated and now tagged extensively the other a vibrant and dynamic full building engagement by LA artists EL MAC and Retna. An absence of outside amenities for so many who are encamped along great stretches of sidewalk although I suppose the 2 or 3 missions/shelters we saw provide for this. The sidewalks were well stained. I did observe the presence of green lushness pocketed in a number of back yard spaces throughout our walk – I can see what you see, an awesome potential of the many ways in which this area might transform to the benefit of all.

I was so impressed with the Tenderloin National Forest and the pleasant and peaceful space you created in such a high-density urban environment, wrought with so many of the social ills that my
community struggles with. How have the local residents responded to your forest and what sorts of positive reactions have you gotten from people that you can share?

This was and continues to be a lived process that from it’s inception in 1988, began as a threading of ideas and suggestions from the immediate community/inhabitants of the 4 buildings that front the Forest for the re- mapping/re-use of a city street as a shared public space. The sense of a collective ownership is very apparent and real in the ways that residents
continue to contribute to and participate in the variety of creative events and
activities that go on there. Although there still exists an ongoing economy of
illicit drug use and distribution in the immediate area – a manner of harm
reduction practice (by not selling or using) is almost always observed by those
involved when they too visit the Forest. Often people who either live on or near the Forest remark on how they were never able to afford a space with a view and how they now have that – or from the many tourists who stay at a prominent international hostel nearby who are surprised that such a place could possibly exist within such urban density…

I noticed that you got some pretty serious backing from the local politicians and some grants awarded in 2009. How did that all come about and can you share more about what big changes happened for your project around that time?

City recognized collaborators, credentialed or licensed contractors , elected or appointed government officials can be a big help but in the meantime the best place to start is on the ground with who is there – people like General Jeff , all the stakeholders in the neighborhood including the disenfranchised. We began our effort in this fashion with a clearly articulated intention and then generating the drawings to illustrate our approach. We did that thru reaching out to an existing environmental group, San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, who generously donated the services of their landscape architects and from there we carried these drawings to the City’s Department of Public Works and ultimately garnered the ear of then Mayor Willie Brown who embraced and supported the idea after which more significant funding opportunities opened up. All along the way we continued with the small things such as organizing public art and performance events: the In The Street Festival (1995 thru 2005) a 3 day neighborhood event that succeeded in attracting media attention and audiences from other sectors of the City and beyond to join in and demonstrate the importance of emerging safe aesthetically engaging and environmentally sustainable open space within dense urban space makes sense on so many levels. An important aspect for the lengthy way in which this project and process unfolded was the ability to involve more people, more participation and a deeper sense of a shared responsibility and commitment to it. We were also able to expand and develop further than what initially had been permitted- in this case being able to prohibit vehicular access and thus maximize the greening of the environment.

I see you have a beatifully designed gate in front of your forest, is your space public or private and can you explain?

The gate designed and fabricated by San Francisco Art Institute Alumni Kevin Leeper back in 1993 was commissioned in response to the local residents expressed wish to have the alley secured at night from immediate exposure to violent skirmishes that happened all too frequently as well as defecation and rampant IV drug and crack use thus we set out to discover a mechanism by which we could legally gate a public right of way. It took a number of years but ultimately we succeeded by of entering into a lease agreement with the owner – The City and County of San Francisco for $ 1.00 per year. This required first that the existing property owners all agree to the installation of the gate and for the stated purpose of providing a new outdoor publicly accessible venue for arts and cultural activities to take place in, and to garden and reflect.

Additionally that there be a collective sharing in carrying the cost and
responsibility of insuring the City and the general public for all times of access
– only our small arts organization agreed to take on the liability issue thus
sealing the deal. We continue as the sole lessee and steward of TNF as long as
we provide consistent public access – currently Tuesday thru Saturday from 11am to 5pm or by appointment and designated evenings for posted events.

How do you involve the community with your Forest?

By encouraging the notion of neighborhood wide ownership – supporting an ongoing dialogue and critique of programs and projects currently offered: The Free Mending Library by Michael Swaine – a community sewing project the 15thof the month, 12 to 6pm. The Community Portrait Project conducted by Tom Ferentz founder /director of the 6th Street Photography Workshop– Fresh from the Oven choreographed and performed by Amara Tabor-Smith w/guest DJ, second Saturdays, 12 to 3pm – featuring fresh baked pizza and bread from the TNF cob oven, designed by Becka Lafore and Stella Breslin – the sharing of favorite family recipes and related stories .

The TNF Artist in Residence program – 2 month residencies and open studio where the emphasis is on multi disciplinary approaches to neighborhood involvement. Early next summer we will host 3 women from the first experimental art space in Hanoi, the Nhasan Studio.

Your murals are to die for; can you tell me about the artists? Were they locals?

The artists are all local – San Francisco Bay Area based to date – Alicia McCarthy, Brett Cook Dizney, Evan Bissell, Apex, Johanna Poethig, CUBA, Bounce, Nome Adonis Rigo 23, Jose Fernando Cardoso, Trust Your Struggle, Andrew Schultz and teens from the Vietnamese Youth Development Center.

I am specifically interested in greening and beautifying Skid Row’s public space. Behind the doors of the various Missions and SRO housing buildings lay beautiful gardens- so we do have trees and lushness here, just not in our public space. Have you been involved with any other local greening projects in the Tenderloin, and if so, what can you share about how your experiences might shape my undertakings?

Father Boeddeker park centrally located in the Tenderloin recently received a 3 million dollar grant from The Trust for Public Land to support a makeover process. A series of public meetings were convened to determine the valued aspects that neighborhood residents wanted to see incorporated in the redesign effort. Relatively small (2.5 acres) for a city park and many needs to satisfy for sum 34,000 people that call the Tenderloin (one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country) home. I attended a # of the focus sessions (that occurred over the better part of a year) and was impressed with the  importance devoted to finding common ground in the effort to address as many of the ideas and suggestions that came from many of the areas participants.

Not sure if this the place to suggest a few other observations/ideas but : The challenge with the greening of public space in Skid Row from an outsider perspective is in attracting funding and support services to the project – Is there significant support from the # of different property and business owners in greening and to the diverse ways that are available in achieving that goal: increased tree planting with attention to the variety of options in that effort – emerging green islands on some of the wider streets that could continue to accommodate necessary vehicular passage on either side that would support the various industry and commercial outlets I noticed and/or parklet creation on or adjacent to curb sides (usually 1 to 2 standard car lengths) these can be developed to be mobile and stored at off times if necessary. Then with all the significant wall space around the opportunity to emerge an incredible array of vertical gardens that can be designed for hydroponic support (reduced weight) in conjunction with additional mural efforts that if considered as more temporary , might facilitate greater ease at gaining permissioned walls from owners plus a rotating aspect further activates the aesthetic highlights of the environment; additionally this could provide partnering opportunity with local high school and or college/university art –curatorial studies department. How are your relations with the existing shelters /missions – do they own their buildings. Back to the temp. mural idea– they be executed as work directly on the wall or by installing a metal framework that one could attach a plywood (1/2 in. or greater) surface to; so these can be pre painted off site if necessary and that can be repainted by the next artist(team) or auctioned each cycle as a fundraiser for the project… by the way we are planning a parklet for just outside the Forest and then locating a mobile coffee/food vendor to partner with –this would be a benefit for Skid Row I think. I am also mindful of the opportunities for engagement by the out of work or homeless in these various scenarios — Bottom Up!!

I am way into collaborating where it might make sense.


*Thank you Darryl!  So much food for thought. So many good ideas.
I’m sure we will be in touch again soon. I am extremely grateful for your carefully considered answers. I especially see the importance of involving the entire community on any further beautification efforts- so you laying out that’s what you did only reinforces the need on my end to make sure all entities are engaged moving forward. (FYI, DTLA is getting Parklets! Not in Skid Row yet, but a few blocks west on Spring St.).


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3 Responses to Skid Row to the Tenderloin National Forest & back again

  1. NC says:

    Great photos and interview!

  2. Pingback: Skid Row Tree Guard ideas | Trees on San Pedro Street Project

  3. Pingback: this DTLA district map is WHACK | Trees on San Pedro Street Project

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