Leading a tour of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Del Seymour shows where heroin dealers do business (under trees), where fences wait for hot goods (near a BART station exit) and where women wearing black sell crack (at Turk and Taylor streets).
He also introduces tour-goers to a state-of-the-art community facility, a church sanctuary for the homeless and a cutting-edge theater troupe based in the neighborhood.
Seymour, a striking figure in a suit and hat carrying a worn leather briefcase with an “I heart TL” sticker on it, is a former resident of the streets and an addict with a record who knows his stuff. He has been sharing his knowledge of the neighborhood via fun, fact-filled, two-hour walking tours for about 4½ years.
A recent excursion began at Donut World on Market Street, a few steps away from United Nations Plaza, near where world leaders signed the U.N. Charter in 1945. The plaza also was the site of Vietnam War-era protests.
Near Seventh Street, Seymour points toward the new glass-paneled, green Federal Building, finished in 2007, which he says is the most sustainable structure in the federal system.
He adds, “Everything is recycled; when I’m there, I never drink the water.”
Before leaving Market Street, Seymour mentions that the thoroughfare’s demise was due to BART’s lengthy construction: “People left and never came back.”
Yet the Market Street corridor is on the upswing, Seymour says: “You can’t get real estate right now; it’s the new Valencia Street.”
A block away, on Golden Gate Avenue, the tour group quietly enters St. Boniface Church, where dozens of homeless people, wrapped in blankets, sleep in pews. Between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., people in need can have a peaceful rest and use a sanitary bathroom.
Across the street is the St. Anthony Foundation, home of the famed dining room, the only one in The City open 365 days a year, according to Seymour: “They’ve served 42 million meals; I’ve eaten a million of them,” he jokes.
Supported by thousands of volunteers (including Barry Zito), the dining room is currently undergoing expansion; the new building next door will match the facility’s spiffy medical clinic, tech lab with high-speed computers and other client services.
On Jones Street, Seymour points out markings on the sidewalk, a yellow brick road of sorts monitored by community groups and volunteers, and designated as a safe route for children and families.
On a nearby corner is what Seymour calls “the last illegal sweat shop” in The City, where Asian workers are making clothes that have labels reading “Made in China.”
Much more attractive is artist Mona Caron’s amazing, complex and beautiful “Windows Into the Tenderloin” mural on a building at Golden Gate Avenue and Jones Street, which boasts scenes from history and real people who contributed to the area.
An unlikely resident of the neighborhood is Cutting Ball Theater, which presents experimental works, including the hit 2012 world premiere called “Tenderloin,” based on comprehensive interviews with the Tenderloin’s myriad and colorful residents.
Seymour stops at Boedekker Park at Ellis and Taylor streets, which is currently closed because it didn’t meet access requirements for people with disabilities.
Seymour, among a group of seniors who rejuvenated what was once a haven for drugs and crime, clearly has a soft spot for Boedekker, where, on one Thursday church sidewalk session, he got on his road to recovery. He says, “It’s going to come back strong, whenever it comes back.”
When the day arrives, he’ll be ready. In the meantime, he seems content sharing his ’hood with folks he knows (“I didn’t do it!” he calls to someone he recognizes across the street) and visitors interested in exploring beyond its grit and grime.
There’s no official charge for tours, which are given by appointment, but Seymour accepts donations; $20 is suggested, and he’s got T-shirts for sale, too.
He says he has about six hours’ worth of material on his subject, which actually isn’t an officially designated area on any map: “There’s no official demarcation,” he says. “Tenderloin is a conceptual name. This is the theater district.”
IF YOU GO
Tenderloin Walking Tours
Presented by Del Seymour
When: By appointment
Contact: (415) 574-1641, www.tlwalkingtours.com, firstname.lastname@example.org