The Main Gallery

The Tenderloin Museum’s permanent exhibition explores the distinctive history of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, an area rich in nationally significant cultural, architectural, political, and musical history. Through innovative, interactive design, our exhibition showcases more than 100 years of neighborhood history, with an emphasis on:

Built Environment. The Tenderloin is a largely intact, visually consistent, inner-city high-density residential area constructed during the years between the earthquake and fire of 1906 and the Great Depression. With more than 400 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the neighborhood's stunning architecture includes the world's largest collection of historic Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) “residential hotels."

Entertainment. For over a century, the Tenderloin has been a leading venue for live San Francisco entertainment. The neighborhood housed the internationally-famous Blackhawk Jazz Club featuring such jazz legends as Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk. Famous rock bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Grateful Dead, Santana and Jefferson Airplane recorded some of their greatest successes in the neighborhood. The Tenderloin is also known for its "illicit" activities, as it hosted illegal card games and speakeasies, which flourished during the Prohibition Era. The neighborhood also had its share of strip clubs and pornography theaters, most of which are now gone.

Political & Social Activism. Tenderloin political activism cemented the foundation for grassroots community action in the city. San Francisco's LGBT rights movement began in the Tenderloin. In July 1966, activists led a protest at Compton's Cafeteria helping launch San Francisco's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement. In the 1960's, Reverend Cecil Williams began promoting civil rights through his activist-oriented ministry at Glide Memorial Church. The 1980’s saw residents organize to preserve residential hotels and rezone the neighborhood to prevent gentrification.

Diversity. Since the turn of the 20th century, the Tenderloin has served as a gateway community for new immigrants into the city. In particular, an influx of immigrants in the 1970's and ‘80's created a rich, Southeast Asian and South Asian cultural footprint. In addition to middle class office and retail staff, the Tenderloin has historically been home to nightlife and cultural workers: bartenders, musicians, artists, actors, dancers, and prostitutes.

All of these forces have helped shape the neighborhood visitors can experience today – one of the mostly densely populated areas in the country, the Tenderloin contains 20,000 people in 31 square blocks, almost all of which have at least one Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) “residential hotel” for low-income residents. The neighborhood is also home to more than 30 nationalities and is one of the most culturally diverse in the country. Check out our walking tours to learn more about the Tenderloin with a resident guide, or attend one of our upcoming public programs.