Director Katie Conry is on a Mission to Promote the Rich History of one of
San Francisco's most misunderstood neighborhoods.
The 31-block Tenderloin district, built between the earthquake and fire of 1906 and the Great Depression, has a rich 100-year cultural history. It has been a mecca for musicians, from jazz all-stars Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk to rock royalty such as the Grateful Dead and Santana, who’ve performed or recorded there. More than 400 of its buildings are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and the neighborhood has been the center of both civil rights, feminist and LGBTQ activism. It has also been a hotbed of vice — gambling, prostitution, strip clubs and speakeasies like the swanky, by-appointment-only Bourbon and Branch, which maintains the 1920s Prohibition-era ambiance of the location’s original occupants. All this and more is showcased in the Tenderloin Museum, which opened four years ago with a full complement of walking tours, public events, art shows and interactive history exhibitions. Enter Katie Contry, who had stints at the California Academy of Sciences, The Exploratorium and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, before taking the reins as executive director of the museum in 2016. She recently reflected on a range of subjects and a diverse neighborhood that has warmly embraced sinners and saints, iconoclasts and artists, and people of more than 30 nationalities.
What makes this job — and the focus of this museum — a good fit for you? Do you have a special connection to the Tenderloin?
I was looking for an opportunity to do museum public programming and found the Tenderloin Museum. So, you could say I found the museum first, and the Tenderloin second. I think the Tenderloin’s magic can take some time to reveal itself. But once I recognized that magic, I quickly became the impassioned neighborhood advocate I am today. A vital mission of the Tenderloin Museum is to create new advocates for the neighborhood by sharing its lost history, and helping people to see the neighborhood in a larger context.
How would you describe the Tenderloin and the features that make it distinctive?
I’ve never seen the sense of community I’ve seen here. People know each other and look out for each other, which provides an incredible sense of belonging. The Tenderloin also has a singular history, where those at society’s margins have successfully fought those in power for their right to exist. I would challenge you to find a surviving working class neighborhood adjacent to downtown in any major U.S. city today.
Why does the area warrant its own dedicated museum?
The museum is the first of its kind to explore and amplify the untold stories of a long-marginalized neighborhood. The Tenderloin has been either ignored or written about negatively in San Francisco for its entire history so, it was overdue for some attention. It has been a safe haven for those that don’t fit into society's mainstream. Social justice movements, like women’s liberation and LGBTQ rights, incubated in the Tenderloin before rippling across the country and permeating broader culture. The museum showcases the history of groups often left out of history books and historical institutions. This is vitally important in challenging traditional historical narratives that erase from history any person or group that doesn’t support mainstream ideas.
For you, what was the most surprising discovery about the district?
I was most surprised about the women’s movement in the Tenderloin in the early 20th century. Did you know that a decade before the “flapper movement” challenged traditional gender roles in urban America, women in the Tenderloin were brazenly shunning gender conventions? Women of the 1910s were living independently in SROs, working downtown, and socializing at bars and restaurants unaccompanied by men. This was so radical at the time that the city’s establishment succeeded in shutting down the Tenderloin neighborhood in 1917, much like they did to the Barbary Coast a few years before.
Last year the museum helped produce “The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot,” an immersive play about an actual event in the Tenderloin’s trans community. Could you talk about the role of historically related arts programs?
Art is a conduit for understanding the world around us. It’s an excellent way of understanding the past as well. History is an abstract idea; art can help make it very real. When you see The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, the Trans women that sparked the LGBTQ revolution are right there in front of you — you are a witness to history. My life’s work is to produce art that connects people to their shared history and help people think of themselves as historical actors. History and art are what connect us to each other, and that’s how community is created.
→ Tenderloin Museum
388 Eddy Street, San Francisco 94102