Next door to 509 Ellis Street in the Tenderloin are a big pair of gates with a peaceful little garden behind them. This garden is known as the Tenderloin National Forest. A non-profit art gallery next door called Luggage Store Gallery operates this particular “National Forest.”
As with any volunteer driven art project it’s open when it’s open, so don’t believe anything you read on the internet about operating hours. Sometimes it’s open for special events, but most of the time it seems to be open on certain weekday afternoons.
That said it’s reliably open to visitors during Sunday Streets in the Tenderloin — like earlier today.
To understand the space you have to look back almost 30 years ago.
The story of the “Forest” starts in 1989 when it was Cohen Alley, a short but especially filthy little dead end alley in the Tenderloin that housed a dumpster. When the neighboring gallery wanted to hold outdoor events they started using and maintaining the alley.
In 2000 the city let the nonprofit lease Cohen Alley for one dollar a year. A local artist built and installed the big metal gates. Over time volunteers planted numerous trees and shrubs, installed a cobblestone walkway, painted murals, and built a small pizza oven. Needless to say it no longer resembles any other alley in the Tenderloin.
A few years later a local student dreamt up the moniker “Tenderloin National Forest.”
Today I couldn’t help but to notice the plants and trees have grown significantly since my last visit a year or two ago. Especially on a sunny day, the foliage does give the place a little bit of a sense of a forest. It’s easy to see why the name stuck.
If nothing else the place is a respite from the Tenderloin’s gritty streets. On that note, today a tourist handed me her iPhone and asked me to take her photo as she stood in front of one of the murals. It’s difficult to imagine that interaction taking place in other outdoor Tenderloin locations, even during a relatively welcoming event like Sunday Streets.
For more on the Tenderloin National Forest: