What’s in a Name?

by Katia Savchuk

Since the late 19th century, the word "tenderloin" has been used to describe a "district of a city largely devoted to vice." Apparently, the name comes from allegations that corrupt police in a seedy Manhattan district could afford a nice piece of meat.

The Tenderloin is still the official name of a dense downtown San Francisco neighborhood characterized by high rates of poverty, homelessness, crime and drug use. It also remains one of the few affordable neighborhoods for low-income renters, especially immigrants, and is home to many artists and writers.

It is slightly unbelievable in our politically correct culture that a neighborhood's official name can basically mean "bad, seedy area." I wonder if this moniker has been more than descriptive and had an effect on the area's development by pigeon-holing it.

Now that trendy bars and restaurants are popping up in the Tenderloin and urban renewal efforts are under way, I wonder if the name will have a lasting effect or become an amusing anachronism.

Credits: Photos of the Tenderloin from Dizzy Atmosphere.

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  1. Hm. I'd never thought about that. It's a very good point that names can influence the way things are perceived and the form they take. Maybe places can also influence names?

    Here's a unique bit of history on the Tenderloin from http://usingsfhistory.com/2011/12/04/changing-place-names-to-change-historical-memory:

    The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) also proposed a change of name of a San Francisco neighborhood when it lobbied Mayor Ed Lee in 2011 to change “The Tenderloin” to “The Tempeh District.” P.E.T.A. argued that the current name “echoes the violence and cruelty of the meat industry” and was inappropriate in a city with “some of the best vegan cuisine in the world.” The proposal met with some incredulity and was not pursued by either Mayor Lee or Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Tenderloin. As historian Peter Field notes on his walking tour, the name “Tenderloin” emerged in the nineteenth century out of the neighborhood’s role as a vice district. To change the name to “Tempeh” would risk losing a marker of that history.

    This walking tour of the neighborhood also looks interesting: http://www.sfcityguides.org/desc.html?tour=79

  2. Thank you for pointing out this fascinating piece! I grew up in San Francisco but had no idea about some of these renaming battles. There's something to be said for tradition, but I think street names can evolve along with the culture, and to stake an identity claim, just like other pieces of the language.


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