Hidden Gem: Inside The Tenderloin National Forest

Over the last three decades, a dead-end alley on the 500 block of Ellis Street that once stored dumpsters has been transformed into a thriving arts space.

The Tenderloin National Forest, nestled between the Aarti and Senator Hotels, was built and sustained by the surrounding community. The space was envisioned by Darryl Smith, who also co-founded the Luggage Store Gallery, a nonprofit arts organization, with Laurie Lazer.

Smith was a photography student at San Francisco Art Institute in 1986 when he learned of an effort seeking to set aside part of the ground floor of the Aarti at 509 Ellis St. for art and community events. 

The Aarti was the first real estate venture by Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, which develops low-income housing. Today, the hotel serves formerly homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24 who have serious mental health needs. 

Luggage Store Gallery envisioned using the city-owned street adjacent to the hotel as an place to extend its programs. Twenty-three feet wide and 136 feet deep, the space then known as Cohen Alley was “literally a throw-away space,” Smith said. 

Cohen Alley in 1989. | Photo: Luggage Store Gallery

Neighbors stored dumpsters there, and garbage trucks visited regularly, which prevented events or exhibitions that extended through the side door of the Aarti from becoming permanent, Smith said.

Eventually, Smith dropped out of school, moved into the Aarti, and in 1989 started a 10-year journey to find a way to use the space for community art installations.

Smith and the co-op working out of the Aarti collaborated with many community partners, including the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, to develop designs for the space. 

When partners devised a plan that was approved by neighbors, then-Mayor Willie Brown embraced the concept before it was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, which agreed to lease the space to nonprofit 509 Cultural Center for $1 per year in perpetuity.

Initially called the Luggage Store’s ‘Green Lab,’ the alley was granted a new address, 511 Ellis St.

Smith worked with Lazer and landscape architect Jeffery Brown, now co-director of the Kids in Parks program, to gather funding and fully flesh out the space’s potential. The first tree—a giant redwood now 6 stories tall—was planted in 2001.

The forest's first tree. | Photo: Luggage Store Gallery

The goal has always been to create a beneficial, beautiful, and healthy atmosphere for tenants of neighboring hotels and the Tenderloin community, said Smith. 

In 2006, Sarah Lewison, a visiting artist at San Francisco State, hosted her course out of the space, which is when student Marco Crescenti had the idea of naming it "Tenderloin National Forest." 

Today, there are more than 12 mature trees, a wood-burning oven, murals, and a wattle and daub house within the forest constructed of wood and earthen materials. Seventy percent of the greenery is in raised containers, but some are planted below the street surface, Smith said. 

The growing forest | Photo: Luggage Store Gallery

In 2008, artist Rigo 23 received a grant from the Creative Work Fund to create a rock mosaic titled “Cultural Geometry” on the forest floor. The designs are reflective of the Ohlone, the city's original inhabitants, said Smith.

The forest provides a space for artists and neighbors to meet and collaborate, which has led to the emergence of artistic and community traditions like as Skywatchers, a collaborative performance art project.

Rigo 23's mosaic replaced the pavement on the forest floor. | Photo: Luggage Store Gallery

Smith is currently experimenting with leaving the space open during daytime hours when he's nearby in the Luggage Store’s Market Street gallery.

There are challenges with maintaining a lush green space in the heart of the Tenderloin. Historically, the garden has been closed when it isn’t staffed to prevent drug dealers from using it as a marketplace.

“It is a complex neighborhood, small in size but greatly culturally diverse,” Smith said, noting that “alternative economic activity” is part of the Tenderloin's landscape.

But as the forest’s creative activities attracted more attention and community engagement, drug dealers started to play their trade elsewhere out of respect for the space, he said.

A locked red gate keeps the forest safe when it's not staffed. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

Smith said the next big challenge is transitioning the forest into a standalone entity, as The Luggage Store is staffed by just him and Lazer, who are also focused on other projects.

Hotel tenants who live near the alley help care for the space, but maintaining the forest comes with high liability and insurance costs, he said. 

To bring in more resources, Smith and Lazar have been in talks with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Benefit District and other partners.

This stage of the forest’s life has been a growing experience, he explained, since he's learning how to let others become caretakers of the space he's cultivated and transform.

“It’s the best part of what I do,” said Smith.

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Hidden gem inside the tenderloin national forest