Sometimes paradise springs up in the unlikeliest of places. Cohen Alley in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is one such place.
“Syringes and human feces littered the ground,” writes Next American City’s Johanna Hoffman, describing Cohen Alley in the 1980s. “[P]rostitutes used the spot to turn tricks. For local contractors, it was a convenient, if illegal, dumping ground.”
Twentysome years later, the 40-foot-wide space hidden between two busy streets looks drastically different. Bright murals painted by local artists decorate the buildings that straddle the alley. Small tables are set out for impromptu conversations. Soft warmth emanates from a small, homemade clay oven. A three-story redwood tree would normally seem out of place in the city—but blends perfectly into the environment of Cohen. The area is so lushly precious it even earned a new name: the Tenderloin National Forest.
The transformation was no fluke; creating Tenderloin National Forest took decades of manual labor, community organizing, and politicking—mostly from native San Franciscan Darryl Smith. “We saw how the alley was being disrespected,” Smith told Next American Ctiy, “It wasn’t a healthy place to be, and we wanted to change that. We wanted physical and environmental safety.”
Smith and his collaborators started low-key. At the end of the ‘80s, Smith dragged sheets of grass sod into the alley and established a DIY performance space. Local residents developed a pride of place around the alley, and eventually politicians started to notice—and fight for the space. Smith’s next project, according to Hoffman, is to install a wastewater treatment system, and he’ll likely do so without a permit. And that will be fine.
Change has been slow and incremental in Cohen Alley, but ultimately a success story. But Smith’s determination and convictions have carved out a small patch of green wonderland in the center of the hard city. “We push gently,” Smith told Next American City, “but we keep pushing.”
Source: Next American City