In the 1960s two visiting brothers from Ohio checked into the historic Cadillac Hotel and had to extend their stay due to an epic blizzard in the Midwest. They never got around to going back, and both still lived at the hotel when I sat behind them at one of the monthly jazz concerts in the grand lobby a few years ago.
“Now and then I still think about going back,” one said.
Not long after that concert the brother who told me the story passed away, and the state decided the other was incapable of living alone and needed to be institutionalized. Owner Kathy Looper and her manager Magali Echevarria went to bat for that vulnerable old man, who was frightened and alone, and agreed to personally look after him so he could stay in his home.
“Humanity” is not a word used often when talking about the state of housing in San Francisco — where young tech workers pay up to $1800 for a bunk bed and long-term tenants are evicted by the thousands — but the Cadillac Hotel has long been an oasis for those of limited means or with nowhere else to go.
While many do make the Cadillac their permanent home, some use it as a place to get their bearings when they land in the city.
“I had only been in the city for a month, slept place to place carrying luggage everywhere and still trying to hold a full time job. Spent all my money just to come to the city so trying to live check to check and save for a place to live and eat… it sucked!” began Narada Johnson, who moved from St. Louis to advance his career in the beauty industry.
“Once I found shelter [at the Cadillac] it sucked ’cause I’m in a strange place, strange people, and I kept asking myself ‘is it all worth it?’ over and over. Then I met my neighbor Miss Eddy. She had no friends, no family, and she was a lot older We were meant for each other. She would always cook for me with what little she had, and I would always make sure I return the favor by getting her tobacco. She was and is everything to me.”
Once Mr. Johnson was on his feet he moved on, making room for the next tenant. “When I moved Miss Eddy told me to have a great journey. I ran into her last month and I asked if she’s still at Cadillac. She said she will always be there ’cause she has no where else to go.”
In my book Delusions of Grandeur I revisit how I first became acquainted with the Cadillac and the Loopers when I was assigned to supervise the hotel:
The open position was for the portfolio that included the Cadillac Hotel, which was owned by titans of the Tenderloin District, Leroy and Kathy Looper.
The Cadillac was their baby. A San Francisco landmark, the historic brick building was built right after the 1906 earthquake as a luxury hotel. The ballroom was once a gym and many notable boxers trained there, including Muhammad Ali.
The Loopers bought the property in 1977 and established the first non-profit “Single Room Occupancy” (SRO) hotel west of the Mississippi, housing about a hundred and sixty low income tenants. That SRO model now dominated the neighborhood, which was a great thing or a horrible thing, depending on who you asked. Because of the structural groundwork Leroy Looper laid, it was nearly impossible to gentrify the Tenderloin, which remained a centrally located island of realness and relative affordability, even as skyrocketing rents displaced longtime residents in the rest of the city.
The Loopers were known by everyone in the neighborhood, from politicians to homeless people on the street, and Leroy was referred to as “The Father of the Tenderloin.”
I’d seen Leroy around the office from time to time, a big and tall Black man in his seventies. We’d never been formally introduced, but he always greeted me with a smile. He and his wife Kathy, who was about twenty years younger, welcomed me warmly and soon became like my San Francisco parents.
Conversations with them were fascinating because they were so deeply rooted in that city. They personally knew all the players of the past fifty years including Harvey Milk, Diane Feinstein, every mayor, and even cult leader Jim Jones.
Now the hotel is faced with being condemned by the city if they don’t come up with $300,000 for electrical upgrades by the end of this year, causing everyone from notable musicians to The San Francisco Chronicle to take note.
As the cornerstone of the Tenderloin, the loss of the Cadillac would be devastating for a city whose soul is already hanging by a thread. In addition to the 160 residents, also in jeopardy is a doctor’s office for Chinese immigrants, the Bay Area Women’s and Children’s Center, a HeadStart program for 40 children, the Tenderloin Museum and SF Clean City.
A benefit concert is taking place Saturday, November 14 at the hotel, located at 380 Eddy Street. Over 11 bands, including Lavay Smith, Dirty Cello, and Wendy DeWitt will be performing from 12 – 6 p.m. and everyone is invited to enjoy the show. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.
Donations for this worthy cause can be given in person at the benefit, or through this Crowdrise fundraiser. 100% of the proceeds will go directly to the Cadillac Hotel through Reality House West, Inc. a non-profit 501c3 with the State of California. All musicians and organizational staff are donating their time.
Anyone who knows San Francisco knows just how much of it has been lost. For longer than most of us have been alive the Cadillac Hotel was a place you could find shelter when all else failed. Even as the city morphed into something unrecognizable, it endured, and remains a home for many of the wonderful misfits that once defined that mythical city nestled in the clouds, barely hanging on to the mainland.
For the love of God save it.