I find myself in situations I wish I wasn’t in, although when I survive them I’m glad I was in them. Don Stannard-Friel, Sociologist

Cutline: Don Stannard-Friel’s most recent research brings him back to San Francisco’s Tenderloin where he first lived after moving from New Jersey in 1963. Photo by William Cracraft

Dr. Don, he’s known to his students, came to the Tenderloin in the mid-‘60’s. Now he’s back and pounding the pavement.

“The story is that in 1963 I left New Jersey, I stuck my thumb out at the George Washington Bridge and 80 hours later I was in Los Angeles hallucinating from being awake for three days,” said Don Stannard-Friel of the College of Notre Dame Sociology Depart­ment.

“People would want me to drive or talk to keep them awake, either way I had to stay awake. I had 40 bucks in my pocket, I knew it wouldn’t last long, so the faster I got across the country and figured things out the better,” he said.

He lived in a laundromat and gave blood to get enough money to get to San Francisco. Once here, he settled into the Tenderloin at the Lyric Hotel. “It’s now a drug re­hab program, but it was built for the 1915 exposition,” he added.

He lived in the Tenderloin while attending classes at San Francisco State University, then moved to Davis to work on a doctorate.

I find myself in situations I wish I wasn’t in, although when I survive them I’m glad I was in them. Don Stannard-Friel, Sociologist

He would soon find out, you can take the sociologist out of the Tenderloin, but you can’t take the Tenderloin out of the sociologist. “I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Tenderloin,” Stannard-Friel said.

“I had dropped out of college, that’s when I came West. I was a returning student in the ’60s. The world view was changing, and it was becoming the sociological world view for that time. I was taking courses and … I sort of evolved into a sociologist in those times,” he said.

Dr. Don doesn’t believe in hands-off sociology, at least not urban in an urban environment. “In sociology, within its whole history, on the one hand, is objectivity and not being involved. Then there is another tradition which is socially active research, where you do get involved. The point of this is not to talk about it, it’s to make some kind of contribution,” he said as he walked the sidewalks of the Tenderloin.

That philosophy motivates students. Berdine Oliva, a graduate of CND, was converted to sociology and social activism by Stannard­Friel. At 24, she is working at Su­perior Group Home in Newark and a probation office on the Peninsula. When she started at CND, things didn’t look too bright.

She went to the college to play basketball, but college can be rough. “At first, I hated Notre Dame, I wasn’t really ready for that kind of transition. I made it the worst time of my life,” she said.

“Basketball wasn’t really working out for me and some of the classes I didn’t enjoy. Dr. Don was totally there for me. He’s one of those people who really listens to what other people say. I was totally lost until the last semester when the interaction I had with people we were working with was awesome.”

Stannard-Friel told her to consider teaching, and she is planning to earn her teaching credential, she said. Stannard-Friel is on sabbatical from CND where he started teaching 1978. In 1983 he became president of the faculty senate and dean of faculty in 1985. There he stayed for nine years.

“As dean I didn’t have any time to do any writing and just did presentations. In 1992 I went to Ireland on sabbatical, had time to reflect, came back and gave notice as dean, did it for one more year and wrote Abraham’s Dance, ” he said.

Abraham’s Dance, now in the hands of his agent, is based on experiences he’d had in the Haight­Ashbury District in the 1960s and ’70s centering on the mental hospital there.

The reason I left the deanship was to become an urban sociologist, which I thought I was going to do in the early ’80s. During that time I started coming back to the Tenderloin.

“I walked the streets for about a year, connecting with people, but mainly just observing. I started going out at night with the undercover police, and that was a lot of fun. I was looking for the story to write. Two emerged,” he said. The first will deal with the lives of displaced Vietnamese living in the Tenderloin. “I started connecting with a lot of Vietnamese people and out of that came a study I’m working on with Douglas Kent-Hall, who is a photographer,” he said.

There were three waves of immigrants from Vietnam. The first wave was in 1975 right as Saigon was falling, the second was made up of boat people who were released from refugee camps. The third wave, this decade, is made up of people who were imprisoned after the war and went to re-education camps.

The second study is about the history and cultures of the Tenderloin through the years. “There is an elaborate history that is not well written about. Both South of Market and the Barbary Coast have been referred to as the Tenderloin.” The name originated in New York, but refers to any big city district where graft allows even the beat cop to bring home tenderloin, the best cut of steak, he said.

San Francisco’s official Tenderloin is bounded by Market Street Van Ness, Post Street and Powell Street.

“The research in the TL will probably focus around a couple people that have had very different lives. One is still having a very difficult life and the other has come out of that life. Along the way, I’ll explore the history and culture of the Tenderloin at large. It’s not only skid row, its an incredibly vibrant place,” he said.

Stannard-Friel’s days are filled with characters. He goes to meetings with human service providers and groups like the Lower Eddy Street Group, North of Market Planning Coalition or Tenderloin Task Force. “I am just there. I interview people I think are interesting which is virtually everybody in the Tenderloin,” he said. Most are pretty harmless, but not all. He had a close call in the TL, and had a vice president from CND with him at the time. Stannard-Friel stops on a corner to point out a bullet hole in the wall of a building. Across the street is Boedeker Park.

The park is fenced off except for a walk running diagonally through it; not unkempt, it is a mosaic of red-brick and green grass and one of the most dangerous spots in the city. It is one of the pieces of San Francisco the police can’t control.

“I’ve been around a lot of different kinds of people for a long time and I still get sweaty at times. I’ve taught in prisons and worked in locked wards of mental hospitals. I find myself in situations I wish I wasn’t in, although when I survive them, I’m glad I was in them,” he said.

This article was written by William Cracraft/Freelance News Service and first published in 1998 in the 75th Anniversary Edition tabloid published by Alameda News Paper Group. Any accompanying photos were also taken by William Cracraft. It is reproduced here as a portfolio piece.


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