SAN FRANCISCO - A beautiful holiday tree-lighting celebration in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood brought hundreds of people to Boeddeker Park.
The event Friday night at the park across from the police station was festive, fun, and a rare chance for residents to have a celebration in their own neighborhood, which often is plagued by crime, drug dealing, and negative perceptions.
"A lot of people are scared of the Tenderloin. But there's nothing to be scared of. It feels like home to me, maybe because I'm born and raised in San Francisco, but it's beautiful," said Juana Ramos of San Francisco, who was there with her husband and two children.
"I like the Santa toys and taking pictures with Santa," her son, Jose Ramos, III, said with a big smile.
Sounds of the season from many corners and cultures of the world filled the park, as people danced to mariachi music, Christmas carols, and songs celebrating Kwanzaa.
Santa made an appearance and joined in the dancing, as well as taking photos with children and hearing their Christmas wishes, with help from holiday elves.
"My important job today is to be an elf to provide things for the kids," Hung Truong, one of the program coordinators said. "We have the books, candy, chocolate candy, a toy for the kids to have fun."
Mayor London Breed, State Senator Scott Wiener, Assembly member Matt Haney, and San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston attended the ceremony for the lighting of the tree.
On the branches, decorations included handmade ornaments from children who live in the Tenderloin.
It was a very different picture from what many people see just driving through the neighborhood.
The gathering showed a community of neighbors pulling together to help each other survive and thrive.
"All we have is the spirit of Christmas. We just need the spirit of Christmas, because everyone's struggling down here," said Chris Fox, a San Francisco Tenderloin resident who says he is alone this year, with his family living out of the state.
Margarita Mena, one of the founders of Safe Passage says she was happy and proud to see the mayor and other elected officials come to support the neighborhood efforts.
Kate Robinson, executive director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, says a coalition of groups helped organize the event.
"When there are events where there are positive activations, our Safe Passage team, the police, many community partners looking after each other's safety, then residents can trust in that and feel safe to come out," Robinson said.
Robinson says this year also marks the 15th anniversary of the Safe Passage program, which they founded to make sure children and seniors can walk down the streets safely.
"I like helping the children and I like being of service," Lewis Murphy, a Safe Passage volunteer, said. "San Francisco has been having some rough times so this is cool bringing the community together."
"I don't come out at night. I don't normally come out at night, but for something like this I'm going to come out and enjoy it and just be around other people," Lisa Cook, a Tenderloin resident said, smiling.