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The most famous sign in the Tenderloin is going away

It’s not a sign of the times—not anymore, at least

A sign reading, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
In 2013 the sign played host to a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Photo by Steve Rhodes

For generations, the sign on the corner of Turk and Larkin has infused the Tenderloin with sagacity, a mere tire shop marquee that served as a neighborhood oracle and an enduring marker of San Francisco history.

But nothing lasts forever, especially not in 2019. NBC Bay Area revealed this week that the 107-year-old Tenderloin auto shop Kahn and Keville will soon roll out of the neighborhood, taking its inspirational signage with it.

Over the years, both residents and visitors to the neighborhood have come to rely on the shop’s prominent corner signage, which is regularly updated with witty, erudite, and compassionate observations.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” the marquee read in the closing weeks of the 2016 presidential election, citing French philosopher Voltaire.

“Every town is a ghost town if you live there long enough,” read a 2017 message, crediting SF design critic John King.

“You can’t put off being young until you retire,” the corner quipped in 2015—that one is English poet Philip Larkin.

Oddly enough, the loss of the reliable corner wisdom may sting a bit more due to the fact that there’s a good reason for the change: The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) plans to turn the site into affordable housing.

Nor does the change come as any particular surprise: TNDC bought the circa-1935 building in 2016 to the tune of $12.25 million.

That princely sum probably has little to do with the auto shop; the SF Assessor’s Office valued the building at just over $260,000, but the 18,905-square-foot plot it sits on at over $12.4 million.

Courtesy David Baker Architects

In 2017, the affordable housing developer proposed a 108-unit project on the site, touting designs by David Baker Architects and sporting a mix of homes ranging in size from studios to three-bedroom apartments, with a tentative 2021 completion date.

Earlier this year, the state chipped in the last of the funding needed to turn a lot of mostly underused land into much-needed housing that, ideally, will be priced for Tenderloin residents. TNDC CEO Dan Falk talked up how the state grant meant that “we can preserve much-needed local funds for other affordable developments.”

It’s a win all around—except for the loss of that sign.

The garage at the corner of Larkin and Turk dates to the 1930s, but the first business on the site moved there from another nearby locale after originally opening in 1912.

The 2007 tourist’s guide Walking San Francisco credits the extemporaneous signage to the original owner, World War I vet Hugh Keville, who drew on his wartime writings for inspiration.

TNDC has not yet responded to queries about whether the sign could perhaps be preserved at the new building, given its history and prominence in the neighborhood.

However, the architects commented via Instagram earlier this year that they were “thinking hard about how to integrate this quirky San Francisco legacy” into the new design.

The auto shop expects to close by the end of the year. Until then, here are a few examples of what the beloved sign had to say over the last few years.