They called Leroy Looper the father of the Tenderloin.
The title stuck with him more than thirty years after he took up residence in the gritty neighborhood, transforming the forlorn Cadillac Hotel into the first residential hotel for the poor.
In Looper's world, his children were the poor souls who crowded the Tenderloin sidewalks seeking for food and shelter. Like any father, Looper wanted to see his children climb the ladder – but he realized they’d first need a ladder to climb.
“Leroy never believed people needed a hand,” said his widow, Kathy Looper. “He just felt they needed the opportunity to move up.”
So Looper and his wife bought a Sizzler restaurant and put people to work. He gave them jobs in the hotel, and helped create neighborhood job training programs.
But Looper believed people needed something besides a roof and a job -- they also needed music. “I feel music is the soul of people,” Looper said in an interview before his death in 2011.
Several years ago, the Cadillac Hotel received a donation of a rare 1884 Steinway piano from Lee Walkup in tribute to his sister Patricia Walkup, a Tenderloin activist who had recently died.
The Cadillac began holding free weekly concerts in the lobby – with the piano taking center stage.
Looper liked seeing the poor of the neighborhood serenaded on such a prestigious instrument. “He wanted people to feel that this was a neighborhood - a livable neighborhood,” said Kathy Looper. “Not just a neighborhood for people that was cheap.”
Looper died on September 11, 2011 at the age of 86.
Kathy saw that the regular concerts in the lobby continued. On Friday, the hotel held a concert to mark the second anniversary of Looper's death. Pianist Jeffrey Chin and his quartet serenaded a roomful of Tenderloin residents with jazzy renditions of pop tunes.
“One of his great passions was music,” said Chin, who like all other performers at the Cadillac, donates his time. “He wanted the people of this community to be able to experience the music that basically they don’t have access to.”
The audience ranged from hotel residents, to neighbors to the homeless -- the crystal clear chimes of the piano bouncing throughout the historic lobby.
“It gives people a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Gayle Wood, who has lived at the Cadillac since 2006, “some exposure to some really good music and some really good artists.”
Kathy Looper said in a way, the concerts are symbolic of her husband’s life – his desire to leave people a little better than he found them. “I think what makes it even more special is when people leave they have a smile on their face,” she said. “They feel uplifted.”