​Man uses sewing machine to mend neighborhood's heart

Editor's Note: This story originally aired on May 22, 2015. Since then we've learned that Michael Swaine has plans to move to Seattle. He'll be leaving his sewing machine so his assistant can take over.


SAN FRANCISCO -- When most people look at the streets of the Tenderloin district in downtown San Francisco they see drugs, crime, and homelessness. But Michael Swaine sees it differently.

"I find the Tenderloin the most beautiful, magical place," he said.

His unique perspective comes from a 15 year mission to mend the neighborhood -- literally mend the neighborhood. Once a month, Michael, a college art teacher, sets up a sewing machine on the sidewalk and -- stitch by stitch -- repairs the fabric of his community -- all for free

When one man tried to hand Michael some bills, Michael politely refused.

"I don't need any money," Michael said. "You know someone else who needs the money.

hartmanframe2411.jpg
Michael Swaine uses an antique sewing machine to fix peoples' clothes in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco
CBS News

It's such a simple gesture, but it means so much to the residents of the Tenderloin. Michael's work makes them feel like they're getting back something they've lost. One woman we met applauded Michael's efforts while marveling at why anyone would want to fix somebody's "nasty, grimy clothes."

It's a good point. And the answer has nothing to do with sewing.

"The sewing machine has become more than just the tool for mending," explained Michael. "It's also the tool for making people stop. It's also the tool people feel really comfortable around."

Michael started sewing for strangers after he found an antique sewing machine tossed to the curb. It was his way of paying it forward. But in the years since, it has become less about letting out pants and more and about taking in stories, about building community.

"He's a good man and he's touching the world and healing people with his gift and I honor him and I thank him," said one woman.

Like an old pair of jeans, the Tenderloin will probably never be good as new -- but thanks to people like Michael, it's still got a lot of life left in it.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, e-mail us.


You can find Michael at the "Tenderloin National Forest." For more information on the location and Michael's work, go to: http://www.luggagestoregallery.org/tnf/
  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.