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Gary Kamiya | Photo: Stephen McLaren | October 26, 2013
It is San Francisco’s most glaring contradiction, an island of need in a sea of prosperity. Can it be helped? Does it even want to be?
The most obvious option for improving the quality of life of Tenderloin residents—intensive law enforcement—is also politically daunting. The city tried an aggressive enforcement approach in the Tenderloin in 2009, when then–police chief, now–district attorney George Gascón, shocked by what he saw during a walk through the Tenderloin, ordered his police to crack down on the neighborhood with the goal of making it unwelcoming to drug dealers and other bad actors. Two sweeps resulted in more than 500 arrests. But Gascón’s policy was criticized by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose office was inundated, and by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which was forced to spend $500,000 to house new prisoners. Nor did Gascón’s effort draw significant support from TL residents: One manager of a community nonprofit told the Wall Street Journal that it was pointless to lock up dealers and addicts who were back on the streets days later.
But the real reason that the policy was soon abandoned is that it was simply unsustainable, for reasons made clear by Captain Jason Cherniss, commanding officer of the Tenderloin Police Station. Cherniss, who succeeded the legendary Joe Garrity this year, is one of an impressive new breed of police: book smart and street smart, tough and compassionate. “Arresting drug dealers is not the most effective solution to the Tenderloin’s problems,” he says. “They’re going to go away and come back.” He notes that most of the drug dealers in the Tenderloin come in from the outside—primarily from Oakland, Richmond, and Vallejo, and to a lesser extent from areas within the city—and that the neighborhood’s proximity to two BART stations, Powell Street and Civic Center, provides them with something that all Bay Area residents long for: an easy commute to work. “When BART was shut down [by a strike in July], you couldn’t get a crack rock in the Tenderloin,” Seymour attests. Like a vulture to carrion, trouble has a way of finding the Tenderloin. Despite being by far the smallest of San Francisco’s 10 police districts, it has among the highest rates of robberies and aggravated assaults in the city. As of August 31 of this year, there had been 270 cases of the former and 285 of the latter. By contrast, the far larger Richmond district had only 101 robberies and 79 aggravated assaults during the same time frame. According to Lieutenant Carl Fabbri of the Tenderloin Police Station, petty and midlevel drug dealing is so prevalent that the police are powerless to do more than arrest the most egregious offenders. “We could arrest drug dealers 24 hours a day,” he says.
A major police crackdown on street vice in the TL would require not only an enormous allocation of resources, but also a political commitment from the city that simply does not exist. “I only have so much staffing,” says Cherniss. “Every time I take a dealer off the street, I’m taking a cop off the street for an hour and a half, or longer. There’s a cost. If I hit Turk Street, then Hyde and Leavenworth get neglected. I have to be very surgical in how I do enforcement.”
To explain the unique policing challenge posed by the Tenderloin, Cherniss cites an analytical framework used by criminologists: the so-called crime triangle, which posits that crimes have three components—suspect, location, and victim. In the Tenderloin, “going after the suspects is pointless,” he says. “I need to get rid of the location to solve the problem.”
But how do you get rid of the location? The absolutist “solution”—relocating a good-size chunk of the neighborhood’s poor and marginalized people, as well as the organizations that support them—is not viable and never will be. Not in a city still haunted by a long and dishonorable tradition of either trying to warehouse undesirable populations on the outskirts of town (as when the city attempted to move Chinatown to Hunters Point after the 1906 catastrophe), or simply making them go away (as when it razed the Western Addition). But top-down measures are not the only way that cities change. They also change because of gentrification.
Undeniably, more middle-class people and businesses are moving into the Tenderloin and its surrounding areas. Art collectives like Hella More Funner at Taylor and Ellis have popped up. The Center for New Music recently opened at 55 Taylor, and the Cutting Ball Theater has brought live theater south of Geary Street again. A swanky new residential development, the Lofts at Seven, just opened in the old KGO building on Golden Gate, leasing studios and loft apartments for $1,875 to $3,000. And a big brew pub called Phantom Coast is slated to open on the southwest corner of Turk and Taylor—a notoriously gritty intersection that Seymour calls Tenderloin Ground Zero.
Many activists, politicians, and advocates for the poor view these developments with ambivalence. They welcome the improvements that the newcomers will bring to the street, but they worry that rising rents could drive poor people and nonprofit organizations out of downtown.
District Six supervisor Jane Kim says that she’s skeptical about the idea of trying to turn the Tenderloin into a mixed-income neighborhood. “I’d like to see a model of it working without displacing the low-income residents,” she says. “I haven’t seen that anywhere.” Citing her work as a community organizer in Chinatown, she adds, “The demographics of Chinatown and the Tenderloin are very similar in many ways. And Chinatown is not a mixed-income neighborhood; it’s a predominantly low-income neighborhood. I’d rather move the Tenderloin into the Chinatown model. Keep it low-income.”
Kim favors working with the neighborhood’s existing residents and businesses to improve conditions. She is trying to reduce the number of liquor stores (there are allegedly 72 within the 40 square blocks), improve lighting, convince markets to carry fresh produce as well as junk food and booze, and persuade the TL’s many working families to become more involved in the community. In addition to the thousands of chronically impoverished tenants in the neighborhood, some of whom pay only $200 a month in rent, there are many working people who pay $850 to $1,000 for subsidized studios and one-bedrooms. “I would also highlight that this is a wonderful neighborhood,” Kim says. “Some of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever met are in the Tenderloin.”