Will SF Finally Do Right by the Tenderloin?
Supervisor Matt Haney has scheduled an April 25 10:00am hearing to address open drug dealing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Mid-Market and Sixth Street. It’s not clear whether Chief Scott—the person with the power to provide the increased police staffing the Tenderloin needs and deserves—will attend. Nor is it clear whether most of the area’s property owners or small businesses even know about the hearing. But seniors, aggrieved parents, nonprofit workers and other residents are likely to turn out to tell the supervisors how having to walk by drug dealers each day diminishes their lives.
Haney lives on one of the Tenderloin’s most troubled blocks. He campaigned in 2018 vowing to prioritize reducing illegal drug sales. Haney has gotten a lot of publicity for focusing on improving Tenderloin sidewalks, which is positive. But as I wrote last July “The Tenderloin’s Problem is Drug Dealers, Not Trash.”
If Haney can get the Tenderloin the same level of public safety as more affluent neighborhoods, he not only ensures easy re-election but he could ride this success into the mayor’s office in 2027. On the other hand, if nothing improves following the hearing Haney will be seen by many as only the latest politician to not walk the talk on improving Tenderloin safety.
A Long History as Containment Zone
Open drug dealing on Tenderloin sidewalks is a disgrace. It’s a clear case of how “progressive” San Francisco discriminates against its few remaining low-income neighborhoods. Tenderloin residents and activists have demanded an end to drug dealing for decades, yet the problem persists.
In 1985, I led a March for Safe Streets through the Tenderloin. I had Mayor Feinstein and Reverend Cecil Williams by my side. In 1985!!!! If you had told me then that the Tenderloin would still be a containment zone for illegal drug activities over forty years later, I would have said that was impossible—after all, Mayor Feinstein wanted the area improved and we thought we would see major improvement by the time she left office in 1987.
I explain in my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, why this improvement did not happen. And why the Tenderloin’s progress from the late 1970’s through 1986 then reversed.
Former Mayor Ed Lee was a true champion for the Tenderloin. Mayor Breed has maintained this commitment. Yet the Tenderloin continues to be afflicted by a level of open drug dealing that the city does not tolerate in its gentrified neighborhoods.
Why does the city not provide sufficient police services to the Tenderloin? I suggest you go to Beyond Chron’s Search box and type in “Tenderloin Police.” You’ll find dozens of articles on complaints about drug dealing going back more than a decade.
Only once in the past forty years, in 2009, has a Chief of Police prioritized ending open drug dealing in the Tenderloin. And when then-Chief George Gascon briefly succeeded in achieving this goal, he was overwhelmed by demands from the sheriff and public defender office that he stop placing so many Tenderloin dealers in jail.
Gascon could have fought alongside the Tenderloin community, but he had other plans. And his refusal to get into a public fight with other law enforcement officials put him in position to be appointed District Attorney, where he has taken a business as usual approach to Tenderloin crime (the police blame the District Attorney’s office for not prosecuting dealers, who then blames the judges, who then blame the legislature. So it’s nobody’s fault).
The bottom line: The Tenderloin is a working-class neighborhood lacking the politically powerful homeowners whose demands get them a greater share of police resources. Homeowner votes run San Francisco. They want maximum police in their neighborhoods regardless of crime stats, and the top police brass goes along (former Chief Suhr told me that the Sunset needed more police just as much as the Tenderloin).
2015 Redistricting Hurt the Tenderloin
In July 2015, former Chief Greg Suhr expanded Tenderloin station so that it would include the high-crime areas of Market Street, Sixth Street and the Westfield Center. The Tenderloin has never had as much police visibility since this expansion.
As Beyond Chron described in December 2014 (“SFPD Redistricting Plan Fails the Tenderloin”), the new boundaries caused “the Tenderloin’s highly specialized police team to become glorified security guards for Abercrombie and Fitch.” While Chief Suhr told a packed community meeting that adding the shoplifter-heavy Westfield Center to Tenderloin station would have no impact, he privately told my staff that if he removed Westfield from the TL Station he would take eighteen officers out of the district as well.
We rejected the trade. And so arresting shoplifters on 5th and Market became a top Tenderloin Station priority.
Some parts of the Tenderloin, like Little Saigon, are vastly improved. Others, like Turk and Hyde and in front of my organization’s housing office for homeless persons at 472 Turk, are as bad if not worse than ever. The city begins the renovation of the tot lot at Turk and Hyde this week and that should improve the area. But the sidewalks bordering the SEIU Local 87 parking lot on the northeast corner of Turk and Hyde offers a free space for dealers (the lot itself is barely used, and is not even legal. Yet the union has long fought efforts to build housing on the site, or do anything with their land other than make it inviting for drug dealers.
Current Tenderloin Captain Carl Fabbri is doing the best he can with inadequate resources. That’s why for all the upsurge in arrests, the neighborhood remains the place for East Bay drug dealers to do business.
Will Thursday’s public hearing pressure Chief Scott to add the officers (at least ten!) that the Tenderloin station needs? Past experience says no. But D6 hasn’t had a supervisor who pushed a Chief to commit more officers to the Tenderloin, so maybe Haney will surprise us.
The Tenderloin is flourishing with new restaurants, housing and popular entertainment venues. All that holds it back from being a successful neighborhood is the city’s allowing out of area drug dealers to take over various blocks—it is a solvable problem that only requires political will.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.Filed under: Mid-Market / Tenderloin