How Many Must Die Before San Francisco Cleans Up Lower Turk?

by Randy Shaw on March 25, 2014

The Sunday night shooting at Turk and Taylor Streets is the latest in a series of shootings that has turned that area into San Francisco’s O.K. Corral.

On Sunday night, 18 shots were fired and seven people were wounded in the latest Turk and Taylor shooting incident. The first block of Turk is the most violent block of the Tenderloin, and perhaps in the entire city. Yet even after over 1500 residents signed petitions to get Chief Suhr to see the problems on lower Turk firsthand, he refused to increase police in the area.

I did a television interview with Suhr in which he responded to my call for more Tenderloin police by saying that “people in the Sunset also want more police.” Yet we know that Suhr would never tolerate open drug dealing in the Sunset as he does on lower Turk.

Mayor Lee responded to the community’s concerns by announcing he was adding more Tenderloin police in his January 2014 State of the City speech. But only two new officers district-wide have arrived. Suhr routinely shifts police officers to where they are most needed, but has left officer levels painfully low in the Tenderloin (and Suhr always finds available officers for sporting events, even taking them from the Tenderloin)

Unless stopped, the frequent shootings will reduce evening business for nearby theaters, restaurants and bars, and scare off of future investment in the Turk-Taylor area. PianoFight has created an incredible new venue at the former Original Joe’s at 142 Taylor, but will people come if they fear being caught in Turk-Taylor crossfire?

A Post-Containment Zone Tenderloin

Since taking office, Mayor Lee has insisted that Mid-Market and the Tenderloin would no longer be containment zones for illegal activities. He has done more than any mayor since “Sunny” Jim Rolph (1912-1931) to encourage investment in both neighborhoods.

Chief Suhr, however, reportedly still sees the Tenderloin as a place in San Francisco where criminal activities have long been allowed and should still be “contained.” While Suhr deserves credit for giving the Tenderloin a creative and committed captain in Jason Cherniss, he has not provided the resources to make a difference on lower Turk.

I’ve been trying to reduce Tenderloin crime since joining with Leroy Looper in organizing a 1985 “March Against Crime” through the streets of the neighborhood. Mayor Feinstein, Reverend Cecil Williams and others joined the event. But seeing the ongoing shootings on lower Turk nearly thirty years later, it’s hard not to reach this conclusion: law enforcement officials like Chief Suhr always say how much they like the Tenderloin, but their inaction toward its lack of public safety sends a message of disdain and disrespect for those who live and work there.

You can’t “like” a neighborhood and then not use the resources available to you to make it safe for residents and businesses. Especially a neighborhood with 4000 kids, whose parents now have to worry about their children being a victim of stray gunfire.

Mayor Lee has encouraged so much investment in the Turk/Taylor area— Mikkeller’s bar, 34 Mason, Counterpulse dance company, 80 Turk, WeWorks, 25 Taylor, Center for New Music, 55 Taylor, the renovated Warfield Office building at Market and Turk, the soon to begin transformation of 57 Taylor, and the future construction of condos on the Hotel Metropolis parking lot and condos and hotel rooms at 950-970 Market in addition to PianoFight—that there is a disconnect between the mayor’s economic agenda and the police department’s allowing Turk/Taylor to remain a safe zone for public drug dealing.

We hear a lot these days about economic inequality in San Francisco. No more obvious example is the inadequate protection the low-income residents of lower Turk get from the police in contrast to those of more affluent neighborhoods. Cadillac Hotel owner Leroy Looper used to say that if you brought these dealers down to Union Street they would be picked up by the police within minutes and told never to return.

And if they did return, they’d be arrested even faster.

A Black Eye for the Tenderloin

The ongoing violence and drug dealing around Turk/Taylor gives a black eye to the entire neighborhood. Our Tenderloin Housing Clinic study in July 2011 found violence on the first block of Turk was 8 times higher than the rest of the Tenderloin. Yet unlike the rampant drug dealing at 16th and Mission BART station—which is rarely even mentioned in media stories about the Mission or nearby Valencia Street– the media uses the disproportionately high-crime lower Turk to define the entire Tenderloin.

Many feel that Tip Top Market, Tenderloin Liquors, and Vik Patel, the latter’s landlord, fuel and profit most from the lower Turk drug trade. I am unaware of any legal actions brought against them on such grounds.

In February, Tenderloin residents and the Central City SRO Collaborative came up with an inventive strategy to reduce drug dealing on lower Turk: ban parking. This has helped, but when someone upset over a dice game shoots 18 bullets from a passing car and wounds seven people as occurred last Sunday night, more than a parking ban is needed.

The Challenge Ahead

If past experience is a guide, the recent shootings will bring no increase in lower Turk police staffing. After lower Turk is cleared for a few days, it will be business as usual. After all, an even more high profile shooting on December 2, 2013 at Jones and Market only briefly interrupted the large open air drug supermarket that operates on that corner.

That’s why I asked at the start of this article how many must die before Tenderloin crime becomes politically untenable. None of the recent incidents involved fatalities, and the shooting of a drug dealer is unlikely to sway police priorities.

Will a child have to be killed by an errant bullet before Chief Suhr decides the Tenderloin should no longer be a containment zone?

Wouldn’t it be better to stop such a tragedy before it occurs?

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

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