By Noah Sanders
For the past five years, my daily commute has taken me on the notorious stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 17th Streets. It’s not a particularly pleasant part of my walk, regardless of weather or time of day. I’ve seen a smiling man holding a ziplock bag of crack in the air as a gaggle of men and women milled around it like hungry, baby birds. I’ve seen fights over nothing more than an unintentionally dropped joint. I’ve seen people shitting in public. I’ve had to step over said shit, and around puddles of urine that seem to reappear in the exact place day after day. I’ve seen a lot that’s depressing and eye-opening, but what I haven’t seen is change.
Just one block away, Valencia is a gleaming row of freshly minted condos and high-end retail, a clear beacon or warning – depending on whom you ask – of the potential for development and opportunity. Yet, 16th and Mission remains the same. As a member of this community, I’m frustrated and confused. There has to be a way to clean up the area, but to do it respectfully, with thought and care toward the existing populace. To change the dynamic of this highly trafficked transit hub from crime and fear and general disgust to something positive. But day after day, year after year, nothing happens, and I want to know what’s going on and what people are doing to fix it.
There has to be a way to clean up the area, but to do it respectfully, with thought and care toward the existing populace.
David Campos, the 9th district city supervisor, is hoping to clean up the crime and the grime from 16th and Mission. “For as long as I can remember,” Campos told me, “the issues have been there.” When I asked him why the intersection is such a haven for the criminal element, Campos points to the Single Resident Occupancies (SROs) that stretch between 16th and 17th Streets. As the Central City SRO Collaborative website states, SROs are some of the cheapest housing in San Francisco, and are home to about 5% of the city’s population. But unlike SROs in other parts of town that are run by community organizations subsidized by the government, the ones in the Mission are privately owned and run. Living conditions here are downright deplorable.
“One of the reasons people feel the need to hang out in the plaza and the street is because they live in these terrible conditions,” Campos explained. “They don’t feel safe so they go outside, and a lot of the issues from the SROs spill out into the street.” Campos is working with the police and the city attorney to demand that the SRO owners improve living conditions and safety in the buildings, as well as provide more on-foot police patrols.
One of the reasons people feel the need to hang out in the plaza and the street is because they live in these terrible conditions
Captain Robert Moser, a 17-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and the most recent commanding officer of the Mission District, says it’s not just SROs that are the problem. “Yes, there’s a certain element drawn to them,” Moser said, but the majority of the residents of these hotels are “law-abiding folks mixed in a with a few people who are living there for the wrong reasons.” He believes it’s a combination of the SROs, the open plaza, and the consistently busy transit hub below it. Even worse, the 16th and Mission plaza is poorly lit, typically filthy, and walled off on two sides, creating an unpleasant gathering place for the public, but a prime area to commit crimes like strong-arm robbery, cellphone snatching, and drug dealing.
The problems at 16th and Mission aren’t just law enforcement issues. It takes a village of public service, government agencies, and data collection organizations to try and find solutions to the issues this rough and tumble area faces, including the Department of Public Works, HOPE - the Mayor’s office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, the Office of the City Attorney, the Department of Building Inspection, the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team, the San Francisco Police Department, and others. Some steps are already happening. David Campos used the example of the Department of Public Works now steam-cleaning the plaza on a daily basis. Others issues are still a challenge. The City is looking for ways to provide more services for the people in need who hang out at 16th and Mission, but realistically, those solutions just aren’t there yet.
The 16th and Mission plaza is poorly lit, typically filthy, and walled off on two sides, creating an unpleasant gathering place for the public, but a prime area to commit crimes like strong-arm robbery, cellphone snatching, and drug dealing.
Still, Captain Moser and Campos seemed optimistic about the improvements in the plaza. Moser couldn’t tell me specific data about the increase or decrease in the area’s crime rate, but he was enthusiastic about a series of “excellent arrests” and the response from the community. Campos spoke with similar optimism: “16th and Mission has gotten significantly better since last year.”
But not everyone is as optimistic.
Ted Gullickson, a spokesperson for The Tenants Union, a housing rights advocacy nonprofit, believes the cleanup "is just a red herring to demonize the people who live in the area. The real 'issue' is that this is a population that the rich people don't want to live next to." Ted thinks the improvements are just the first step toward the arrival of high-end condos, a statement given more credibility after last year’s proposal to the San Francisco Planning Committee for $82 million worth of posh condos at 16th and Mission. “The whole campaign is orchestrated by businesses,” Gullickson said. “It just sort of came out of nowhere.” He makes a point: The Mission is booming and the intersection of 16th and Mission, with its BART station and central location, seems ripe for the heavy axe of gentrification and development, so why wouldn’t a cleanup campaign just be paving the way for another round of development? On the other hand when asked if 16th and Mission needed any sort of cleanup, Gullickson responded, “No, not at all.”
Sixteenth and Mission is more than just an open wound of crime and destitution in need of repair, it’s a symbol of where San Francisco is and where it might be going.
Clearly, regardless of what City Hall is advocating and accomplishing and what groups like the Tenants Union want the city to stop doing, 16th and Mission needs help. I’m not arguing that we should gut the SROs, raze the buildings, and turn the grit and grime into towering blocks of glass condos (pushing the crime out is just going to move it somewhere else), but I’m certainly not arguing that the area isn’t in need of change. There are already good things happening at the intersection – the aforementioned increased police patrols, the recently opened Apple Market that sells groceries at affordable prices. But as of now, it’s not enough.
Sixteenth and Mission is more than just an open wound of crime and destitution in need of repair, it’s a symbol of where San Francisco is and where it might be going. It’s in bad shape, sure, but it can truly only change and hopefully get better with your voice and actions. Write emails to Campos outlining your problems with the area and/or volunteer with organizations like the Coalition on Homelessness. You don’t like the idea of $82 million condos suddenly gleaming in the sky over Walgreens? Tired of more condos, restaurants, and more new stores that sell $350 dollar shirts? Then get your thinking cap on and get your ideas of what you’d like to see out into the world. If you aren’t saying anything, no one is going to hear you complain. We need to be working together, with the police, the city, the businesses, and the nonprofits to make the area safe for everybody.
I want 16th and Mission to be a more pleasant place to be as much as anyone, but we have to get there responsibly, together, keeping in mind the very best interests of every citizen of our city.
Image Via Sharat Ganapati