Yesterday, San Francisco mayor London Breed called a unique press conference at City Hall. She raised her voice and declared that she has had it. The drug dealing, chaos, and violence that is ruining the city must end, she said. In an impassioned speech, Breed said that she’s run out of tolerance for “the bulls—t that has destroyed our city.” She proposed several measures to help police, including increased funding for overtime, updates to surveillance laws, and other efforts to combat the drug trade and the market for stolen goods. Police will also flood the drug-saturated Tenderloin neighborhood and move assertively to arrest dealers and even some users who break the law.
The need for such measures is obvious. Anyone who has walked or even driven though large parts of the city is aware of the abysmal conditions, especially in the Sixth District, which contains the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and South of Market areas. For first-time visitors, the sights are shocking. For residents, they are demoralizing—a dystopian nightmare. Bodies line the streets, and masses of drug dealers openly sell every illegal toxic substance an addict might want. Block after block, sidewalks are covered in human waste, discarded needles, burned scraps of fentanyl foil, and mounds of garbage. Gunshots ring out, as gang warfare intensifies.
Low-income, mostly immigrant families and seniors struggle to get by in these neighborhoods. In November, they held a rally in which they begged city officials for help. Speakers described being terrified to leave their apartments. (Matt Haney, the district’s supervisor who is now running for the California state assembly, did not attend.) Many small businesses have closed, and it’s a wonder how those remaining can manage amid the chaos. Though District 6 is often referred to as a containment zone, it has no walls or gates, so the area’s troubles are quickly seeping into other neighborhoods, such as Clement Street in the Richmond District, where vandals and thieves have targeted small businesses.
Reactions to Breed’s impassioned declaration have been largely positive. But while many residents have expressed relief, others have adopted a more skeptical, wait-and-see approach. A smaller segment was miffed that Breed had dared to point an accusing finger at them. These include homeless advocates, drug-use activists, and Dean Preston, the democratic socialist supervisor of District 5, who blames the free market for the city’s problems.
Why did Breed come out swinging now, when the destruction she described has been going on for years? The reason: the city has crossed the tipping point. Today, San Francisco, a place of inherent beauty and fascinating history, of world-class restaurants, cool bars, and glorious architecture, has bad credit. With the looting of Union Square right before the Christmas shopping season, countless brazen shoplifting incidents, and a district attorney who refuses to prosecute even violent criminals, the city has experienced a public-relations collapse. Companies have canceled lucrative conventions, and tourists have stopped booking hotel rooms. The cable cars, usually packed with happy visitors, chug up and down the hills virtually empty. The financial district is a ghost town. The city has made no concerted effort to get workers back into the office buildings. Few want to drive anymore because parking is too risky: the city sees more than 70 smash-and-grabs every day. Thieves are so bold that they don’t care if toddlers are in the vehicle when they punch through the windows and take what they want.
Recovery is still possible. Residents and business owners are pressing hard for positive change. They’re refusing to accept further damage to their neighborhoods by fighting no-rules homeless shelters that would invite more dealers, crime, and vagrancy. They are demanding better for all concerned.
But if Breed doesn’t turn this situation around fast, she will go down in history as the mayor who allowed one of America’s greatest cities to crumble into dust.
Photo by Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images