I wrote the stories and coded the website and data visualizations for this self-published multimedia package. I used HTML, CSS, SQL, Tableau, and QGIS. Completed on 12/01/2014. Currently pitching to publications. The website can be accessed here: http://ahyes.webfactional.com/jpalomino/index.html
While San Francisco’s crime rates ebb and flow from year to year, their locations more or less remain the same. Over the past decade the corner of 16th Street and Mission has always been a hotbed for assaults. One ill fated stretch of Stockton Street near Chinatown has often lead the city in auto theft by huge margins. Close to half of all reported drug crimes took place in the Tenderloin the past two years. And Market Street between 4th and 5th has long been San Francisco’s most crime-ridden block.
Most serious crimes take place in the heart of San Francisco: Downtown, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin. Below are stories about people who live, work, and play in the city’s most crime-ridden corridors.
Turk and Taylor: A Community of Lost Souls
“Let me in, I got a date,” Kenya Byes yells at a slender man eyeing us from behind a bulletproof glass window. The guard glares at me, then Byes, then back at me. “Your ID,” he says. I slide my driver’s license through a small slit in the plastic wall and he tucks it away for safekeeping.
Byes, who’s 52 years old, is sneaking me into her room at the Warfield Hotel, one of San Francisco’s most notorious SRO apartments near the corner of Taylor and Turk streets. She wants to show me how decrepit it is, and thinks it will be easier to get past security if I pose as a John, not a journalist.
She’s right. The man buzzes open a steel gate and we trudge up a steep staircase, entering a labyrinth of hallways that one could easily get lost in.
Broken furniture, worn mattresses, and garbage litter the four-story building, making it hard for Byes to navigate the narrow passageways. Her left knee has buckshot lodged in it from her “gangbanging” days, causing it to buckle slightly with each step.
We reach an unmarked door, which Byes opens into a communal shower. “Look at that shit up there, there’s shit everywhere,” she says, pointing into the bathroom.
She doesn’t use the word figuratively. Human excrement is smeared across the ceiling, floor, and walls. “The hotel doesn’t clean it up. They’re just robbing the poor here, that’s all. Taking advantage of us.”
I met Byes at the Hospitality House, a homeless drop in center in the Tenderloin, the heart of San Francisco’s illegal drug market. Heroin, crack, marijuana; you name it and it’s openly bought, sold, and consumed in this densely populated neighborhood near downtown, which reports nearly 20 times more drug crimes per-capita than any other census tract in the city.
“The vice trade is concentrated here because there’s no upper class here,” says David McKinley, manager of the Hospitality House’s homeless shelter. While the cost of living has skyrocketed in the rest of the city, the Tenderloin has remained relatively immune to gentrification.
The Turk-Taylor-6th street corridor—which Byes has lived in for 20 years—has reported more drug crimes than any other three-block stretch in all of San Francisco.
For years Byes participated in the booming vice trade on 6th Street. “I hustled, prostituted, sold drugs,” she says. “Whatever it took to keep a roof over my head and not to sleep on the sidewalk.”
Only after being arrested for selling pills to an undercover cop in 2008 and spending a half-decade in Valley State Prison did Byes turn her life around. She got a job as a desk clerk, kicked drugs, and moved into a studio in the Oasis apartments, also in the Tenderloin.
Work slowed down this past summer, though, and paying $825 a month in rent became a pipe dream. Byes lost her room and after staying with her boyfriend for a few months ended up at the Warfield: roughly $20 a night.
As I snap photos of the feces-filled shower, we hear faint footsteps over the loud bass bumping through the hallways. Byes ushers me out. My prying eyes could get her into trouble, she says.
We work our way through the maze of hallways and end up in her apartment, a single-room with a clogged sink in the corner, “Death” scrawled in large purple letters on the closet door, and clothes strewn about. She wants to show me her window, which has a hole the size of a basketball in it. The odor of rotting food and garbage wafts through it from a polluted alleyway below.
Of all the places Byes has lived—prison cells, doorways, by the hour motels—nothing compares to the Warfield. She has been here three days and is already trying to leave. “When you’re under this dark cloud, you forget about the whole world, all you know is right here and that’s it,” she says. “If I stay, I worry about going back to hustling, prostituting, dealing.”
It’s easy to see why. All around the Warfield Johns cruise the block looking for pleasure and addicts for a quick fix. If Byes satisfies either of their desires she could save enough money to move. “I don’t want to die in one of these hotels; I don’t want to leave like that,” she says. “I have a family that loves me very much. I don’t want to do that to them.”
Byes and I leave the Warfield and head back to the homeless drop in center. Friends pat her on the shoulder and yell greetings from across the street. This is a tight-knit community and people seem to look out for each other.
“Here comes Bow-wow” Byes says, gesturing towards an older man wearing army fatigues and hobbling towards us with a cane. Bow-wow is Byes boyfriend. His real name is Michael Polk.
The couple embraces, then Polk looks me up and down suspiciously. “Who’s this,” he asks.
“He’s a reporter,” Byes replies.
I tell Polk I want to get a sense of what life is like on this three-block stretch of the Tenderloin.
“I’ll tell you what it’s like here,” he says, warming up. “The Tenderloin is a community of lost souls.” Everyone in the neighborhood has a problem—mental health, family, economic—and the only way they can cope is to hide behind drugs,” he says. “They can’t go outside the community because nobody else knows how they feel, so they come here and they’re at home.”
800 Block of Market: Where Poverty Courts Wealth
Tourists film trollies descending San Francisco’s steep hills. Thirty thousands BART commuters exit at Powell Street station every weekday. Many of those who aren’t on their way to work enter the Westfield mall, exiting with bags of designer clothes, high heels, and jewelry. Market Street between 4th and 5th streets is the epicenter of San Francisco tourism—and property crime.
Over the past two years this stretch of Market has averaged nearly three robberies, burglaries, or thefts a day—far more than any block in the city. “There’s pretty much always something going on between 8th and Powell Street BART,” says SFPD officer Irvine Huerta, who patrols the area by mountain bike. “We just race from call to call.”
The constant crime isn’t all too surprising. Most criminologists agree that property crime is most pronounced in areas where the have’s and have-nots cohabitate, and on the 800 block of Market Street, inequities scream at a pitch that drowns nearly everything else out.
Tech workers in hoodies eat $15 hamburgers next door to soup kitchens. Visitors rent $8,000 a night penthouse suites a stone’s throw away from decrepit residential hotels. Beggars mingle with choosers; opulence dances with desperation.
The many panhandlers and street performers represent the block’s divide, occupying a space somewhere between the civilians and crooks.
As the bells from the Ferry Building’s clock tower echo through downtown, Larry “the Bucket Man” Hunt starts playing his ad-hoc drum set. “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat. Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat,” he wails over a chorus of ten-gallon plastic tubs, pots, pans, and jumbo-sized aluminum cans.
The sidewalk is a pulsing sea of pedestrians, but most pass by without paying attention to the racket. An occasional businessman or tourist tosses a dollar into Hunt’s tip jar.
After the sunsets and the crowds dwindle, the Bucket Man counts his money: $16, all in ones. That’s barely enough to cover food and laundry for the day, let alone buy a much-needed new mattress. “Bed bugs are all up in my room,” he says. “All night it’s ‘boom, boom, boom, boom,’ stomping on them.”
Hunt has reason to be optimistic, though. The Holiday’s are approaching, which means more shoppers and bigger tips. Last year he received $300 from a fan, and the year before he was gifted a bona fide drum set.
If the money doesn’t materialize, Hunt won’t be too put out. “I’ve been coming here 20 years,” he boasts. “I could play all day every day, even if I don’t make no money.”
Not all panhandlers are so cheerful. Maddy Jones came to San Francisco in August from Oregon, trying to escape an abusive and controlling family. She hoped the city would provide a fresh start, but her idyllic fantasies turned out to be just that. Fantasies. Shortly after arriving she was pacing up and down the 800 block of Market, her scar-laced arms holding a sign asking for hotel money. “Body hurts & husband in a wheelchair,” it reads. “Need help.”
Despite her pleas, Jones spends most nights sleeping on a patch of concrete behind the T-Mobile store. Watching people spend so much on luxuries when she needs so little for necessities can be maddening.
“You know what the biggest insult was,” she recalls. “This guy came over once and pulled out a big wad of cash,” probably $1,000, all large bills. “I got super excited thinking it was my payday, but then he pulls a $1 bill from the back and tosses it to me. I just started crying. I wouldn’t have cared if he gave me 2-cents, but why did he have to pull that thing out in front of me.”
Further down the block Jimmy Jazz, a San Francisco music producer, tries to sell his CD’s to pedestrians, beats blaring from a boombox besides him.
“Hip-hop here, hip-hop for sale,” he yells from the middle of a busy sidewalk, foot traffic flowing around him.
“You like music?” he asks a woman wearing a tight grey skirt and pink blouse.
She throws her hands in the air in a defensive position and steps away.
Unfazed, Jazz quickly moves to the next pedestrian. “You like music?” he asks.
Jazz has lived in San Francisco his entire life. He thinks property crime on the block is a symptom of people being priced out of the expensive city; a theory many crime experts back. “Property crimes tend to be highest in periods of sustained unemployment,” Krisberg says, and “in areas where people of different incomes come together.”
“It’s hard to live your life in the trash, eat out the trash, collect cans, and these people just throwing money away in front of you all day every day,” Jazz says. “If you show a diamond thief a stone, he’s going to go after it.”
6th and Market: Open for Business
Every once in a while, the smell of frying bacon breaks through an overpowering stench of urine and marijuana on 6th Street, where a line of hungry diners spill out of Dottie’s True Blue café. As they wait to be seated people discuss holiday parties, work, and politics—typical banter for Saturday brunch.
On most days the line winds out of the restaurant and around the block. Tourists, yuppies, and devoted regulars wait rain or shine for the black bean cakes, omelets, and bread pudding.
“What are y’all here for, coffee?” a man walking down the street asks the crowd, seemingly surprised at the number relatively well-to-do people on 6th Street. “It must be good if you’re waiting here. Better than Starbucks,” he says, before moving down the block.
The quaint café is a diamond in the rough. The one block stretch of 6th Street between Market and Mission is one of the most violent in the city. Over the past decade it has averaged 126 assaults, robberies, and rapes per year—a slightly higher count than the entire outer Sunset District.
“It’s a stressful place to run a small business,” says Kurt Abney, Dottie’s owner. “Have I personally been a victim of violence? No. But do I watch my back? Yes.”
Originally in the Tenderloin, Abney moved the café to 6th Street at the city’s request. The Mayor’s Officer offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars in redevelopment funds to set up shop in the area as part of a broader effort to clean up the Mid-Market neighborhood.
“We have a following,” Abney says, “and the city thought I could help transition the neighborhood by bringing people here.”
Redevelopment dissolved, though, and with it the promised relocation funds. The city has since begun offering hefty tax breaks to tech companies and a handful of restaurants willing to brave Mid-Market. The subsidies have sparked a multi-billion investment in real estate development. All across the neighborhood saws cut through metal, cement is poured, and cranes swing.
By pulling in new businesses and attracting a different class of people, some experts think crime can be reduced. “When you get people into the streets, interacting with each other, hanging out with their kids in parks, crime goes down,” UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg says. “We’ve seen that in most cities.”
The benefits, though, aren’t trickling to 6th Street.
On a recent visit to Dotty’s, an older woman pulled me aside and asked if I was lost. “You don’t look like you belong here,” she said. “You’re going to get jacked.”
Abney chuckles when I recount the story, but the tough environment weighs heavily on him—even if business is still booming.
A month after moving into the location, Abney received a harsh welcome to the neighborhood; someone was stabbed in the gut and killed across the street from the café. His surveillance cameras recorded part of the incident and were confiscated by police as evidence.
Since the slaying, his car has been broken into, an employee pepper-sprayed inside the restaurant, and customers berated by disruptive walk-ins. “I haven’t gotten the support that was promised to me when I moved in here,” he says. “In a lot of ways the city expects the merchants and tenants to police the neighborhood themselves.”