Merchant of Redemption

During his first three decades on Sixth Street, Tom McKnight Sr. used his various businesses to educate his children and counsel them in the doctrine of social obligation. Now his son must balance the demands of activism against the realities of commerce

"It's like I told the guys back in the old days, back when Ulan was just a baby," Tom Sr. says. "They'd ask why I worked so hard, why I wasn't out on the street having fun. I'd tell 'em I had kids to send to college and the best thing for me to do was to make sure they had something to give back to the community, that they could do something positive for society."

For whatever reasons, the message anchored itself most deeply in Ulan. After getting a degree in engineering and political science from Swarthmore in 1987, Ulan returned to San Francisco and joined other neighborhood activists in what has been a seven-year fight to redeem and promote Sixth Street. His son's part in the crusade comes as no surprise to Tom Sr. "He was the kind of kid other kids followed," he says.

But the intervening years have radically altered the neighborhood, stripping it of its communal moorings -- churches, for instance -- at the same time they brought in new, more dangerous populations with problems vastly more intransigent than simple alcoholism.

When Tom Sr. landed on Sixth Street, most of the residents were older men, living alone in the single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, drawing welfare and pension checks and drinking wine -- lots of wine. "It was wine country down here," he says, ringing up a customer buying peanut-butter-flavored sticks, one of the more popular snacks in his store. "Franzia was king."

There was a saying, his wife reminds him. "They used to chant, 'What's the word? Thunderbird. Who's it for? The urban poor.' "

But today, where there were once relatively harmless old drunks there are now frenzied crack dealers and addicts, speed jockeys and the mentally ill. Ulan keeps the Brillo pads behind the counter because they are popular with crackheads, who use them as pipe screens, and he only wants legit customers having access.

The declining quality of life on Sixth Street troubles a young man who wants to upgrade the family business with catering and home-baked goods.

In the right front corner of the store is perhaps the most telling symbol of ambitions: an Odwalla case and an L-shaped produce section, with all the fruits and vegetables resting in rustic wicker baskets and adorned with pygmy palm trees. "I want this to be the Rainbow of Sixth Street," he says, referring to the socially conscious grocery.

But the progress of his business is naturally linked to the surrounding community. And to succeed Ulan will have to correlate his personal ambitions with the community's engrossing needs.

It will be a difficult balancing act for the younger McKnight, this twin desire to help himself and others. He knows more than most the personal and professional perils lurking down here. He knows he and the business can get sucked into that pit if he's not careful. One of his close friends, Henry Perez, the so-called Mayor of Sixth Street, recently had to shutter the family pawnshop -- Metropolitan Jewelry and Loan -- after 24 years. Serving on several nonprofit boards, Perez admits that he wasn't minding his business, and when his brother burned out on Sixth Street and he ran into lease problems with the landlord, it was more than his thin profit margin could bear.

Perhaps spooked by Perez's experience, Ulan has been trimming back his community activism lately. He serves on the boards of the main nonprofit community groups in the area -- the South of Market Problem Solving Council, the Sixth Street Merchants and Residents Association, and the SoMa Foundation -- but he has trouble making it to meetings to discuss the perennial issues of community renewal: affordable-housing construction, small-business loan packages, crime, cleaning the streets, and lobbying the area's main funding source, the Redevelopment Agency, to continue the revitalization of Sixth Street.

Still, he's deeply committed to the area, currently involving himself in launching a new community initiative: a low-income housing clinic to bring together residents and landlords of the approximately 30 SRO hotels on the street to agree on how to keep ne'er-do-wells out of the hotels as they perform much-needed repairs. "I have a flair for social action," Ulan says.

That flair could draw him into a debilitating political fight, if this housing clinic idea gets off the ground. Already organizing in the Tenderloin and in some Sixth Street hotels is one of the city's most territorial and belligerent activists, Randy Shaw.

If Shaw decides to attack, Ulan will find it close to impossible to strike his personal and professional balancing act.

The way Ulan sees it, there's no better place to be than Sixth Street. Anywhere else he'd have to compete with the chains -- Safeway, Just Desserts, Starbucks. "It's the last place you can have a mom and pop store," Ulan says as he starts the day shift. "It's the only place you can start with little more than an idea."

But the street is more than a last resort. The hum of life here is as attractive as the constant foot traffic that brings in the steady customer base, Ulan says. "There's a lot of life down here," he says. "Which you don't get in some safe suburb. We don't get off on it, but we also don't want to move to a high-markup area where everyone is so homogeneous."

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