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

Two hardened IV-drug-using neo-druid punks come in with a Billy Budd character in tow. "Billy's" about 20 and apparently from an affluent family. His brand-new street-wise clothes -- color-coordinated baggies and stocking cap with brand-new bike messenger replica sling-back satchel -- are strictly hipster boutique. His newfound friends, on the other hand, are street-hardened, with fresh works in their pockets from the needle exchange down the street. The male, about 30, has the gray-green pallor and dead eyes of a junkie with a bottomless hunger. The female looks stupid and malleable, the crazy, goofy, amoral type, willing to follow Dead Eyes into anything and giggle about it later. Both of them mercilessly ridicule the poor rich kid, who remains oblivious to the feral nature of his company as he tries to make friends. From the seamless, senseless patter coming from Billy it is hard not to believe his newfound acquaintances just tied him off.

"What kind of music do you like?" Billy asks.
"I'm not musically inclined," Dead Eyes sneers.
"Well, what do you like?" Billy persists puppylike.

"I like painting," Dead Eyes says, rolling his eyes at his snickering companion.

"What kind of painting?"
"Paintings of the soul, of hell."
"Is the soul hard to paint?"

Dead Eyes tires of the joke, grabs his pile of Ramen noodles, and heads out the door with his companion, followed close behind by Billy, still peppering them with insipid questions.

Despite the best intentions and hard work of merchants and residents, Sixth Street's prospects for redemption seem to hinge at some point on divine intervention. And according to everyone with a stake in its renewal, that's exactly what began the turnaround down here.

God came to Sixth Street on Oct. 17, 1989, at exactly 5:04:15 p.m., when the Almighty ripped open the San Andreas fault. The resulting earthquake ruined some of the hotels on the street and for the first time drew the attention of government to the area. One year after the quake, the Redevelopment Agency drew a line around the neighborhood, meaning millions of dollars would be available for economic development.

"I've always said that the quake saved Sixth Street," says Henry Perez, stabbing into a chicken Caesar salad at the Roxanne Cafe.

Whereas Ulan McKnight's hard-eyed social conscience is cloaked by a deadpan personality, Perez is ebullient. He's the fast-talking preacher for the salvation of Sixth Street, a one-man Chamber of Commerce for the area. When he tells the story of Sixth Street, its descent and slow rise, he runs over his sentences like a bullet train skidding off the rails.

By the time Loma Prieta struck, Perez, whose family had operated a pawnshop on the street since 1972, had been trying for four years to get the attention of City Hall and the police -- to inform them that the demographics had been so radically altered that he and many of the other businesses were on the brink of extinction.

"We had somewhere in the vicinity of 40 people hanging out in front of our stores," Perez says. "They were smoking crack and beating up on our clientele." Letters to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and calls to Southern Police Station drew no response. But with the quake and the ascendancy of Mayor Art Agnos, all that changed. Agnos poured $6 million into the area to fix up the housing, and merchants began finally to get a sense that something could be done, Perez says.

In 1988, Perez organized a march from Howard to Mission. He was joined by Agnos and his family and then-Police Chief Frank Jordan. A political charge coursed through the neighborhood for the first time, he says.

He and other merchants soon formed the Sixth Street Merchants and Residents Association (SSMRA), an ad hoc group. Unlike most other San Francisco neighborhoods, South of Market had not been organized in the 1960s and '70s under the succession of anti-poverty programs and crusades. No calcified leadership jealously guarded its sinecure. South of Market was the virgin territory -- so virgin that a Republican pawnshop owner could make headway, earning the title the Mayor of Sixth Street and getting his face painted on a neighborhood mural along the way.

The SSMRA also shredded the rule book on how to construct a power base in San Francisco. In most areas of the city, politics is defined by class warfare: tenants vs. landlords; merchants vs. street people -- even if they are legitimate residents; and the cops vs. everybody. "Here it's very important to us that we don't segment people," Ulan says.

Immediately, the SSMRA allied itself with the police, pressing the point that crime on Sixth Street was fixable, not inherent. At the urging of the group, two aggressive street cops -- Ross Laughlin and Jim Miller -- volunteered to go undercover to fight the crack trade. Nearly a decade later, the Laughlin-and-Miller team is still on Sixth Street, their telltale white cruiser signaling dealers that it's time to go.

From the beginning, Ulan McKnight became a resource whom activists drew on. When Dino DiDonato, then the executive director of the South of Market Problem Solving Council, was drawing up reports and proposals for government money, he would more often than not run them by Ulan for approval, to make sure he knew what Sixth Street needed.

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