Tender Box

Inflamed by crime, drugs, and rising rents, Tenderloin residents are now launching lawsuits to clean up the city's dumping ground

Organizing residents requires a good number of meetings, and Adopt-a-Block holds its share. They often begin with some announcement: A woman is screaming and throwing bottles in the street on General Assistance check day; someone took a dive off the 16th floor of Central Towers. At one recent meeting, Project Director Ana B. Arguello explains that seven young people in puffy jackets are clogging the sidewalk in front of the Doba Cafe.

"Aren't they considerate?" asks Jojo. "Oh, they're just so sweet." Like most groups in the Tenderloin, Adopt-a-Block's followers come in all shades. Some are older, and walk with canes. Very few seem ready to go up to the young persons in puffy jackets and demand that they leave.

Most fear giving their last names, and some even their first. "Thomas," who lives near Turk and Hyde, says he began asking people to move away from his home after an elderly woman from his building was mugged. Once, a drug user saw Thomas call police from a pay phone: The man followed Thomas home, showed him a gun, and threatened to kill him if he ever did that again, Thomas says.

Like most who live in the Tenderloin, Thomas feels the neighborhood itself isn't inherently bad. "I like my apartment, I like my building, I like my neighbors, I have some very good relationships with some wonderful people here," he says. Thomas, like many of his neighbors, believes the Tenderloin is a containment zone, that the powers that be allow activities to occur there that would not be tolerated in other parts of the city.

On the whole, the Adopt-a-Block gatherings have a certain energy to them, as if, finally, someone is doing something. No one talks about putting anyone in prison. People generally want drug dealers ... somewhere else. "I want them to pay attention to this as a neighborhood full of children and people who have a right to be able to walk down the sidewalk without being confronted by dope dealers every time they turn around," says Gayle, a longtime resident.

Says Bruce Verson, 60, who doesn't care if his name is used: "I don't feel vindictive toward these people ... I just wish to hell they'd go to somebody's apartment and do this."

Not everyone thinks what Adopt-a-Block does works. Those being sued, in particular, don't feel that singling them out is all that productive. Beyond that, some say the group's lawsuits simply push small-timers from corner to corner, and never really make a difference. "That's an argument we've heard all the way from the beginning," says Adopt-a-Block board member Jim Thompson. "If you take that argument to its logical conclusion, it just says, 'Don't do anything, because it's your job to have these people on your front step.' "

Of course, filing a lawsuit does little good unless you win. On Aug. 3, Adopt-a-Block plaintiffs will argue their case for the mental and emotional distress each claims to have suffered as a result of alleged drug activity at the Doba Cafe. Small claims court is only the first step -- if the plaintiffs win, the property owners may appeal and have the cases tried in Superior Court, where Adopt-a-Block will be represented by Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

Certainly, no one expects that winning a judgment against the cafe will eliminate drug sales from the neighborhood, or even from the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth.

"You work in the Tenderloin and the problem is all over the place," says Arguello. "It's a really good, easy, simple philosophy to start by cleaning up your own back yard. ... The solution is simple, and it lies within the community, and the solution is to work with the people -- the majority of people in this neighborhood, because for every drug dealer there are hundreds of residents -- and work with the majority to develop a zero tolerance message: There is no tolerance for this here."

Adopt-a-Block is by no means the only group fighting to improve the Tenderloin. The battle is also being waged on a larger scale, and while no single group is leading the charge, one organization hopes to take up the mantle, just as it did more than two decades ago.

At Glide Memorial Church's Freedom Hall, the North of Market Planning Coalition is holding a town hall meeting. The purpose: to develop solutions for homelessness. A crowd of perhaps 80 sits on fold-out metal chairs. With young, old, black, brown, and white, the Tenderloin is the city's most diverse neighborhood, which can make it one of the hardest to organize.

Garrett Jenkins, NOMPC's recently elected president, introduces himself. Having fallen by the wayside for a time, NOMPC is back. Before proceeding, Jenkins apologizes: The panelists for the evening, Supervisors Amos Brown, Leslie Katz, and Leland Yee, are unable to attend. Things got a little hectic at a NOMPC town hall meeting two weeks earlier, when the supervisors were present, and they had promised to return for this meeting. But they made the promise without consulting their calendars, and now only aides for the supervisors are present.

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