Tender Box

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

A soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s, Jojo moved to the Tenderloin District in 1983. She keeps her small, one-bedroom apartment immaculate: simple wood furniture; a few well-placed vases; framed prints; a velvety, purplish plant that creeps like ivy along one wall.

From her small balcony a hundred or so feet above the sidewalk, the view is spectacular. A vast patchwork of rooftops stretches north toward Nob Hill. Tiny figures chase each other across the asphalt at the nearby Tenderloin Children's Playground. Flags whip atop the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental hotels.

At night, the city transforms into the most breathtaking galaxy of light, bathing her living room in a soft glow. Friends tell Jojo she has a million-dollar view, that it's like living in downtown Manhattan.

As long as she doesn't look down. Directly below her is the 400 block of Eddy Street. Heroin dealers hang out around a nearby corner, and in the morning, when Jojo steps out for coffee, they call out chiva, chiva, chiva (slang in Spanish for heroin) as she passes. Jojo used to do her laundry at a place down the street, until she got tired of running the gauntlet of teenage girls in puffy jackets who line the sidewalk at Eddy and Leavenworth by 9 a.m., plying a bustling daily trade in crack cocaine.

Come evening, the girls head back to wherever they're from. Then, things really get bad. An open-air drug-and-prostitution bazaar forms near the residential hotels across the street. People scream and fight until early morning, when the puffy-jacketed girls return, and the cycle starts all over again.

Sometimes, on nights when it gets so loud that she can't sleep, Jojo calls the police. At best, a patrol car might drive by an hour later. What works better is pelting the people below with eggs.

Before she does this, Jojo turns off her lights. She tosses the eggs and steps back from her balcony at the moment of impact, so as not to be seen. She can hear people yelling up at her afterward, Come on down, motherfucker. Of course, she doesn't. (Because of concerns for her safety, Jojo asked that her last name not be used in this story.)

"After they've been egged it's really quiet for about an hour. They disperse because they don't want to get hit." Jojo says. She smiles: "The eggs help. I've gotten to be a really good shot."

It's not that Jojo hates anyone down there. Her philosophy is simple: If they're bad people they should be in jail, if they need help they should be helped, and if they're just lazy and shiftless they should be sent wherever lazy, shiftless people belong. Put even more simply, she just wants them all to go away.

Which is why Jojo -- and 41 of her friends and neighbors -- have adopted a new tactic in the fight to clean up their neighborhood: filing small claims lawsuits against business and property owners who allow drug activity to occur on their premises. In late June, residents filed more than $200,000 worth of suits against the Doba Cafe and Deli, a nearby market at Eddy and Leavenworth that they believe contributes to the area's never-ending traffic in illegal narcotics.

The suits, filed with the help of a community group called Adopt-a-Block, are part of a growing campaign by residents to improve the Tenderloin. Synonymous for decades with drugs, crime, poverty, and prostitution, the neighborhood is once again trying to shed its role as San Francisco's neglected, vice-ridden dumping ground.

The Tenderloin has long been a refuge for largely transient populations, including drunks, drug addicts, parolees, the homeless, and the mentally ill. But as rents around the city skyrocket, the neighborhood is more and more becoming a permanent haven for working poor and people who, like Jojo, live on fixed incomes. They can't afford anything else, and don't much want to leave the Tenderloin, anyway.

Faced with the choice of fleeing the city, doing nothing, or making a stand, many have opted for the latter, hoping to reverse years of crime and financial neglect, and upend the widely held attitude that the Tenderloin will always be the Tenderloin, beyond any hope of improvement.

Change will not come easily. Solutions have proved elusive over the years, and efforts to lure in businesses and rid the neighborhood of its many ills are complicated by its compassionate reputation, and a long-standing desire that it remain low-income.

But there are stirrings, and hope that people will choose not to accept things that have always been accepted, that enough groups will focus their attention on issues large and small until the gains pile atop each other and yield what the community has long been striving for: a safe, affordable neighborhood at the heart of one of the most expensive cities in the world.

A bustling entertainment district prior to World War II, the Tenderloin might well have disappeared in the late 1970s when, faced with shrinking housing stock and years of rising crime, it risked being swallowed by the expanding downtown Financial District and tourist industries.

Led by groups such as the then-newly-formed North of Market Planning Coalition (NOMPC), residents and activists fought to preserve the Tenderloin as a low-income community, and to provide it with what it had long lacked: a political voice.

Over the next few years, activists battled encroaching development, pushed for an ordinance stopping the conversion of residential hotels to tourist use, and succeeded in having the neighborhood downzoned from commercial to residential. To prevent future gentrification, nonprofit developers began buying hotel and apartment buildings, and dedicating them as permanent, affordable housing.

Though the 1980s were, by most accounts, a time of hope and steady improvement for the Tenderloin, by the end of the decade recession and crack cocaine, among other things, had unraveled many of the gains. Crime rose, businesses closed their doors, and, declaring the neighborhood "a community in distress," NOMPC published the Tenderloin 2000 report in 1992 -- a sweeping, 10-year plan aimed at increasing housing, reducing crime, and improving the economy.

The effort didn't exactly go smoothly. To jump-start the plan, NOMPC recommended forming a seven-block redevelopment survey area on lower Eddy Street in 1995. The recommendation was expanded to include 14, then 21, blocks the following summer. A number of neighborhood leaders, many from the Leavenworth corridor, objected to the expansion, though, saying their area wasn't sufficiently consulted.

After a bitter dispute, redevelopment was tabled before reaching the Board of Supervisors. NOMPC, then short on funding, laid off its small staff and went belly up at the end of 1996, leaving the neighborhood without an umbrella organization to give voice to its concerns.

Since then, the Tenderloin has become home to a stunningly diverse population of about 25,000 -- college students, immigrants, seniors, the disabled, families, entry-level professionals. Residents still struggle with many of the problems the neighborhood faced two decades ago, a maddening tangle of social, economic, and criminal issues. Each woe has a flip side that makes coming up with solutions all the more difficult. Economic development must be balanced against the threat of gentrification, and the fact that many residents are on fixed incomes and will never work.

Also, while nonprofit agencies continue to supply much-needed services to the poor, the homeless, and the mentally ill, many feel the neighborhood's high concentration of social services adds to its myriad problems.

Efforts to address other issues that have historically been of concern -- like affordable housing and high crime rates -- have seen mixed results. Though nonprofit developers own almost 20 percent of the housing stock, speculative pressure continues, and the rental market is as tight as ever.

Violent crime is down, as it is citywide, but many residents still don't feel safe walking the streets, and their fears are justified. Drug dealing is rampant as always: The Tenderloin accounts for 40 percent of the city's drug cases, over half of which involve out-of-town perpetrators. The Police Department's Tenderloin Task Force made more felony arrests last year (6,572) than any other district.

If some things haven't improved, it hasn't been for lack of effort. During any given week, one can attend a dozen meetings on bettering the Tenderloin -- board meetings, task force meetings, committee meetings, advisory meetings. If meetings were police officers, there would be three on every corner. If meetings were apartments, everyone would be housed.

Community efforts have resulted in a number of improvements, particularly for the neighborhood's 4,000 children. Gains in recent years include a new children's playground and elementary school. Macaulay Park, closed in 1995 at neighbors' request, is scheduled to reopen next year, as are a new playground for preschoolers and a new boys' and girls' club.

The Board of Supervisors has passed moratoriums on new massage parlors and liquor stores in the neighborhood, and a new credit union opened last month. Boeddeker Park, an open-air crack house as of January, has been more or less cleaned up, and a new police station will open across the street from the park next year.

"What we're dealing with in the Tenderloin is a microcosm of the social dysfunction that every city is grappling with, issues of homelessness, poverty, lack of treatment, lack of financial resources for the citizens here," says Capt. Susan Manheimer, commander of the Tenderloin Task Force. "I think we're going to work really hard, the community, the city, and the Police Department. We've seen a lot of strides, the neighborhood is improving. We need to continue to put our resources together and keep plugging away."

Teenage girls in puffy jackets seem to own the lower 400 block of Eddy Street. Likely as not, they commute on BART each morning from the East Bay. They are generally accompanied by a few puffy-jacketed young men, and sometimes older men. It's a loose-knit group of about 20. The girls line the sidewalks, selling crack all day long.

For example: On June 9, during a one-hour period beginning at 12:30 p.m., a dozen apparent drug sales occurred on the lower 400 block of Eddy. A handful of girls lined either side of the street, some sitting cross-legged on the hoods of cars, eating ice cream cones, sipping fruit punch. When a buyer approached, one girl's hand would disappear up her sleeve and then down her pants. The girls store their drugs in a place only doctors can search.

If caught, teenage girls are the least likely to do time: The legal system often gives them second chances, and executing search warrants on their body cavities is a task some doctors refuse to perform.

But it's not as if teenage girls on Eddy Street have a monopoly on Tenderloin drug trafficking, a highly lucrative pursuit that lures persons of every age, race, sex, and nationality. They sell methamphetamine on Mason Street, heroin on Hyde, pills at Eddy and Jones, crack on Ellis, O'Farrell, and Turk.

Police say it takes a staggering amount of resources to make a single arrest, and that many cases are never prosecuted. The District Attorney's Office says cases from the Tenderloin often involve small amounts of drugs and it would swamp the system if all were charged. Both departments say they are overwhelmed.

For whatever reasons, past efforts to eliminate drug sales in the Tenderloin haven't worked. One thing that is working, sort of, is Adopt-a-Block, a neighborhood group formed in 1994 when efforts to clean up the Leavenworth corridor were undermined by ongoing drug activity at certain properties.

When some business owners were apathetic to suggestions that they keep drug dealers off their property, Adopt-a-Block began organizing residents and others from the area to file group small claims lawsuits.

Adopt-a-Block's goal is to raise the issue of accountability: namely, whether business and property owners can be held responsible for drug sales or other objectionable behaviors that occur either with their permission or through neglect.

The group first tries to persuade property owners to take care of problems on their own. If that fails, Adopt-a-Block tries to hit the property owners where it hurts -- the pocketbook -- by invoking state laws that say any property used to sell or store drugs, or which interferes with the enjoyment of life, constitutes a nuisance for which damages may be recovered.

"The whole idea behind it is to give the community a sense of empowerment by using small claims court," says Neveo Mosser, whose family owns the Central Towers apartment complex at 455 Eddy. Mosser helped co-found Adopt-a-Block when his tenants complained of not being able to walk past certain properties.

"The idea is to move building by building and block by block ... to get everyone on their block to operate in a proactive manner and say there are types of activity and behavior they don't want to tolerate anymore," Mosser says.

Over the past five years, through lawsuits and other means, the group has chased drug activity away from a handful of properties, though much of the activity has since moved to surrounding blocks.

In 1995, for instance, the group sued the owner of 425 Eddy, an abandoned building that was being used as a crack house. The court awarded $82,000 to 17 plaintiffs, and the building is now a drug treatment center.

Now, 42 plaintiffs have filed suits -- asking for up to $5,000 each -- against the Doba Cafe and Deli at 403 Eddy. According to police reports in a similar lawsuit filed in May by the city attorney, officers have, over the last year-and-a-half, arrested a man in the process of breaking up crack on the cafe's counter, arrested another man for selling crack out of the cafe's doorway, and claim to have seen a clerk selling narcotics.

Police call the cafe a "safe haven" for drug dealers, and have confiscated a box containing 32 suspected crack pipes, copper scouring pads cut into small pieces (often used as filters), and 16 bags of small balloons (often used to package narcotics) on the premises.

The Doba Cafe isn't the only property Adopt-a-Block is targeting: 35 suits have been filed against Service Employees International Union Local 87, which owns a parking lot at Turk and Hyde where homeless persons line the sidewalk selling secondhand goods and where, according to residents, drug sales occur regularly.

The group has also filed 31 suits against T&D Auto Repair across the street from the union lot, which nearby residents say attracts drug use, drug sales, prostitution, and violent behavior, and is often used as a toilet by persons wandering through the area.

The targets of the lawsuits universally argue that they are doing nothing wrong. Though the owner of the Doba Cafe, Tawfiq Elmuflihi, has been out of the country, his brother, Mahdi Elmuflihi, says any problems have been taken care of, and that Adopt-a-Block plaintiffs are unjustly targeting the business for their own financial gain. Karen Trinh, whose parents own the property and are also being sued, responded similarly.

But Adopt-a-Block Project Director Ana B. Arguello says drug activity continues at the Doba. Besides, she points out, past suffering and emotional distress are enough to justify damages against the cafe's owners.

Richard Leung, president of SEIU Local 87, argues that his organization is not responsible for activity on the parking lot's adjoining sidewalk, and says it has no legal standing to ask people to move along.

Khang Tran, owner of the T&D Auto Repair shop, acknowledges that there have been problems on his property, but says he is installing a fence, and has requested that a pay phone neighbors have complained about be removed.

Arguello, however, says the shop should have taken action years ago, when residents began complaining of harassment and assaults by persons using the property. "They should be compensated for what they've had to endure," she says.

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.

Over the course of two hours, Jenkins moves through the room, soliciting input. He holds a cordless microphone, like a talk show host. His watch dial catches the light. People complain about the three supervisors not being there, about the need for more services, more housing, more funding. They say the homeless are dying on the streets. People ask if any representatives from the city are present. Five hands go up, an island of suits amid the crowd. Are you guys movers and shakers? someone jeers. People talk about the sick, screwed-up, greed-driven global economy. Jenkins coaxes them back to homelessness; people say the homeless need to be here; We're here, a few voices cry out.

People say they need to start acting more like a village. A sense of togetherness flows through the room. People say they've been dissed, big time, by the three absent supervisors. I hear what you're saying, Jenkins replies. But we still have work to do, whether the supervisors show up or not.

A neighborhood resident for the past four years, Jenkins first discovered NOMPC in 1996 at a $3-per-plate spaghetti dinner at Boeddeker Park. Perhaps 100 people attended the dinner, talking about redevelopment. It was exciting, he says, all that talk about how the neighborhood was going to change.

Jenkins dropped by a board meeting a year later, after NOMPC went belly up: Only three people were there. Since then, the private, largely resident-based nonprofit group has built its membership back up to around 80.

NOMPC is focusing on the very delicate tasks of luring in businesses the neighborhood needs -- like markets selling fresh vegetables and meat -- and increasing the affordable housing stock while preventing unwanted gentrification.

The group also hopes to regain the political influence it once had both within the neighborhood and at City Hall. One thing about the Tenderloin is that, while it has an abundance of nonprofit and activist groups, varying agendas can make it difficult to put forth a single position.

"Hopefully, we can let all these other organizations know that, hey, we've got to come together here, we need one voice to come out of this community telling the rest of the world what we want," Jenkins says. Since being elected president in March, he has put in 40 to 60 hours a week, unpaid, attending meetings, lobbying city officials from the mayor on down, learning things as he goes.

As the town hall meeting on homelessness comes to an end, people say you only get what you're organized to take, and talk about attending the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors, to let the world know who didn't show up.

At a NOMPC board meeting the next evening, members discuss the ongoing search for a paid community outreach coordinator, and receive a visit from Beverly Hills-based developer Steve Crowe. Crowe hopes to build a 10-story, 400-room, $75 million hotel at Mason and Ellis, and has been making the rounds of local groups before proceeding, hoping to avoid conflicts with the neighborhood.

Board members discuss replacing the housing that would be lost, the risk of setting a bad precedent, and ask about jobs and job training for neighborhood residents. The latter is a possibility, although the devil's in the details, Crowe says.

"I'll tell you up front, we've cost people hundreds of thousands of dollars in design changes," longtime NOMPC member Marvis Phillips tells Crowe. "Coming to us first was smart."

At its June 8 board meeting, the North of Market Planning Coalition announced that it had hired a community outreach coordinator, and received a visit from Steve Ryan of Zephyr Real Estate, with which NOMPC is attempting to reach an agreement on affordable housing at a 12-unit condominium project on Leavenworth Street.

The board also lent its support to a proposed 40-bed emergency shelter for young adults on Ellis Street, saying the facility would serve a population already in the neighborhood. NOMPC then found itself a house divided over the only other shelter proposed for San Francisco in 1999 -- a 116-bed facility on Golden Gate Avenue for homeless families.

One board member had no objection at all to the proposed shelter. Others felt that, for safety reasons, the Tenderloin isn't the right place to bring families. Maria Torre, a single mother who was homeless herself for a brief period, said such a position was hypocritical: "Homeless families aren't bad people. ... Let other people fight over this," she urged.

The discussion grew heated: Board members talked about being dumped on again, about other neighborhoods doing their fair share, and about people with roofs over their heads denying those without. They talked about permanent housing as opposed to shelters, about drawing business into a neighborhood full of social services, and about compassion: "If everyone else is shutting their doors on poor people, we'll open our arms," said Kristin Yarris.

As the debate moved around the table, NOMPC President Garrett Jenkins suggested a compromise -- to take a position in favor of permanent, affordable family housing. The motion passed unanimously, and the project, which has since been opposed by a number of other neighborhood leaders, is currently on hold.

Jenkins hopes that until March 2000, the end of his term as board president, NOMPC will continue to grow, and that the Tenderloin will persist in its slow, steady march.

"Eventually this neighborhood will become safe. There are too many people now who are focusing their attention on that," he says. "It's a lot of joy, a lot of challenge, it's more stimulating than trying to sell office equipment. ... You get the challenge and either you meet it or you have to move on.

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