A cut-through alley on near Union Square serves as a public art tribute called the San Francisco Veterans Mural Project, better known as Veterans Alley. Currently a collection of nearly 20 murals on a block of Shannon Street between O’Farrell and Geary streets, the alley symbolizes the tension between vacationing elites at posh downtown hotels and the unhoused people of the Tenderloin.
That tension has become more than symbolic during the last year. Painters in the alley, many of whom are homeless or SRO residents, contend that recent harassment and attacks have made the alley unsafe. Meanwhile, a couple owners of buildings on whose walls the murals are painted have suspended any further projects unless they have input on the design and messaging.
San Francisco Veterans Mural Project founder Amos Gregory bristles at giving building owners control of the murals’ messages, calling it inappropriate censorship. The murals have addressed inherently loaded political topics like police violence, suicide rates among veterans, and the struggles of LGBTQ elisted personnel such as Chelsea Manning.
“We started this project in 2012,” Gregory tells SF Weekly. “We’ve always had the freedom to tell our stories on the walls of the buildings in Veteran’s Alley. That’s the reason we created this project, because we’ve always been censored. We’ve always had our stories told by others that were not us.”
But Gregory’s more urgent issue is what he calls “the brutalization of people in our community,” a recent pattern of complaints from painters and those involved with the projects who say they’ve had bottles and other items thrown at them from the upper floors of residential buildings on the alley. “They’re targeting the homeless vets that are in the alley,” Gregory says.
One 63-year-old Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran, Jerome Davis, says he was tased with a stun gun in the alley earlier this month. Army veteran Pete Skelley alleges he was punched by a resident of an adjacent building in early December. Gregory is frustrated with the police response to these incidents and says officers have been unwilling to take reports.
SF Weekly is not able to verify that these attacks took place. But we can confirm that while interviewing one of the homeless painters for this story, an egg thrown was thrown at the interviewee from the window of a Geary Street apartment. People with involved with the mural project say objects are routinely thrown at them from the alley’s adjacent apartment buildings.
“I’ve seen [one person] hit a pedestrian almost, by inches, with a Gerber food bottle full of water coming from the second or third floor.” Davis says. “That will hurt somebody.”
Gregory has even obtained a restraining order against one of the neighbors, Jason Fitzpatrick, in the midst of the alleged attacks. Fitzpatrick declined to comment for this article because of the legal proceedings.
Still, frustrated neighbors argue that the percentage of homeless individuals involved with the project exacerbates the quality-of-life problems for the alley. Some have have even alleged these people aren’t even veterans, and that they’re pretending to be so as a street hustle.
SF Weekly has confirmed that Amos Gregory has a Department of Defense Uniformed Services ID card of the type that’s issued to military retirees, and Department of Veterans Affairs documentation detailing six years of active duty.
Many building owners on Shannon Street are’t concerned whether some painters really are veterans. They’re more concerned with the political messaging of the murals, over which they’ve received complaints in the past.
“Veterans Alley is OK. Current politics is not OK,” says Rakesh “Rocky” Patel, owner of the Gateway Inn on O’Farrell Street whose western wall is part of the alley. Patel’s wall currently has a few of the murals, but he’s not allowing any more without prior approval of the murals’ designs.
One particular painting escalated these tensions, a simple mural depicting a stick-figure policeman shooting and unarmed brown figure in the heart. That mural called “The Truth of the Matter” has since been painted over, and two building owners on the alley have suspended allowing murals on their walls.
While Gregory did agree to paint over it “The Truth of the Matter,” he hopes to re-create the painting elsewhere in the city — if he can find wall space to host it.
“No one likes censorship, and we must combat it at every corner,” Gregory says.
Gregory’s murals remain on that wall.
“We will only provide care taking services, tag removal, and cleanup of the present murals which have resided on that buildings wall for over five years,” he says. “We will not subject any veteran artist to censorship — thus, no new murals upon the Gateway Inn.”
The alleged assaults on the alley’s painters may or may not be tied to the political messaging of the murals. But owners do note that even the most controversial paintings have benefited the ally in some ways.
“Without the murals, I’d be tagged more,” Patel admits.