We all know the standard advice: If you have to walk somewhere at night, keep to well-lit streets with lots of people walking around. Trans, nonbinary people, and women are particularly familiar with the routine of Google mapping a well-populated route and placing our sharpest keys between our fingers before venturing out the door. It’s an exhausting routine, and doesn’t always feel necessary — that is, until you finally find yourself waving pepper spray at the scary man following you home.
Last spring, however, these routines were upended. Shelter-in-place orders meant restaurants and bars were closed. Many of those who would have been afraid of walking alone at night were simply afraid of leaving the house. As major tech hubs switched to remote work and a supposed exodus of professionals had many people moving away from the most densely populated areas of downtown, the financial district, SOMA, Union Square, and Chinatown were each declared “ghost towns.”
Simultaneously, crime has taken on a different shape in San Francisco. While violent crime increased in major cities across the country, overall numbers have plummeted to a level San Francisco hasn’t seen since 1975, according to a Chronicle study. Simultaneously, theft has shot up, which some experts have blamed on thieves having fewer bystanders to fear. While sexual assault fell by 50 percent between November 2019 and November 2020, for example, burglaries jumped 42 percent.
Now that San Francisco nears the yellow tier of Gavin Newsom’s color-coded reopening system, the city is slowly plotting a return to normal. However, some lessons learned over the past year may be here to stay. Parklets, outdoor dining, and semi-permanent slow streets are just some of the COVID-era conventions we must now reevaluate.
While makeshift dining booths and cordoned off streets have helped keep bars and restaurants alive (and San Franciscans sane), they have also helped some feel safer.
“I don’t usually walk down the street at night because it actually gets quite dark,” says Yiyi Jin, a Noe Valley resident. With the new parklets, however, she says she’s finally comfortable walking around a little bit at dusk. “Now, with daylight savings, I’ll walk where the restaurants are,” she says.
Jin isn’t alone. A number of people who stopped to speak with the Weekly on Monday afternoon in Bernal Heights said the parklets along Mission Street make them feel somewhat safer, though not entirely. A person named Frank said they felt a little safer but not dramatically so. Frank’s companion Laura, however, said assertively that the parklets made her more comfortable on the streets (both declined to give their last names). One woman, a petite senior named Jane Lugadas, said she liked the parklets, but didn’t rely on them — instead, she proudly showed me her hot pink pepper spray.
Though the average violent crime rate in Bernal Heights is on par with the rest of San Francisco, burglaries have increased so much in the neighborhood that District Attorney Chesa Boudin offered his theories as to why the neighborhood was targeted in a February Public Safety Community Meeting. He attributed the increase to the fact that burglars no longer found targeting touristy neighborhoods as fruitful, and that economic inequality is driving crimes of desperation. Others — namely those behind the District Attorney recall campaign — blame Boudin himself for his stance against prosecuting nonviolent criminals.
Policy aside, self-defense experts warn that violent crime can strike anywhere, any time. Just last February, an Uber driver who only catered to high-income neighborhoods because he thought they were safer had his car stolen with his two children inside one night in Pacific Heights. In December, police also found high-powered rifle rounds in the street after a shooting in relatively-wealthy Potrero Hill.
“Where there’s more people out, people feel safer and put their guard down,” says Joseph Bautista, an instructor at Self Defense for the People. The program teaches students about “street-smart self defense” that’s useful in situations when people are waiting for BART, walking to their car, or leaving work late, according to their website. However, he says self-defense is just as important in the daytime as it is at night. “There’s been many people that have been attacked … in broad daylight, even around people, because the unfortunate reality is that most people are unwilling to get in there and help out,” he says.
Additionally, Bautista warns that parklets can make outdoor diners themselves particularly easy targets for crime. Customers focused on their food and drinks are significantly more distracted than the average pedestrian, and often leave their purses, wallets, and cell phones in easy-to-reach places. “Imagine being inside of a restaurant where you’re sitting next to a window that’s wide open, where someone could easily run away with the stuff they can grab,” he says. “If you’re on a tight sidewalk and people see something there, what prevents them from grabbing that stuff and running?”
The fact that parklets are making many walkers feel safer, though, doesn’t surprise him. In fact, he says the impulse to walk down these more densely populated streets is probably the safest option if you can’t get a ride. As a general rule, it’s always safer to walk down streets with as many potential bystanders as possible, especially at night. What he emphasizes, however, is that a few parklets aren’t going to stop every would-be robber.
“I don’t care how rich the country is, or how rich the city is,” Bautista says. “Always pay attention and be aware of your surroundings.”