For decades, the Tenderloin has been a peaceful, safe middle-class neighborhood with little crime, almost no homelessness and drug addiction in private behind closed doors. However, in recent months it has descended into an urban dystopia of crime, homelessness, filth and public drug use. Fortunately, the new mayor of San Francisco, just weeks into her term, declared a state of emergency to address the issue.
Savvy readers will note that much of the information in the preceding paragraph is false.
If that were true, then the Mayor of London Breed’s state of emergency would make a lot of sense. However, the Tenderloin has been a hub of homelessness, drug addiction, and crime for decades, and Breed is now in his fourth year in office. Therefore, it is difficult to see in the mayor’s declaration anything other than a gesture of frustration and political pressure.
It’s also unclear how Breed will achieve its goals “to disrupt illegal activity in the neighborhood, to provide people with the treatment and support they need, and to make the Tenderloin a safer, more livable place for families.” and children who call the neighborhood home. These are important goals and Breed should take credit for acknowledging the severity of the crisis and trying to resolve it, even though it has been around for years and seems intractable.
Moreover, while the term “state of emergency” may conjure up something dramatic, it is largely a legal structure that facilitates faster supply. It may help, but this is not a case of cavalry rushing to the rescue.
The situation is not hopeless. But recent history suggests that solving the problems of urban communities, which have experienced the challenges of the Tenderloin, requires a combination of effective policies, changing national conditions, an influx of money and a few strokes of luck.
The most spectacular success story occurred in the early 1990s in New York’s Times Square area.
The cleanup of Times Square, as described by the media, was one of the defining achievements of Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as mayor of New York. The change was undeniable. In just a few years, the area has gone from a hotbed of dive bars, pornography, drug trafficking, crime, and urban mayhem to a safe tourist attraction. Storefronts, ORS, and porn sites have been replaced by flagship stores and restaurants, mainstream cinemas, and more. New Yorkers accustomed to walking briskly around the neighborhood to avoid falling victim to crime could now wander the area stuck behind a tourist gazing at a larger branch of a store or restaurant than they could find in their home town.
It’s tempting to look at Times Square and urge Breed to do whatever Giuliani did to succeed. There are several major problems with this approach, not the least of which is that as mayor, Giuliani was a mean-spirited bigot who empowered the police, ignored civil liberties, heightened racial tensions and then distinguished himself. as one of the most corrupt, clumsy and sleazy courtiers around President Donald Trump.
On top of that, much of what Giuliani and his successor Michael Bloomberg did was not to improve homelessness, but to push homeless people to other parts of New York, usually corners away from the outer districts. Moving the homeless from the Tenderloin to the Outer Sunset or Potrero Hill, to the existing homeless communities where Candlestick Park once was, or next to Golden Gate Park, which would be the analogous policy here in San Francisco, doesn’t would not be a good solution.
Giuliani also had the advantage of a national economy recovering from a recession. The larger economic picture facing Breed is more complex than that. Another key factor was that although the widely accepted narrative ignores it, by the time Giuliani became mayor, crime in New York was already down and his predecessor, David Dinkins, had already secured funding to augment the forces of police and had successfully evolved into an approach to policing that allowed officers to get out of their cars and walk again.
Finally, beginning in the early 1990s, crime began to decline almost everywhere in the United States, and Giuliani benefited. Giuliani’s tough-on-crime rhetoric and approach has undoubtedly helped bring down crime in New York, but to see him as a primary driver or sole causative factor is a triumph of pro-police rhetoric and anti-crime. conservative ideology on rigorous analysis.
Despite all of this, Times Square’s transformation has been surprising and may hold lessons for Breed and for San Francisco. The first is that increasingly strict policing may be necessary, but it is never enough. For years in New York City, police focused on a few blocks or a small area of town and briefly cracked down on drug trafficking and drug use. The successes would be short-lived as the drug dealers would simply move a few blocks or return when the police themselves left.
In San Francisco, that means those who advocate a strict police presence in the Tenderloin must plan for the politics that come after. Civil liberties and laws notwithstanding, it should be obvious that if the police arrested or somehow chased away all the Tenderloin addicts, dealers and prostitutes – if nothing happened after that, they would all come back pretty quickly.
In New York, the policy was not simply to crack down on low-level street crime, but to partner with the private sector to make substantial investments in and around Times Square. That way, when the crime was pushed back, there was something to replace it. Any plan to revitalize the Tenderloin must be equally holistic. Law enforcement is one of them, but so are social services, affordable housing and the private sector. A neighborhood that has been home to drug trafficking, homelessness, crime and other social problems for decades cannot be easily transformed by declaring a state of emergency and increasing police presence. These first steps can be useful, even essential, but they are still only first steps.
In this context, the state of emergency can buy Breed time, but unless the policy has already been thought out, it is a risky strategy – a trump card that can only be played once. .
Legendary New York journalist Jimmy Breslin once said of Giuliani, “It’s a mean town, we don’t need a mayor.” As Breed herself said, San Francisco is a compassionate city — and we don’t need a mean mayor either. We need a mayor who has a political vision and the ability to implement it. If Breed can do it, this state of emergency will be the first step in the right direction. Otherwise, it will quickly be forgotten and become one more argument for the defeatist, but unfortunately convincing idea that our problems cannot be solved.
In other words, talking about police repression and being “less tolerant of the bullshit that destroyed our city” can do Breed and some San Franciscans good. But unless it’s part of a bigger plan, it’s just bluster, ill-disguised as politics.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles on The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.