Mid-Market is a Mess - Can Mayor Breed fix it?

There's a lot to like in Breed's plan. But this won't be easy

It is easy to give up on Mid-Market.

I’ve done it at least four times myself.

It is such a broken clock. The short stretch of Market Street between Fifth Street and City Hall is a daily embarrassment and disappointment.

And it has been for years. Here’s a deep dive on it from Brock Keeling in 2018. In it, he reminds us that back in 1985 Herb Caen called Mid-Market “Le Grand Pissoir.” Yet it remains filthy, frustrating and resolutely stinky.

And so, we rise to cautiously applaud Mayor London Breed’s multi-million-dollar plan to revitalize Mid-Market. Announced in May, the idea is to increase policing, with an eye on drug traffic and crime. And also to increase the “community ambassador” program so that one will be stationed “on every block . . . from Powell Station to 8th Street.”

Of course, we’ve had plenty of Mid-Market revitalization plans over the years. And frankly, they’ve been bigger on promise than delivery.

But if there was ever a time for a city to see a change for the better, a chance to say at-least-one-good-thing-came-out-of-this-stupid-pandemic, this would be it.

Tenderloin advocate and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy Shaw, called the vibrancy plan “a game changer.”

It could be. We need people back in downtown San Francisco. We need an incentive to take down the plywood on the stores and for restaurants to open and hire workers.

And if people do venture downtown, just to check it out, and they notice that Mid-Market suddenly looks cleaner and less scary, that would be a nice message of a recovering city.

Now best of luck. This is not going to be easy. This has been years and years of treating the area less like a neighborhood and more like a containment zone.

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The Mid-Market blight and crime has become an accepted fact of life. Sometimes it isn’t until you hear of a tourist who was shocked to find a Skid Row in the heart of the city that you are reminded that this isn’t normal.

This plan, at least, confronts the issue and admits the problem.

As Breed told reporters a year ago, “I’m beyond frustrated with open-air drug deals, people shooting up openly. We deserve better.”

The money is there. The city will kick in $5 million. Hastings Law, which became so frustrated with a tent encampment on its campus that it sued the city, is adding $3 million.

That will help fund a task force of 26 sworn officers, 18 of whom will patrol the area on foot during the day and in eight squad cars at night.

That’s all to the good, but we all know there’s one factor that is driving all of this — the shootings, the crime, the overdoses and the blight. It’s the drugs.

In 2020, over 700 people died of an overdose in San Francisco. (Who knows how many OD’d and were brought back by a shot of Narcan?) And Mid-Market was right in the middle of it. You can’t clean up Mid-Market without doing something about what even city officials call an “open air drug market.”

Outrage is easy. Why should this neighborhood have drug dealers on corners, openly selling? That doesn’t happen in the Mission, or the Castro, or — heaven forbid — Pac Heights.

So we just go in with these new police officers and arrest the dealers. Problem solved, right?

Nope. DA Chesa Boudin gets a lot wrong, but he’s right when he says arresting small time users and dealers is getting the “crumbs.” Typically, those dealers are given relatively small amounts to sell by the big players.

Arresting them might lead to a short jail stay, but that doesn’t work on any level. Going in and out of jail doesn’t deter the dealers. They’re back in days and now they have a record. It’s not even productive police work. Officers have to feel the revolving door is a waste of time.

The deterrence would be if cops took the drugs. Every day. Possession of those drugs is illegal, so they are “contraband” and can be seized. If even the small time dealers knew their product was going to be seized as soon as they hit the street, it would eventually make a difference.

I will now step back for a moment while you explain the laws of illegal search and seizure and probable cause. I didn’t say I knew how it would work, I just said that would be something that would make a difference.

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The real point is, Mid-Market could change. There have been tentative feelers by shops and restaurants. The infamous “Twitter Tax Break” brought tech to the neighborhood. Of course, the pandemic sent them right back out of town, but it shows it is possible.

Fixing Mid-Market would be a statement, a symbol that this city continues to work on itself, to make improvements and value the quality of life.

Actually, in some ways, Mid-Market IS San Francisco. It is gritty and stubborn and surrounded by remarkable wealth on every side. It is the barometer of who we are and what we believe.

With that in mind, Mayor Breed’s $8 million plan could actually be a “game-changer.” It just has to take hold and begin to create a new, better vibe in the heart of the city.

Fingers crossed.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Suggestions and compliments gladly accepted. Complaints, not so much. Twitter: @cwnevius