Recently there has been much ado about chess in San Francisco. When police dispersed the open-air chess games on Market between 5th and 6th Streets, media erupted with dismay (or, if you are Stephen Colbert, incisive spoofs
). About the crackdown Capt. Michael Redmond of SFPD said
, “‘[C]omplaints from nearby businesses and arrests for sale and possession of narcotics have increased over the past six months” and that he believes the games are “a disguise” for illegal activities.
However, residents of the Tenderloin note that just around the corner on the lower block of Turk Street there is open-air drug dealing on a daily and even hourly basis. One resident told me that she wonders why the police don’t come to Turk Street and crack down on crack dealing. “Drug sales are just out in the open” on Turk St., she said. “They cannot use the excuse that chess ‘disguises’ it.” Chief Greg Suhr has told residents that the Tenderloin cannot get more police, so where was the staff found to take down chess?
As someone who works around the corner on Turk Street, I appreciated the comradery that the chess games inspired. John Powell, the man who has coordinated the games told
KALW, “The regulars come out for a community and a game that helps them stay sane. ‘Chess is something that not only affluent, educated people play, but everyone play.’” In addition, the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Jennifer Friedenbach
, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness
as saying, “‘We have elderly people who are very isolated, and this is a great way for them to be out in the community.’"
Reasonable or not, the SFPD’s decision to disperse the chess players seems like a symptom of several troubling phenomena: first, Market Street’s real estate boom and the city’s associated effort to “beautify” it; and second, the stark contrast between the Market “beautification” and the gritty Tenderloin streets, which are less than a block away.
Although tech companies like Twitter, Zendesk, Zoosk, One Kings Lane, and CallSocket generally moved into buildings closer to 10th and Market, the city’s bend-over-backward efforts to attract them have included cleaning up the streets—including “unclean” people. Let’s face it. Regardless of police motive, efforts to clean up the streets invariably negatively impact those who are homeless, non-violent, and looking to keep themselves afloat.
Market Street between 5th and 6th will be part of the arts section of the city’s new and improved Market Street. ACT Theater will be moving into the block where the chess games were. The backside of that building will be on Turk St. between Mason and Taylor, which is among the most dangerous blocks in San Francisco. Residents of the Tenderloin tell me regularly that they want a safer environment and that they avoid that block; those who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions—including young people—tell me that the open-air drug dealing makes it that much more difficult to stay sober. We want the police working not to indiscriminately criminalize people on the street. Instead we would like to see them work strategically to target high-level illegal activities that actually prey upon San Francisco residents who have addictions and/or mental health struggles.
So, does San Francisco government care more about new businesses on Market, or about its citizens?
Real estate reports show that those new companies provide a tax boon. With final numbers still pending, an SF Examiner article
from August of this year reported that the property transfer tax is projected to increase city’s bank account by $12.3 million. Sound good? Oops, never mind. Mayor Ed Lee also handed over
$14.3 in corporate tax breaks last year. Even if these numbers change this year, the benefit to the city seems almost negligible.
Capt. Redmond said that the chess players could continue to play if a business pays for a permit to allow them to occupy the sidewalk. Let’s make the tech companies pay.