In my years covering crime as a reporter in San Francisco, I’ve always thought of the Hall of Justice as a time capsule.
There’s a shoeshine man by the front door, empty phone booths in the hallway and even a dingy third-floor press room filled with old newspapers.
While San Francisco and the rest of the state reopened Tuesday, The City’s criminal courthouse was still stuck in the past. The very recent past.
You could barely tell the pandemic was waning once inside the aging building.
Defendants showing up for a hearing at one of the few running courtrooms sat masked and spaced apart. Attorneys Zoomed in from the safety of their homes and offices, projected for the court on a large television. A sign affixed to a coat rack warned visitors: “no whispering to staff. Stand back!”
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Darwin began the day with his morning ritual, reminding people to cover their faces.
“That may change in the next couple days but at this point in time, the masking guidance is still in place,” Darwin said.
But while the Hall of Justice is still stuck in the pandemic, the rest of the neighborhood isn’t. And a lot has changed since this all started.
Across the street from the courthouse, a new apartment building for the formerly homeless is quickly rising where a parking lot and Alladin Bail Bonds used to stand.
In fact, this whole strip of Bryant Street was once filled with bail bonds offices that have closed.
Henry Randall is the last bail bondsman left. I found him sitting at his desk at Ballestrasse Bail Bonds.
“Everybody else is gone,” Randall said. “I’m still here.”
But that’s more about bail reform than the pandemic. The others left ahead of the November 2020 election, thinking voters would approve a measure scrapping money bail across California.
“They didn’t think there was going to be much to do,” he said.
While the measure failed, San Francisco prosecutors still don’t request cash bail under District Attorney Chesa Boudin and even his predecessor George Gascon.
Randall gets most of his business now from people booked on a bench warrant for missing court. A judge sets bail, and Randall finds a client.
“It’s slow,” he said.
Down the street, Serkan Saltan runs one of two coffee shops across from the Hall. Now Bablyon is the only one open after Caffe Roma, a popular courthouse lunch spot, temporarily closed its doors some months back as the daily hustle-and-bustle slowed.
Luckily, Saltan said he’s seen business pick up over the last couple months.
“I think we made it,” Saltan said. “We just survived. I feel lucky that we survived, personally and for the business too.”