Opinion: Is there a lesson for the Tenderloin in Times Square?

It is tempting, but dangerous, to look at Times Square and urge Mayor Breed to emulate Rudy Giuliani

For decades, the Tenderloin has been a peaceful and safe middle-class neighborhood with little crime, almost no homelessness and substance abuse done 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, San Francisco’s new mayor, only a few weeks into her term, has declared a state of emergency to address the problem.

Astute readers will note that most of the information in the preceding paragraph is false.

If it were true, then Mayor London Breed’s state of emergency would make a lot of sense. However, the Tenderloin has been a hub of homelessness, substance abuse and crime for decades, and Breed is now in her fourth year in office. Given that, it is difficult to see the mayor’s declaration as more than a gesture made of frustration and political pressure.

It is also hard to see how Breed will accomplish her goals “to disrupt the illegal activity in the neighborhood, to get people the treatment and support they need and to make the Tenderloin a safer, more livable place for the families and children who call the neighborhood home.” These are important objectives and Breed should get credit for recognizing the gravity of the crisis and attempting to address it, even if it has existed for years and seems intractable.

Additionally, while the phrase “state of emergency” may evoke something dramatic, it is largely a legal structure that facilitates faster procurement. That may help, but this is not a case of the cavalry rushing to the rescue.

The situation is not hopeless. But recent history suggests that addressing the problems of urban communities, which have experienced the challenges of the Tenderloin, requires a combination of effective policy, changing national conditions, an influx of money and a few lucky breaks.

The most dramatic successful example of this occurred in the early 1990s around the Times Square area in New York City.

Cleaning up Times Square, as the media described it, was one of the signature accomplishments of Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as mayor of New York. The change was undeniable. Within a few years, the area went from being a home to dive bars, pornography, drug dealing, crime and urban disorder to being a safe tourist attraction. Boarded-up storefronts and SROs and porn venues were replaced by flagship stores and restaurants, mainstream movie theaters and the like. New Yorkers accustomed to walking quickly through the neighborhood to avoid being a crime victim, could now stroll through the area stuck behind a tourist gawking at a larger branch of a store or restaurant they could find in their hometown.

It is tempting to look at Times Square and urge Breed to do whatever it was Giuliani did to succeed. There are several major problems with that approach, not the least of which is that, as mayor, Giuliani was a mean-spirited bigot who empowered police, ignored civil liberties, escalated racial tensions and later went on to distinguish himself as one of the most corrupt, ham-fisted and sleazy courtiers around President Donald Trump.

In addition to that, a large part of what Giuliani, and his successor Michael Bloomberg, did was not to ameliorate homelessness, but to push homeless people to other parts of New York, usually distant corners of the outer boroughs. Moving homeless people from the Tenderloin to the Outer Sunset or Potrero Hill, to existing homeless communities where Candlestick Park used to stand or adjacent to Golden Gate Park, which would be the analogous policy here in San Francisco, would not be a great solution.

Giuliani also had the advantage of a national economy that was recovering from a recession. The larger economic picture facing Breed is more complex than that. Another key factor was that although the broadly accepted narrative overlooks this, by the time Giuliani became mayor, crime in New York City was already declining, and his predecessor, David Dinkins, had already secured funding to increase the police force and had successfully moved toward an approach to policing that got officers out of their cars and walking a beat again.

Lastly, beginning in the early 1990s, crime began to decline almost everywhere in the U.S. and Giuliani was a beneficiary of that. Giuliani’s tough on crime rhetoric and approach undoubtedly helped bring crime down in New York, but to see it as a prime mover or unique causal factor is a triumph of pro-police rhetoric and conservative ideology over rigorous analysis.

Despite all that, the transformation of Times Square was startling and may hold some lessons for Breed and for San Francisco. The first is that more and tougher policing may be necessary, but it is never sufficient. For years in New York, police would focus on a few blocks or a small area of town and briefly crack down on drug dealing and drug use. The successes would be short lived as the drug dealers would simply move a few blocks over or return when the police themselves moved on.

In San Francisco, this means that those advocating for a tough police presence in the Tenderloin must plan policy that comes afterward. Laws and civil liberties notwithstanding, it should be apparent that if the police were somehow to arrest or chase away every drug user, dealer and prostitute in the Tenderloin – if nothing happened after that, they would all return relatively 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 out, there was something there to replace it. Any plan to revitalize the Tenderloin must be similarly holistic. Law enforcement is part of that, but so are social services, affordable housing and the private sector. A neighborhood that has been home to drug dealing, homelessness, crime and other social problems for decades cannot be easily transformed by declaring a state of emergency and increasing the police presence. Those may be useful, perhaps even essential, first steps, but they are still just first steps.

In this context, the state of emergency may buy Breed some time, but unless the policy has already been thought through, it is a risky strategy — a trump card that can only be played once.

Legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin once said of Giuliani, “It’s a mean city, 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 policy vision and the ability to implement it. If Breed can do that, this state of emergency will be the first step in the right direction. If not, it will be quickly forgotten and become another argument for the defeatist, but sadly compelling, notion that our problems cannot be solved.

In other words, talk of police crackdowns and being “less tolerant of the bullsh-t that has destroyed our city” may make Breed and some San Franciscans feel good. But unless it is part of a larger plan, it is simply bluster, poorly disguised as policy.

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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