The weekend homicide near 17th and Mission streets and Wednesday’s lunchtime gunfight on 24th and Harrison offered Mission District residents a reminder that the hip neighborhood where they feast on everything from the latest doughnut recipe to cupcakes and artisan pork rinds is also a place where gang violence still exists, and where a 2007 gang injunction is still in place.
Officials hoped the violence would be kept in check, and community members planned to meet this afternoon at Everett Middle School to brainstorm about how to resolve the situation. But even among newcomers there is both an awareness of the violence and a sense that they are able to navigate it. “You want to be aware,” said Trans Van Santos, sitting at the counter at the St. Francis Fountain on 24th Street on Thursday morning. “But you don’t want to be scared.”
Some businesses, such as Bello Coffee and Tea at Harrison and 24th, where Wednesday’s shooting took place, have decided to have a staff meeting to discuss how to handle violent crime. In the last month, three assaults, three thefts and an armed robbery have all occurred within 500 feet of the business.
What if it spills over into the coffee house itself? What, for instance, is company policy if a wounded man crawls into Bello while being pursued by several men?
That’s exactly what happened two years ago to Salvador Vásquez. A wounded man, covered in blood, sought refuge in La Gallinita Market on the southeast corner of 24th Street, where Vásquez works. Vásquez locked the doors, called 911 and waited for the police to arrive as the man’s assailants tried to get through the locked door.
“Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often,” said Vásquez. “But I am used to it when it does.”
Abby, a barista at Bello Coffee and Tea, said that she had assumed the gunfire on Wednesday was construction. “I even saw a man falling to the ground and didn’t think it was a shooting.”
Andrew, who works at Humphry Slocombe, a popular ice cream store that often has lines outside on Harrison and 24th, said he heard the gunshots and later visited a friend who had a bullet hole in his window.
The cashier at Usultán, a Mexican restaurant across from Humphry Slocombe, said that when violence occurs, they “deal with it in one way or another.”
Which leaves the question: Is the occasional shoot-out bad for business? To the clientele of the St. Francis Fountain, four blocks east on 24th and a hangout for the young and hip: No.
“This is the best place in town for breakfast,” said Tex, a small man in denim work clothes drinking coffee Thursday morning at the counter.
He feels safe in the Mission as a whole, though he’s been warned to be careful to not seem especially gay anywhere around the intersection of 24th and Mission. “What I was told was, there are these gangs from El Salvador, and to be in the gang you have to kill a queer. I was a little disappointed. I just moved back here from New Zealand and I was like ‘Yay! I’m in SF! I can skip through the daisies again!’”
Still, he said, compared to Wellington, New Zealand, where he was once hospitalized after yelling “Hey, leave the lady alone!” to a group of men beating up a transgendered woman, the Mission is pretty great.
“I would not say that I think about it,” said Darrin, a burly, cheerful man sharing breakfast with a lady friend. He’s lived here for seven years, and in that time he’s come home from work to find a dead body lying on the sidewalk. “It was covered in a yellow sheet,” he said. “He was shot in broad daylight, walking down the street with his kid. People told me that he was one of the top guys in MS-13.”
He’s also returned to find the street in front of his apartment at 24th and Hampshire marked off with crime scene tape. “I told the police that I lived there, and they said ‘OK, you can come inside. But if you see blood or bullet casings, don’t step on it.’”
Does he feel safe? Mostly, yeah. “There are certain moments — coming home late at night. Walking home from BART. But the violence does seem for the most part like it’s targeted. I would not say that I think about it very often.”
Bay Area native Van Santos, who sat at the far end of the counter writing in his journal, a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses dangling off the neck of his T-shirt, advised, “Just keep your eyes open. You can’t be afraid, but you can’t be naive.”
His girlfriend was the victim of what he thinks was an attempted mugging recently around 23rd and York. “She’s just this skinny little white girl from Connecticut,” Van Santos said, dreamily. “But she’d just watched ‘Goodfellas.’ And so when this guy came up and grabbed her she already had her keys in her hand. She started gashing his face and screaming bloody murder.”
The assailant ran down the street with Van Santos’s girlfriend in hot pursuit. After a few blocks she realized that she wasn’t sure what she’d do if she caught him, and abandoned the chase.
Van Santos has acquired a set of hard-earned trouble deflection skills that serve him well in the neighborhood. The tight pants and heart-shaped sunglasses insulate him from most disagreements, but if he’s ever called out for wearing the wrong color on the wrong street, his standard retort is to say, in Spanish, “Come on man, I play Carlos Santana in a tribute band.”