Even middle school students in the Mission have strategies on how to stay safe: wear neutral colors. Go straight home after school. Hang out with people you trust.
When he leaves school at 6 p.m., said one 12-year-old, “ I pick up my pace, I start running.”
“We’re not scared, just careful,” said another. “We know where not to hang out.”
The Mission saw two fatal shootings in a 24-hour period last Tuesday. But without being blasé about the violence, residents – young and old – were remarkably calm. Some said they would be extra vigilant. They all had ways to avoid danger.
By Monday morning, police had reported a third fatal shooting, bringing to four the number of homicides so far this year – one less than the total for all of 2010.
“The murders make me more aware that these things still happen in the Mission,” said Steve Ramírez, now in his 20′s, who grew up in the neighborhood. He too stays away from streets he doesn’t know and people he can’t trust.
The tactics middle school students talked about sounded similar to many used by older residents. A barista from Philz Coffee who has lived in the Mission for 15 years said she doesn’t go out alone at night. And Bertha, a woman who was born here and has gone on to raise three children in the neighborhood described a policy of staying out of what she calls “sketchy environments.”
Denise, who moved here recently from New York, said, “I just walk on the main roads a lot instead of taking shortcuts.”
Some take more drastic measures. “I think most girls in San Francisco carry knives,” said 27-year-old Mercedes Navarro, an employee at the Bi-rite Creamery. ”Especially if you spend a lot of time at night by yourself.”
Men too had ways to avoid confrontations and trouble. Carlos Ángeles, a 30-year-old father, said he tries to be home by 8 p.m. “I don’t try to be super macho,” he added.
A 25-year-old clerk at a grocery store near Potrero Avenue said he avoids walking to BART. “I’d rather get picked up,” he said.
Oscar Escobar, who owns a small business near South Van Ness and 16th streets, keeps an eye on where the crimes that show up in news reports occur. “If I see the areas are close to my bike route, I take another way,” he said.
Many of the more than three-dozen Mission residents or workers interviewed took some comfort in believing that gangs targeted other gang members.
That turned out not to be the case for the first homicide victim, Gaspar Puch-Tzek. The cook at Hog & Rocks on 19th and San Carlos had just finished a shift at 12: 30 a.m. Tuesday when two suspects approached him and asked what gang he claimed. His answer was none, but one of the men shot him anyway, police reported. Police consider Puch-Tzek to be an innocent victim.
Twenty-three hours later, Edson Lacayo, 29, was shot and killed near his home on the 800 block of Hampshire near 20th Street. The gang task force is investigating both of Tuesdays’ shootings.
Several Mission residents also stated that most violence occurs east of Mission Street, where gang territory is more hotly contested. The latter was true of last Tuesdays’ homicides. But Monday’s shooting occurred west of Mission, on Camp near 16th and Guerrero streets.
And although Tuesdays’ murders happened within gang territory, the latter is increasingly one without borders. New restaurants, cafés and businesses co-exist on the same blocks that gangs claim – Hog & Rocks is a case in point as it is within Sureño territory, but then so are any number of new and old places popular with residents and newcomers.
Moreover, trying to separate blocks claimed by gangs from the rest of the Mission is impossible since the real estate associated with the Sureños and Norteños covers more than 50 percent of the neighborhood.
Andy García, a 22-year-old, works at one of the newer places – Gracias Madre on Mission near 18th Street. The vegan restaurant is a block away from 17th and Mission where a gang-related shooting occurred in February of this year.
But, instead of worrying about gangs, García said he’s more concerned about getting mugged for his tips.
His advice on staying safe: “Just get on Valencia as soon as you can.”
Jeff Burnell, who has an iron work shop on Valencia just three short blocks away from Gracias Madre, agreed. “Mission and Valencia are two different worlds,” he said.
But Burnell also knows that such worlds can quickly collide. Two skate borders attacked him last year near his shop after he asked them to stop grinding a block.
Instead, they busted his lip and Burnell lost four teeth. A friend who came to his aid got hit in the back of the head hard enough to cause bleeding in the brain. “They could have killed me with their skateboards,” he said.
One Mission High student pointed out that his Bayview neighborhood where police have reported seven murders so far this year, is far more dangerous. “We see this shit everyday,” he said. “Ain’t nothing new.”
And a bookish young man in his 20s hanging out in Dolores Park, noted that his Sunset neighborhood is far safer. All he has to worry about, he said, “is the N not working.”
But here, even adolescents know more is at stake.
A 12 –year-old middle school student said that two Norteños once stopped him and asked if he was a Sureño. “They had a gun,” he said.
He told them he was 11.
You’re too young, the Norteños decided, and left him alone.
Still, parents worry. Verónica Lomelí said one of her four children started hanging out with the wrong crowd and she had him transferred out of the Mission. “The social worker helped me and I have seen the change,” she said. “People say schools don’t affect but they do.”
While no one interviewed seemed panicked, it was clear that living in an urban area can take its toll. Some teenagers acted tough beyond their years including a 15-year-old girl outside of Mission High School. “I ain’t got nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Seen lots of police out here and they got to be doing their job instead of telling me what to do.”
Meanwhile police were on alert. So too were the three Emergency Medical Service men stationed in the Mission. “We pray for the best,” said one, ” and expect the worst.”