When Gangs and Foodies Share Territory

En Español.

Less than a week after three fatal shootings occurred in a section of the Mission that has become one of the hottest restaurant districts in San Francisco, the sidewalks are full of eager patrons. Diners know about the shootings, but even before they happened, some of the Mission’s attraction has been its edge.

“It’s kind of scary, but kind of fun,” says Dana Humphrey, 28, as she sat eating at Gracias Madre, a vegan restaurant where the tacos aren’t cheap. Her friend Alexis Papeshi, 28, who lives in the Marina, agrees. “It has some cachet,” she says.  ‘Oh we are in the Mission, we are so cool.’”

For years, the Mission has had a reputation as a neighborhood for trendy bars and restaurants - even in the Gold Rush it was a place to come for fun. But in the last two years the Mission’s status in the culinary world has risen. Its establishments go on and off the Michelin star list (Range off, Saison on), two have Michelin Bibs (Flour + Water and the Slow Club), two are in Zagat’s top five trendy (Flour + Water and Beretta) and of the city’s 62 restaurants on the Chronicle’s Top Bay Area list, eight are in the Mission. Oh, and Mission Chinese Food was named second-best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit magazine.

But as the food has gotten more upscale, old boundaries, little-understood by newcomers and visitors, have remained. Even long-time residents aren’t quite sure what the old rules mean in a neighborhood increasingly crowded by the affluent. But as Mission Loc@l interviewed owners, managers and customers last week about the three fatal shootings, it became clear that when upscale foodies share the same real estate as gangs, no one is affected more than those who work at the restaurants.

The murder of Gaspar ‘Tio’ Puch-tzek, a line cook at Hog & Rocks – a case, police say, of mistaken identity – cut especially close to home. He had just gotten off work and was outside having a cigarette with some dishwashers when alleged gang members approached, asked what gang he claimed and then shot him in the face when he said none.

“What happened the other day, employees being outside, it’s very common,” said  Anna Walker, a manager for Radish, a new restaurant nearby. “We just don’t linger anymore.”

When Radish opened earlier this year on 19th Street and Lexington- an area near the edge of Sureño territory, the owner Emily Summers says she knew the neighborhood’s reputation. Nevertheless, she saw opportunity:  a vacant corner, a lot of graffiti, and a lot of people hanging out who “weren’t doing anything good for the neighborhood.”

“It was a chance to create a safe surrounding for the neighborhood,” she says.

The fatal shooting of Puch-tzek happened so close to her restaurant that police detectives came in to review her restaurant’s surveillance video.

Two other fatal shootings followed – one gang related occured 23 hours later on Hampshire near 20th Street. The third happened early Monday morning and police believe that was drug-related. A fourth shooting at 24th and Mission at noon on Wednesday, left the victim with a bullet in the hip.

Employees at Rosamunde Sausage Grill next to Wednesday’s shooting have been taking cabs to get home since the violence began, says bartender Simone Thornton. Liza Thoms, 25, a hostess at Cha Cha Cha, where a shooting happened outside more than a year ago, asks her boyfriend to walk her home. Jack Boger, a bartender at Gestalt still walks home alone to his apartment at 15th and Shotwell. He’s used to hearing gunshots nearby. “In a way that’s the most disturbing part,” he says. “How normal it is.”

Other workers have been less fortunate.

Late one evening at the corner of 19th and San Carlos, two individuals approached Santiago Mendoza, a cook, who had just gotten off work.

In a move eerily reminiscent of the Puch-tzek murder, two men asked the cook to name the gang he claimed. After responding that he wasn’t in one, they fired six shots.

Unlike Puch-tzek, Mendoza, now 41, lives to tell his story.

And, eight years later, he’s still working as a cook in the Mission. “What can I do?” he asks. “I have to go to work.”

And in some sense it is a lot safer now. Overall, murders in the Mission have been declining steadily. The Mission Police Station – which also patrols the Castro and parts of Noe Valley – recorded 18 homicides in 2008, six in 2009 and five in 2010. This year the count is at four.

Much of the violence occurs in waves and not all of it is gang related. But when it is, Latinos like Mendoza are targeted.

On Mission Street, Eduardo Reyes, owner of Acaxutla, says when he moved here from Guatemala 25 years ago, the neighborhood was a meeting place for Latinos from all over the Bay Area. Acaxutla was opened to reflect that Mission – a restaurant where working-class Latino families could come to eat.

If violence erupts, however, Latinos stay away. They’re afraid to be mistaken for a member of a rival gang, and business has dropped by 20 to 30 percent since the recent murders, he says.

“When somebody hears there’s a shooting, they just don’t want to come,” he says, adding that he too feels unsafe on Mission Street.

Others are less concerned.

“I’m not scared, I still feel safe,” says Manny Torres Gimenez, the owner and chef at Mr. Pollo, a small Peruvian restaurant that has acquired a cult following among foodies who come from all over the city for its tasting menu. “I’ve been walking the same streets every night for three years by myself and I’ve never seen anything happen.”

That said, he adds that the edginess of the neighborhood is attractive to many customers. “That is part of the experience, to be in that crazy dangerous neighborhood.”

Adds Daniel Hawkinds, the owner of Gestalt on 16th Street and open since 2007, “Any place that is interesting is going to be a little dangerous.”

Others maintain that shootings can’t be good for business.

“Of course it affects business. Who wants to be around where there’s been a shooting?” says John Khoune, son of the owner of Malai Thai.

But Khoune and Reyes of Acaxutla were the exceptions. Far more owners and managers say that business is still booming.

Rosamunde’s customers don’t seem concerned by the recent surge in shootings – even the shooting that took place Wednesday just next door.   “I hate to say it but they’re unaffected by it. It’s just normal,” says Thornton.

Silvia Gonzalez, 36, gets asked by customers at Cha Cha Cha, where she works if it’s safe to walk around outside. But neither the perception of danger, last year’s shooting near the restaurant or the recent shootings have affected business, she says.

Debra Blum, owner of Beretta, on Valencia says that restaurants can be an approachable target because they stay open late at night. But, she says, “because of our experience in 2008, we’ve always been aware and proactive in our security.”

In that incident, which shocked the local business community, a group of armed individuals walked in shortly after 1:00 a.m. and robbed the restaurant as customers sat in the dining room.

Although no one was hurt and the robbers got away with less than $2,000, Blum worried that the hold-up would have a negative effect on their reputation. But business continued to boom.

Remembering that evening, she says, “Customers stayed after police came. What’s funny is once everyone was gone, they went back to the bar and kept drinking their drinks.”

Boger said Gestalt customers have been talking about the recent shootings. This Monday, a customer told him he had just walked by Camp Street, where the third fatal shooting occurred. The customer said “it was all chalked up and it was spooky,” says Boger. “Then he said, ‘I’ll have a beer.”

At Hog & Rocks, employees are still mourning the loss of their co-worker.

“It’s literally one day at a time, one moment at a time really. One moment you’re fine, then next moment you’re in tears,” restaurant manager Marcelle Gonzales says.

Andrew Dombrowski, a restaurant manager and sommelier at Hog & Rocks’ sister restaurant, Maverick, has been going around to restaurants in the city to ask for donations. He’s also organizing a silent auction on September 17 to help raise money to return Puch-tzek’s body to Mexico.

“Hopefully something positive will come out of this,” Gonzales says.

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31 Comments

  1. Rick

    We need to end the war on drugs that is fueling this violence. If we decriminalize drugs, and sell them legally, gangs will lose their reason for existence.

    • ben

      Legalizing drugs at this point probably won’t stop gang activity, just as ending Prohibition failed to stop Mafia activity.

      If a couple of those expensive restaurants burn down you’ll know thay’ve moved into the protection racket.

    • Tony T.

      ben is right. Organized crime just moves on to whatever else can make them money if one “business channel” dries up. Case in point, the gangsters who go to state prison here in California make tons of money by smuggling in cell phones then selling or renting them to fellow inmates. they’ll hold these things in their anal cavities for days, in order to conceal them, just to make a few bucks. it’s all about the money.

    • BJ

      The issue is more complex than stated. Part of the formula is JOBS! Everyone who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, knows to stay away from that area. The 16th corridor will never change, due to the housing type in the area.

  2. Cantannk

    First rule of cartography: put North at the top of the map.

  3. david curiel

    We are way too tolerant of gangs, as if they were something we -have- to live with.

  4. missionchica

    “It’s kind of scary, but kind of fun.” This attitude is what is scary. The Mission isn’t an amusement park thrill ride here for your enjoyment so you and your friends can brag about how cool you are when you go back to the Marina. There is nothing ‘fun’ about a neighborhood plagued by gang and gun violence.

    • Missionchica fucking nails it.

    • Ossy

      Agree with you missionchica – That comment really p**sed me off – Not much fun for the victims, the families or the people who live here – like us.

    • Mark

      I agree there is nothing fun about a neighborhood “plagued” by gang and gun violence. Fortunately, the Mission hasn’t been such a neighborhood for at least twenty years. And as many will agree including those who live here, the Mission is a fun place. The young women, like many many people who visit places like the Mission, want to “walk on the wild side.” Where are they going to go? East Oakland? Hunter’s Point? They’re just being honest and the allure of perceived danger is not uncommon nor morally reprehensible. So, welcome all – just don’t forget to look up from your iphones and see what’s going on around you.

      • cbg

        Where have you been? Did you read this article? Gang/gun violence has definitely been common in the mission for the past 20 years. Especially in the 90s. Murders/crime have been relatively low for the past 3 years, but as you can see there are definitely still problems. I guess it depends on your definition of “plagued”, but he truth remains that the gang and gun violence (or any violence) in the Mission is undoubtedly worse than most parts of SF.

    • Mike

      that comment pissed me off as well, and I wasn’t surprised to read that that lady was from the marina. If these shootings were occurring on her block I don’t think it’d be kinda fun. I do t think it’d be kinda scary either. It would be terrifying and shed probably move, as she cleary has the funds to do so. Too bad slot of the missions residents don’t have that luxury, that KINDA sucks, doesn’t it?

    • EyesWideOpenMissionite

      Thank you MissionChica! That girls comment pissed me off to no end. I can’t believe the kind of ridiculous, immature people we have living in our city. We need more aware individuals living in The Mission.

  5. edo

    Cantannk might just have a point; like point Mr. Map in the direction generally accepted as correct by a majority of those who read or make maps or sometimes even depend on them to keep from getting lost and dying of starvation in the wilderness. It took me a while to realize that, contrary to what my blurry vision was telling me, Zeitgeist was still east of the 17th st. BART station, important knowledge when one is stumbling around at night in such a dangerous area. After that was settled I was able to concentrate on the article and realized I was getting hungry.

  6. tomm

    Would it really have been so hard to orient the map north-south? Printing it sideways is just plain weird.

  7. LisaLaggrrr

    MissionChica definitely nailed it. @Mark, just because the murder rate is down and about 2/3s of the people shot in the Mission manage to survive does not change the fact that there IS a problem with gangs and guns there. I am wondering if you’ve ever actually lived there and if so, being named “Mark” I can assume you are not Hispanic. I’m not, but my husband & many friends are. Several years ago, when Mission records was still around gang members came inside a show to force my friend to take his red belt off, then burned it in the street. I used to live at 19th@San Carlos, but now I live in Redwood City again, which has similar problems. Just because the murder rate is down here does not mean that it still isn’t a problem. My Husband is not a gangbanger, but his favorite colors are red and black. I worry when he wears a red belt or red sweater, etc. because there have been 2 fatal shootings in recent years over colors and mistaken identity. Of course these Yuppie Idiots aren’t going to go to Hunter’s Point or East Oakland, but the next time I here some stupid comment like “We’re in the Mission, we’re so cool” from some a-hole from the Marina, I really hope the next hip a stray bullet gets lodged in is her’s!

    • LisaLaggrrr

      2 fatal shootings in recent years within a few blocks of where we live…

    • Mark

      Hey Lisa, I’ve lived in and around (mostly in) the Mission for the past 35 years. I live in the Mission now. I’m not talking about the murder rate, I’m talking about what it’s like to wear red and blue when walking certain blocks, or walking certain blocks at all. I am not Hispanic and I agree that does make a difference. When we’re talking gang violence, clearly the most at risk are Hispanic males. I also feel personally repulsed by the Foreign Cinema image of Marina-ites eating nopales at Gracias Madre while watching latinos murder each other across the street. Where I differ is that I don’t believe the image is the reality. In my opinion, that’s not what’s happening now (and hasn’t been for a long time). I also don’t think that’s what people (even suburban people) want to witness much less experience. I think “cool” or “edgy” is different than violent, although definitely with a whiff or two of menace in the air.

  8. LisaLaggrrr

    Honest, maybe. Completely stupid and ignorant, definitely. They should go to Hunter’s Point.

  9. LisaLaggrrr

    I have to add one more thing. How much money does it really cost to send Mr. Puch-tzek’s body to Mexico? $500 – $800? Around what he probably made in one paycheck? Hog & Rocks doesn’t make enough money to help pay for their murdered employee to be put to be put to rest? I think it is noble that the manager of the sister restaurant is trying to raise the money, but it sure seems like that the owners of these restaurants could and should cover it themselves, and save any donations for his family, who likely survived off of his paycheck.

  10. julian st.

    edo, it’s the 16th st. BART station, not 17th st., and Zeitgeist is to its north and west – definitely not east. To the writers of the article – how many people did you have to interview to find those two glib outsiders? When in recent history has anyone felt “safe” on the Miracle Mile, especially at night? I’m very happy that restaurants are coming to my neighborhood, but I don’t expect their customers to feel particularly threatened when, at least for now, they obviously are not the targets. And sorry Malai Thai, but it’s your food that’s scaring off your customers, not local gun violence.

  11. Good

    I don’t understand why “old boundaries” or “old rules” deserve respect. Criminal organizations that operate within the city claim they they “own” public property by threatening violence. They own nothing–this is the taxpayers’ property, and it’s time we take it back from them. If the only long-term solution to gang violence is gentrification, then I hope gangbangers like lattes, because I will vote for gentrification every day of the week. If a group of armed idiots want to live by stupid rules about colors and corners, they are free to do so elsewhere.

  12. numbers

    “Andrew Dombrowski, a restaurant manager and sommelier at Hog & Rocks’ sister restaurant, Maverick, has been going around to restaurants in the city to ask for donations. He’s also organizing a silent auction on September 17 to help raise money to return Puch-tzek’s body to Mexico.”

    Hmm, Mission Local, love you folks, but…

    If you’re going to spend time writing about how idiots in the Mission either love hurting people, or love the “environment & atmosphere” that evolves from people hurting people, you could’ve actually opened with this bit about Dombrowski trying to raise money to send the man’s body home.

    This article was reposted on Eater SF, and guaranteed some of those folks dropping dollars to eat well and live dangerously might choose to do something useful with their cash, such as help the lives that make their dining experience “cool.”

  13. Aaron

    I never thought I’d say this about anyone, but I hope Dana Humphrey gets robbed in the Mission and this site covers it. I imagine her quote in that story will be, “It was kinda scary. It cost me hundreds of dollars to replace my phone, id, and keys, and I got post-traumatic stress disorder. But it was kinda fun. I can’t wait to tell my friends from the Marina when I can afford to buy a new phone, they’ll think I’m so cool.”

    • buzzgirl

      Dana Humphrey is why people hate the Marina.
      Dana Humphrey seems to lack the wherewithal to understand that people are dying not for her amusement. Dana Humphrey is an asshole.

    • Go easy – she’s only human. Don’t wish violence upon her, when you’re angry about the violence in your community. I agree that what she said was dumb, but it IS also taken out of context, just like any comment inserted into a news article is. She was not able to read this article prior to saying it. Maybe she would have reworded herself had she realized what she was “saying” to readers like us.

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