This story originally ran in 2008. The violence on Friday left many questioning that intersection’s problems, and with how little has changed, this article still resonates.
Tonight, the takeover of 16th and Mission happens at 3:13 a.m.
Nothing marks its arrival. There’s no blaring siren or shouting crackhead to alert the corner regulars the time has come. It’s been building for hours, starting with the last BART back to the East Bay a little after 1 a.m., and continuing with the club closings around 2 a.m.
Even now the takeover feels incomplete. Hipsters linger in taquerias, their skinny jeans growing tighter as super burritos soak up a night’s worth of Pabst Blue Ribbon. A few happy drunks wait for the all-night bus line to pick them up from the Muni stop at the intersection’s northeast corner.
But across the street, the 2000 block is alive—dancing, smoking, drinking and shaking on a crack high. The rotating cast of crackheads has given way to the graveyard shift—the group of dealers, users and hustlers that keeps the corner humming until dawn.
They are rarely, if ever, alone on this corner. But right now their ownership is unquestioned.
The path to this point in the night is paved with rich drunks and poor drunks, club-goers looking to get laid and a sex worker looking to get paid. It’s stained by urine and fueled by burritos, deterred by the November cold but pushed along by manufactured heat—whether generated on a dance floor or in a crack pipe. This intersection, on this night, is a place for everyone—the desperate and the deranged, the well-heeled and the fake-tanned, the hipsters and the homeless and the dancers and the dealers and all the high-seeking, night-reveling Mission lovers that make this, arguably, the heart of the District.
This is the story of one Saturday night in November at 16th and Mission.
Sixteenth and Mission is home to a mix of local and franchised restaurants and stores, as well as several bars, coffee shops and clubs. But the intersection also hosts a never-ending stream of low-level criminals, community leaders and business owners. Violent crime is rare—there’ve been three murders within a one-block radius in the last two years—but those close to the intersection say prostitution solicitation is frequent and drug deals are rampant.
“There are people outside that my customers are afraid of,” says Andrew Thompson, co-owner of Marian’s Men’s and Women’s Apparel, a store that’s been on this block and in Thompson’s family for 55 years. “They are always, always here.”
Tonight is no exception.
At 11 p.m., two worlds converge on the block. The club-goers rise up the stairs of the BART station and float toward Valencia ready to descend on tonight’s destination.
On the 2000 block of Mission that stretches from 16th to 17th streets, the hustlers, dealers and junkies warm up for their own party.
The block is a stage as the two worlds slide over, around and through each other, barely taking notice when they intersect. In one world, high-heeled leather boots swallow the lower halves of skinny jeans. Their owner laughs and walks with a pre-club buzz, one hand clutching a designer bag and the other sliding up and down the peacoat-covered arm of her date.
In the other world, an oversized hot-pink dress swallows the empty space where a woman’s right arm once stood. Its owner darts around with a frenzy in her step, stopping intermittently to shout back at her companion, a lanky pile of flesh, bones and flannel who’s hustling to keep up.
They’re fighting over nothing—or perhaps over everything. Their angry whispers grow unintelligible. But peace soon arrives in the form of a sturdy man with a stud in his ear and a pinstriped Yankees hat cocked to the side of his head. He’s been walking around for about an hour, approaching strangers to make his anti-sales pitch.
“You don’t need anything, right?” he asks.
Apparently they do. The couple stops fighting just long enough to meet the salesman. The three huddle together and hands dive into pockets before colliding. A gift wrapped in a handshake ends the exchange.
The one-armed woman and her flanneled pile of a man continue on, marching toward 17th Street. Their argument resumes. They leave the Yankees fan behind and he continues to prowl the intersection, serving the public by making sure no one “needs anything.”
He’s still wandering around—passing by most, stopping for quick exchanges with some—at 11:30 p.m. when an impromptu dance party breaks out on the 2000 block. A collection of bearded men gather around a skirt-wearing, rump-shaking woman, howling with delight as her hips thrash back and forth to the bass line on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” The music thumps from the stereo system of a metallic blue Dodge truck, and the revelers hoist their paper bags in the air, waving with the rhythm. Right now the Valencia Street clubs have nothing on the 2000 block of Mission.
Until the cops pull up.
The police car rolls by—windows down, officers watching—and the music stops. No words are exchanged. No warning given. Only a drive-by. The junkies scatter.
A few wander farther down Mission toward 17th Street, looking over their shoulders and bumping into taqueria patrons on their way to BART. Others slink into the background, crawling into the nooks that mark storefronts, and sitting down to sip the contents of their paper bags.
A hunchbacked man lingering on the periphery of the party shuffles back to the hub of the intersection, waiting for the crosswalk’s permission before waddling his way eastward on 16th Street. He stands at the intersection—head down, eyes up—with the look of a man who’s seen this all before. Perhaps he’s headed to a shelter. Maybe to a bridge. He could be looking for a corner where the wind doesn’t bite and the drunks don’t shout, a place with no crack to keep the junkies around, or a place with just enough to get him through the night.
Wherever he’s going, it isn’t here. Not 16th and Mission. Not tonight.
As Saturday night bleeds into Sunday morning, a stream of visitors pours out of the 16th Street clubs and into the BART station to catch the 12:18 a.m. train to the East Bay, the last of the night. They descend the stairs in boots or heels or some combination of the two, not quite drunk but well past sober, and head back to Rockridge, Berkeley or some other place that, tonight, just wasn’t cool enough to keep them away from the Mission.
A girl sits on an SF Weekly newsstand next to the Muni stop on the northeast corner of the intersection. She pulls down on her short, pleated skirt—apparently the leggings and Ugg boots aren’t enough to stop the chill. If she was drunk before, the dropping temperatures and shady characters of the block have shocked her into sobriety. Her eyes dart periodically across the intersection, but mostly they bore into her cell phone.
A woman with facial scars and a backwards San Francisco Giants cap asks her for change. The skirt-wearer’s eyes dig deeper into the phone. The plea is repeated. The skirt wearer is unmoved. After a third request, she stands, adjusts, and walks to sit on a bench next to two guys who look like they just stepped out of an east coast frat house and into the Mission. She never glances at the beggar, only at the phone. Then it rings, a car arrives, and she sprints as fast as her Uggs will take her to the open back door of a Toyota Rav 4.
The car pulls away and she’s gone, off to somewhere else. Not 16th and Mission. Not tonight.
Left behind is the beggar, a squat, toad-faced woman with scars that cover her face. She walks behind the BART escalator to join the night’s second street party—this one a small get-together with three men, a bag of potato chips, and a boombox that plays hip-hop from its perch in an ACE Hardware shopping cart. They don’t last long, taking their shopping cart caravan east on 16th Street around 12:45 a.m.
This is when the lull begins. The East Bay transplants are gone. The Mission-dwelling hipsters are still in the clubs, well on their way to wasted. The block clears, at least for a while, as street loiterers move down Mission or up 16th Street.
A few linger, a few more trickle in. And suddenly everyone wants to talk to me.
The first is a man named Rob—a guy with a thin, seemingly painted-on chinstrap of a beard and a fake street accent that begs you to forget its owner is white. He wants to talk hip-hop. He wants to talk turntables. He wants to talk about himself. He wants me to know that, “In this motherf*ckin’ city, ain’t nobody got sh*t on DJ Rob.”
He wants me to just listen. At least until he offers parting words.
“You don’t need anything, right?”
Next is a woman with her hair in a bob, fur on her coat, and a piece of fabric on her legs that, were it a little larger, would be called a denim skirt. She carries a red velvet bag on her shoulder and dangles a long cigarette from her mouth. Combat boots stretch to her knees, giving way to thighs that stretch for days.
“Hey boy, is there anything I can do for you tonight?” she asks me.
There isn’t. She poses the same question to a rotund, mid-40s man sitting on a nearby bench, and when he declines, the click-clack of her boots moves up Mission. Not 16th and Mission. Not tonight.
At 1:18 a.m. two police cars fly by, engines humming, sirens blaring. The block barely takes notice.
At 1:27 a.m. a street sweeper clears the northeast corner. Tonight his work includes cleaning orange peels, cigarette butts, glass shards and McDonald’s bags with bottles peeking out the top. He moves to the southwest corner to finish.
The corners are clean when the clubs begin to close around 2 a.m., and happy drunks pour into the streets. Some hop aboard the all-night Muni line. Others stumble into taquerias.
The 2000 block awakes from its nap. The one-armed woman in the hot pink dress returns. She’s now with another man but darting five steps ahead of him, rendering him just as meaningless as the last guy. In the past couple hours, she’s turned from a buyer into a seller.
“Do you need anything?” she asks me.
“Why do you have a notepad?”
I’m a writer.
“Don’t write about the Mission. Everyone writes about the Mission. You need to pick a different topic if you ever want to be any good.”
And then she’s gone. In the last three hours she’s bought crack, sold crack, switched men and given a writer’s workshop. Just another night at 16th and Mission.
A man with dirt caking every visible inch of his body, and a lion’s mane of a beard covering his face, stumbles around before stopping underneath the sign for the 20/20 Hip-Hop clothing store. He turns, faces the corner and lets loose a steady stream for about 15 seconds, paying no mind to those who glance in his direction on their way down Mission. When he finishes, he reveals that he, like seemingly everyone else, has something to sell.
“You need a taxi?” he asks me.
He continues on, looking for someone drunk or desperate or dumb enough to take him up on his offer. When he approaches a group of men at the Muni stop, one gets testy.
“Man, nobody wants to go anywhere with your drunk ass, especially not in no stolen car!”
The wall-peeing, ride-peddling, possibly car-stealing drunk slinks into the background. Within 30 minutes he’s asleep underneath a 16th St. business entrance.
And again, things slow. It’s now almost 3 a.m. and the club-goer numbers are dwindling. A few trickle out of taquerias. A few more begin to break up conversations on the corner. Most are already on Muni or in a car, or perhaps having a post-party at home, or already asleep in a stranger’s bed or their own.
And at 3:13 a.m. it happens. A couple baby-faced boozers break up their jovial, drunken, fake brawl to hop into a taxi, and for the first time tonight the corner belongs exclusively to the street-level crew.
Well, them and me.
And really, barely a thing changes. To them it’s still the same corner it was one or two or 12 hours ago. Still plenty of junkies, only these have more freedom to roam. Still a handful of dealers, only these have even less shame. It’s still a street party, only now there’s no one to crash it.
A woman in a tattered wool hat and a shopping bag hanging over her shoulder walks around in circles. She has snowglobes for eyes—milky, translucent spheres that seem to explode when she shakes.
“I know he mad, but I don’t give a f*ck about him,” she says to no one in particular.
A woman with short dreadlocks walks up to me and stares for a second before asking, “Taking notes?”
I nod. She twirls, hands outstretched, face glowing, her belly poking out of a Phat Farm T-shirt as she finishes the pirouette. She smiles over her shoulder as she walks away.
A man in a skull cap, and cargo shorts on top of his sweat pants, walks past the BART entrance repeating, “I’m gon’ get it,” loud enough for the whole corner to hear. There’s no rhythm to his words. They’re more repeated outbursts than sustained chant.
Across the street on the northwest corner, two people have made beds out of milk crates. They sit on top of the crates, their backs against the wall. One is a man, his head drooped to his chest, bobbing with each breath and sliding from right to left every few moments. Next to him is a figure enshrouded in a comforter covered in a ladybug print. The blanket expands rhythmically, letting you know its inhabitant is alive. If you look through the opening at the top of the comforter, you can see a yellow hair scrunchie.
She doesn’t stir. Morning will come soon enough.
Others on the 2000 block are restless. There’s time for jokes and theft and crack, too. A bug-eyed woman who shakes when she talks and sways when she’s silent walks up with a request.
“Hey, do you have two dollars I can get to buy a crack pipe?”
I don’t. I only brought my cell phone.
“Well, hey, at least I’m honest, right?”
Yes. At least there’s that.
Rhythmic cadences of San Francisco’s streets. Beautifully done.
This is an exceptional piece, just beautifully observed and written. Thanks for re-posting as I had missed it from before.
This sort of personal reportage is sadly missing in so much of today’s press. The value of this sort of observational narrative is rather profound in documenting the history of our area and time, and also gets at the psychological roots of such complex problems as the intersection of 16th and Mission. Please encourage more of your reporters along these lines, or better yet re-employ this fellow.
Yes there are crackheads and junkies on 16th and mission…
It is the mission after all…
It’s interesting that after so many years of awareness, this still happens rampantly, and not just after dark. As a resident of the Mission, I can’t help but use this corner- BART, Muni, Yoga and markets make it nearly impossible to avoid no matter how much I want to. Absolutely every single time I set foot on this block, it’s constant cat calling and harassment, urine smell and small piles of wet trash accumulated on the sidewalks. I maintain it is the number one worst block in the Mission.
Lil Wayne Haddddd Braidssssss ….OMG Memoriesss
Good piece. Rarely does this world receive this much reporting. It might make an interesting (occasional) “beat”.
I hung out around there about 20 years ago, and tho the violence is down, it sounds very familiar, especially the 2000 block. There were fewer hipsters and more junkies. Crack had only recently been introduced, and homelessness at the time was also a relatively new phenomenon.
To complete the picture, it would be helpful to know more about: 1) who really owns the 2000 block of Mission; and 2) how closely the police monitor and control intersection and surrounding blocks. The scene with the cop car drive by was good, but one thing the report leaves out is the presence of the Mission police station a couple blocks away.