Gambling and Prostitutes Thrive at Mission Street Den

The gambling den at 133 Lilac St. as seen from Lilac Alley. The Lilac Alley address is the back of the old Fizzary building on Mission Street. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

For the second time in a year, an illegal gambling den and brothel has taken over the same building on Mission Street, bringing late-night parties, prostitutes, and back-alley fights to the surrounding area, according to three neighbors who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

The gambling den, located at 2949 Mission St. between 25th and 26th streets and up until mid-2015 a soda and candy shop called the Fizzary, has shifted from the front of the building to the back, neighbors said.

Parked cars clog the narrow Lilac Alley that runs behind the building, their occupants entering and leaving the den to gamble, play pool, drink, and solicit prostitutes. The parties generally begin after midnight on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The activity keeps some neighbors up until dawn.

“There’s been fights in the back alley, people urinating, vomiting,” said one neighbor. “There’s no parking in the back alley. All these people park back there, honking all night long and it’s hard to sleep.”

Arguments have erupted between neighbors and men parked in the alley, the neighbor said. A friend of his was once threatened when he told someone to stop urinating in the alley, and he sometimes hears yelling from late at night.

A spokesperson with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said 133 Lilac St. — the other address of the building — has “current” complaints against it for selling alcohol without a license. She said she could not comment on whether an investigation had been launched by the department.

Last year, the den operated out of a storefront on Mission Street, but in its new iteration, it now brings dozens of men and women to the residential Lilac Alley behind the building. There, attendees are patted down at a graffitied door before going into the den, one of the neighbors said.  

They enter near 2 a.m. and often stay until 8 or 9 a.m., sometimes spilling out into the alley to smoke, drink, or chat.

Lilac Alley during the day. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Lilac Alley during the day. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Neighbors are concerned that the gambling den will become violent, as it did last year when a man in the den was shot in the leg and sent to the hospital. Two months after the shooting, the den was shut down when the landlord evicted the tenants.

“What it escalated to last time was a shooting,” said one neighbor, who said she feels unsafe as a woman walking into the dark alley late at night and seeing groups of men corralled outside her home. “I’m definitely staying away from the alley.”

Given the large amounts of cash being gambled in the den, another neighbor said the operation was ripe for a violent robbery.

“I can only imagine what people might be thinking when they know there’s a pile of cash in that spot,” he said.

Mission Local was unable to speak to anyone who had entered the gambling den and brothel in its new location.

Last year, a man who entered the gambling den told Mission Local that he saw cocaine use, cash gambling, and prostitutes inside the building. People gambled and drank downstairs, he said, and could go upstairs to buy sex.

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After being shut down in January this year, the den re-opened in late September, a neighbor said. Mondays through Thursdays, the activity is mild — some men come to gamble but don’t create much noise, neighbors said. During the week, women enter the den to clean, carting away bags of empty bottles and hauling in more liquor, neighbors said.

On weekends, the club-goers come. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, men and women park their cars and block the alley all night long, neighbors said, preventing easy access by residents.

“The alley is full of cars, and there have been times when I haven’t been able to get into my spot,” said a female neighbor, who has lived in the Mission for 12 years. Many of the homes in the residential alley have garages that are blocked by the parked cars, she said.

The police have been unresponsive, said neighbors. While many have not called the cops, one said he has called multiple times only to have his problem brushed off as a noise complaint.

“It’s the same thing as at the Fizzary, the exact same thing,” he said. “When I call the police it’s the same thing. They either don’t come or they don’t do much.”

Illegal gambling dens have been a problem in the Excelsior in the past and prompted a special hearing on the matter last year. Their removal is tricky, the police say, because they require constant surveillance to obtain probable cause for a search.

Carlos Manfredi, a police spokesperson, said the department has been working with the City Attorney’s Office to examine what is legally required of them before they can move in on a den. It’s difficult to gather evidence of wrongdoing, Manfredi said, when officers cannot see the gambling, prostitution, or illegal liquor sales with their own eyes — and cannot do so without a warrant.

“We need to have that concrete evidence. We have to have a reason to go inside the building,” he said. “It’s one of those things where we can only do as much as we’re allowed to by the law.”

The neighbor said the den is led by the same pair of men who ran the den in 2015. He said he recognized the pair from last year and that they moved their gambling to a spot on Capp Street before moving back to their old building.

Two business owners on the block with storefronts on Mission Street said they had heard rumors that the den had re-opened in the same building, but knew nothing themselves because they only open during the day.

Two other neighbors said they had heard the den was open from their roommates, whose units are closer to the alley and hear noises late at night or have had parking troubles.

A neighbor said other city agencies are aware of the operation. Recology has been blocked from gathering garbage in the alley several times by the parked cars from the gambling den, he said, and workers there said they called the Municipal Transit Agency to have the cars towed away.

The neighbor said the transit agency told them to call the police to have the cars towed. But, when they called the police, they were told in turn to call the transit agency.

It’s unclear why the space was rented to the gambling den operators twice. The building’s owner, Roberto Sanchez, also owns and founded the Playa Azul restaurant near 29th and Mission streets, which burned in June during a five-alarm fire that struck Cole’s Hardware next door. He could not be reached for comment.

A leasing agent for the property, Eugenia Rafael with Ayala Realty, has hung a large banner facing Mission Street advertising the commercial space in the front of the building for rent. Rafael did not return requests for comment.

The gambling den was only shut down last year after its landlord evicted Taylor Peck, the owner of the Fizzary who also lived in the building and had been duped into sub-leasing his space to the den. The den operators, being his sub-tenants, were also evicted.

Peck had gotten so frustrated with the late-night activities he spray-painted his own building to call attention to the city’s lack of action in cracking down on the joint.

But neighbors fear for their safety and do not understand why the den has evaded police shut down despite being in the same building and run by the same men as a year ago.

“Why hasn’t there been any action? Why is this taking so long?” one neighbor said. “Why is it happening again and why is no one taking any action?”

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3 Comments

  1. Jay

    Among other reasons, this is why no one respects the SFPD. When you really need them, they are not there for you. Saying they need a warrant with rampant “probable cause” everywhere is complete BS. In essence, they are completely useless to normal citizens. We’re on our own in this town folks. Stay safe.

  2. Marcos Flechero

    Man we can’t have anything fun these days? Thanks for being the local snitch line mission local, lets get rid of everything underground left in this city. We wouldn’t wanna scare off the new san francisco elite would we?

  3. jim thirtin

    4182b Mission st gambling/brothel den closed today by SFPD. Good job. This gamblin/brothel den had been in operation for years. Finally SFPD brought some peace to the neighborhood. Congratulations.

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