Will shutting down two businesses really 'clean up' the Tenderloin?

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It was noon on the Jan. 30 when I broke the news to 24-year-old Amer Mousa that the City of San Francisco was filing a civil suit to shut down Walid Abdulrahman, his friend and owner of the Razan Deli on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin.

Two hours earlier, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr held a press conference out the front of the Azaal Market on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk streets in the Tenderloin to announce the dual lawsuits against the markets owners, Jaber A. Algahim and Walid Abdulrahman, for maintaining a public nuisance. Our efforts to get comments from Algahim and Abdulrahman were not successful, but Mousa spoke freely about the situation.

The City's complaint says the deli is a safe haven for criminal activity and that Abdulrahman either allows it to continue unabated or is actively involved himself. It is not hard to understand the logic behind the suit; shut down problem businesses and the neighborhood will heal. But in a City with a history of going after small businesses as if they are the root cause of all criminality, the question remains about whether this is really about helping the neighborhood or about being seen to help.

Abdulrahman does not speak English well, so it was Mousa who answered the phone. When first asked about the store's involvement in illicit activity, Mousa became flustered, confused, and denied any knowledge of drug activity within the store. “Maybe outside, in the neighborhood, but I wouldn't risk my job like that,” he said at the time.

Both Abdulrahman and Mousa are from Jordan. Abdulrahman is a close friend of Mousa's father, so close Mousa refers to him as “uncle.” Mousa came to the U.S. on a greencard in 2009 and has been studying to be a nurse. He met his future wife in school and they married in 2010. Every day he heads into San Francisco from Daly City to work in deli from 10pm until 6am to support his young family.

The Razan Deli is a pokey little deli open 16 hours a day that does not sell alcohol and keeps little stacked on the shelves. It caters for the homeless and street population with candy, burritos, and cheap pre-made frozen meals. Bigger items are left to liquor-selling competitors across the road whose owners refuse to say anything about what happens outside their doors, lest some doped-up gang member decide to make an example of them. When asked, they just stare at the ceiling and say they put their faith in God.

Outside, Ellis Street is quiet, at least during the day, with the exception of a woman in a wheelchair and another leaning against a wall who mumbles something about robbery and cackles to herself. Stopping at any intersection along Turk Street invariably means being approached by dealers. The greatest concentration stand just outside the Azaal Market while they chatter constantly and offer passers-by narcotics with incomprehensible street names.

The lawsuit was the result of a two-year undercover operation by the SFPD that claimed to have found evidence of a “pattern of illegal activity” at each business. The complaint and police statements claim the deli acted as a safe-haven and intermediary for drug dealing and buys stolen goods for resale. To build the case, undercover officers visited a local Walgreen's and asked the business to donate items before trying to re-sell the product to businesses in the Tenderloin, while slipping in the fact that they were stolen goods.

Police statements say Abdulrahman bought stolen goods and helped facilitate undercover officers buying drugs from the dealers loitering outside the shop. Mousa does not deny that Abdulrahman took the bait on the two occasions he was present. “Look, we're not angels,” he says. “When the undercover police came, they gave us razors, you know like Gillette, and my uncle bought some stolen merchandise for personal use. He didn't buy all, he just bought some.”

If true, that would be a very different accusation than the one being made by the city in its civil suit, which has asked the court to close the business and impose an initial penalty of $25,000, additional penalties of $2,500 for “each act of unlawful business practice” and costs for the suit and investigation. In a criminal prosecution, Abdulrahman might receive up to a year in jail for receiving stolen goods of around $200 in value and a separate charge for being an accessory to the sale of a small quantity illicit substances. That is, assuming he is guilty of everything the police say he is. And they have evidence.

Yet none of that matters. Abdulrahman cannot afford an attorney; he will appear self-represented. Either he will be sent into bankruptcy or he will be run out of business. This legal fight seems lopsided, to say the least.

The City of San Francisco has a history of going after small liquor shops and markets in the Tenderloin and the Mission on a crusade to shut down criminal “safe-havens” or “magnets of drug dealing,” as Matt Dorsey, media liaison for the City Attorney's Office, framed it during a phone conversation about the city's tactics in choosing to bring a civil claim against Abdulrahman. “Civil cases have lower standard of evidence. Effectively we're going to try and shut the business down. As they say, the City's Attorney tries to take their money. The District Attorney puts people in jail,” he said.

The theory goes that shutting down such places will force the criminal element out, leave them nowhere to go and ultimately make the neighborhood a safer place. Randy Shaw, Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) and editor of BeyondChron, has endorsed this view and has said he “cheered” the litigation.

Shaw's hostility for the Azaal Market, alternatively known as the Barah Market, was plain. His tone indicated the market's continued existence was a personal slight. “We sued the Maryland and the Barah markets in the 90's and the Maryland hasn't been a problem since,” said Shaw, a housing right attorney turned Tenderloin political power broker. Shaw said he welcomes any city efforts to try to clean up the neighborhood. But it's hard to see how this action will make much difference, particularly given the neighborhood's open criminality.

“I called the police more than seven or eight times, from the cell phone,” Mousa said. “What did they do? Nothing. They know who the drug dealers are. There's just two to four drug dealers on the whole block. Most of the others just work for them. If police don't come and do their job, what am I supposed to do? Start shooting? ... If I keep calling the police I'm going to get shot. All I can do is tell them to get outside the store. Go sell your shit outside the store.”

Abdulrahman's shop will close, that seems like the likely outcome. Once the shutters are drawn, the City Attorney and the Chief of Police will hold another press conference and claim a great victory in their fight to “clean up the neighborhood” in the name of “families and the elderly.” It will sound good on television, and read well in the papers. Everyone will clap and agree that the streets are a safer place for it, but it seems like a huge stretch of imagination to blame the Tenderloin's problems on these two small businesses.

“I'm a full time student, I have a wife, I'm not living by myself, I cannot live by myself or with some buddies, I need to have a home. After the store closes, what's going to happen to me? There are no jobs right now. Even if I get a full-time job, how much am I going to make?” Mousa says. “This is just going to destroy two families, two households. What's going to happen? Nothing's going to change. There are still going to be drug dealers outside... This neighborhood is broken. It was broken when we got here, it will be broken when we leave.”

Comments

build some high-value businesses and housing. It's a cesspit and a disgrace to the city.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 6:26 pm
Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

The Nazis leveled the Warsaw Ghetto and put its residents in concentration camps where many people were summarily executed, murdered in brutal medical experiments, worked death, or allowed to die of hunger and sickness.

If you are equating putting in some quality housing with rounding people up and killing them as part of a genocide scheme, then you are either insane or so stupid that you would be better off being insane.

If you have something intelligent to post, then do it. Otherwise, get out of your basement, or the slimy rock you have been living under, and get outside and get some fresh air to clear your head.

Posted by Chris on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

Right on Chris - backing the razing of the Tenderloin. You're a real peach.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

Guest, I assume you are the same misguided person who posted earlier.

Where in my post do you think I am "backing the razing of the Tenderloin?" I will answer for you--nowhere did I advocate razing the Tenderloin.

Also, under historic preservation and tenant protection laws that would be impossible. Not to mention, no developer has the funds or the desire to tear down and rebuild the entire Tenderloin.

I am glad you think I am a peach. I think you are a nut. Now, if you have something intelligent or constructive to add, then please do. But, if you just want to post crazy ramblings, just go away.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

because the original comment said this in reference to the Tenderloin: "raze it."

This is the Webster definition of "raze":

a archaic : erase b : to scrape, cut, or shave off
2
: to destroy to the ground

Your support of the original comment indicates your agreement with the poster that the Tenderloin should be erased, destroyed... razed. Incidentally - the Nazis razed Warsaw to the ground too. There's no better definition for it than that - RAZE.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

get rid of disease, crime and other urban ills.

There is little of any cultural or architectural merit in the TL, and it's a cesspit of crime.

Most SF'ers avoid it almost as much as they avoid Bayview and Hunters Point.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 2:40 am

Guest, I am glad you can find a dictionary. Perhaps, you can also find a remedial reading class, too.

The point of my comment, which I think even a 5 year-old could have figured out, what was not to endorse the original poster's comment with respect to razing the Tenderloin (which was used in the headline, not in the body of his or her comment, and I assume was meant to convey the message of "let's get rid of the bad elements of the Tenderloin and build some quality developments that will make the place nicer for its residents," not in the sense of "let's blow up the whole neighborhood and kill all its residents.") Rather, my point was to criticize you for being an offensive idiot who compared a call for redevelopment of the Tenderloin (even if it could have been more delicately phrased) with Nazi genocide.

Jumping immediately to inflammatory language about Nazis does two things: (A) It makes you look like a melodramatic idiot who uses reckless rhetoric, therefore undermining whatever legitimate point you may be trying to make, and (B) it insults the memory of the millions of victims of Nazi brutality.

The only question I need to ask is why I have wasted valuable minutes of my life responding to an idiot?

You were wrong to make the Nazi reference, enough said. Tone down your rhetoric.

Posted by Chris on Feb. 23, 2012 @ 11:21 am

People who live in the TL shouldnt have to put up with that crap!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

Seems to me that this editorial is basically saying "so what if these stores are involved in criminal activity, will closing down two places which are a problem really make a difference overall?"

This is basically the guardians answer to everything. Do nothing anywhere ever.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 7:54 am

invasive government?

Does the store hand out bags if so the owner should be educated, then his store closed and the owner should be paraded around town by the Bay Guardian Red Guard.

Is this essay a joke?

Does anyone at the Bay Guardian have even the slightest sense of self awareness?

Posted by matlock on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 9:21 am

For those who don't live in the neighborhood, the Barah Market is on the same block as the police station on Eddy and has been there for a very long time. Who knew?!? Apparently, neither the chief or DA - until the tv cameras had a very slow news day.
After the bust, the retailers & their runners moved onto Polk Street for a few days.
When even kids know where to score, what's the cops' excuse. Fools or knaves?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2012 @ 9:56 am

I think the point that the writer is making is that shutting down a business doesn't take away the problem. You need to hit the core of the problem, not a business stuck in the middle of it. Do the business owners really have control over the level of crime surrounding them? No, this does nothing to hit the problem at its core. There is a sociological problem here. People are living in squalor because they are raised in it and with few opportunities, the cycle continues. The real resolution for such problems isn't an instantaneous one. It involves investment in early education for children raised in these places and it involves greater investment in the long term unemployed to assist them to have a productive role in society. In the short term, stronger penalties, police vigilance and investigation into the source of the drugs would go a long way. You need to hit the heart of the problem - where are the drugs coming from? The writer isn't saying that the business has committed no wrongs - it obviously has. But the writer is emphasizing the fact that the business isn't the core of the problem and the removal of the business (and others like it) does nothing but make people feel as if something is being done when in reality, nothing changes.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 23, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

The people causing havoc in the neighborhood are, people put up in hotels by the city, those people come from some place else, or they come in for the day to deal drugs from the East Bay or Hunters Point.

Not everything in the world is the fault of the government not burning money in the street.

Posted by matlock on Feb. 23, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

This writer is clearly making a valid point that you can't make a scapegoat out
of the little guy and call it progress.

If you can't see that then wake up and smell Rome burning!

This guy was not involved in anyway with the drug business, what good does
it do to put small business out of action when illegal activity is ongoing in the
street?

Posted by GuestQueenie on Feb. 24, 2012 @ 7:07 pm
Posted by Guest on Feb. 24, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

meant to dazzle and distract you from the fact that the city has no intention of cleaning up the Tenderloin. There are several possible answers as to why: (1), SFPD and/or powerful political interests get a cut of the Tenderloin drug trade, (2), busting drug dealers might prove unpopular with their relatives in the neighborhood who vote, (3), going after drug dealers could prove hazardous to the lives of policemen, (4), criminality should be encouraged, (as per the Leninist/Maoist practice), because it contributes to the 'atomization' of society. Perhaps a follow-up article by the BAG to put pressure on the Board of Supervisors to do something to cut this cancer out of the Tenderloin?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 25, 2012 @ 12:59 am

Don't worry, the 100,000 new tech yuppies moving to San Francisco will clean up the Tenderloin through displacement alone. Its the last holdout... MIssion? Clean, gentrified, boring, filled with 20something white kids... SOMA, same. What's left the TL and the Bayview. Fortunately for the Bayview 20yo white programmers are afraid of black people...

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

never do - reduce poverty, crime and squalor in this city's cesspots.

Bring on more yuppification. Whoever thought more sushi and cocktail bars was somehow a bad thing?

Posted by Anonymous on Feb. 27, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

as far as razing the TL and SRO's, what needs to happen is holding the property owners responsible for the activities of their tenants, which is why this article is so ironic. It's more than ironic, and I did a blog post and referenced two SFBG articles about it here

http://www.bluoz.com/blog/index.php?/archives/1408-Randy-Shaw-Crime-Crus...

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 7:54 am

so, the implication being is do nothing while a bunch of junkies run wild and the clowns who own these fronts for criminal activity skim a living off them and their misery AND the neighborhood?

as far as this "i suddenly don't speak english very well" - first, learn to speak english as well as they speak united states dollar currency in english ... and second, gimme a break - in THIS town - you have not one but two businesses who have operating licenses ad nauseam but don't understand the legalities of not using their place of business as a front for drug activity. open the store next door to where the owner of these places live then ....

Posted by Guest on Mar. 07, 2012 @ 1:30 pm