Early in September 2013, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) conducted a sweep of a prominent tourist and commercial area of the city to combat a perceived increased in drug sales. The Powell-Mason cable car terminal on Market Street attracts thousands of riders daily and is a crucial component in the network’s projected revenues of more than 25 million dollars (SFMTA FY2013-14 Adopted Operating Budget).
In addition, the Powell-Mason terminal is located adjacent to a revitalized commercial district catering to retailers like GAP, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and anchored by the massive Westfield San Francisco center with 1.25 million square feet of retail space for Abercrombie & Fitch, Bebe, Juicy Couture, Kate Spade and 160 other such retailers. Moving forward, the city is preparing for further commercial development in the area with the construction of Market Street Place, a mall adjacent to the Westfield center that will offer 250,000 square feet of retail and promises to be the “center of the Bay Area’s retail future.” Given the economic potential this area offers the city, it is little wonder that the San Francisco police department cracked down on drug crime in the area. But what was surprising was the focus of this targeted enforcement – men, many homeless or transient, playing chess along the sidewalk of a public street.
Public chess in a corner of Hallidie Plaza along Market Street has a long history that spans several decades. While the exact date when public chess began in the area is difficult to establish, it is clear that they “ have been a fixture since at least the early 1980s.” Though the games have an impromptu and somewhat unregulated appearance, there is a system governing the games, as a 2010 story on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco describes.
“Before I can sit down, I have to pay John Powell. He’s in charge out here.
“So each individual player gives me one dollar for one hour,” says Powell. “However many games you can get in that hour that’s up to you.” Powell learned how to play chess hanging around the tables. Now he comes everyday to make a living. “Well yeah, I do sustain myself in modest … very modest means, you know, because right now chess is a luxury. The way we do it out here is a luxury.”
There’s nothing luxurious about these games. The tables and plastic chairs are worn, the stretch of street is dominated by empty storefronts and strip clubs, and the players range from quirky to rag-tag. But even so, people of all kinds come to play chess here.”
The games, often a source of activity, respite and income for the homeless and transient of San Francisco, created a sort of small scale socio-economic melting pot in the city by also attracted college students, retirees and other local residents.
According to media reports, in early September the SFPD initiated a crackdown on public chess games in the Hallidie Plaza area after receiving “a huge number of complaints about fighting and drug dealing” in the areas surrounding the games, including “100 service calls on the blocks between Fifth and Seventh streets in August alone.” Captain Michael Redmond, the SFPD officer responsible for ordering the crackdown, contends that the chess players were not believed to be directly involved in illegal activity but games needed to be shut down because “the criminal element had moved in.” More specifically, Redmond declared the games created “a big public nuisance” that led to an increase in arrests for sale and possession of narcotics over the past six months.
Local merchants celebrated the break up of the chess games by arguing that “sales have been up” and “it’s been a lot quieter” since the police crackdown; however, asnational media and Comedy Central’s Colbert Report brought increased attention to the police action, San Francisco residents responded with calls for civil disobedience and other forms of activism to counter the crackdown. On October 6th, Occupy Chess, accompanied by the Brass Liberation Orchestra, organized public chess games on Market Street to protest the police action. To offer a more long-term solution, San Francisco Beautiful began a fund raising campaign to raise money for a permanent home for outdoor chess in the city. While many other activists took to blogs to voice their opposition to the crackdown, many of them slowly accepted the SFPD’s explanation that the chess games provided cover for drug crime and, once this cover was removed, the drug crime would diminish.
Unfortunately, the SFPD’s claim concerning a rise in drug crime in the area surrounding the games is shaky. GIS analysis of drug crime incidents within a 100-meter radius of Market Street between 5th Street and 6th Street fails to demonstrate a dramatic or sustained increase in drug-related incident reports over the six months preceding the crackdown. Furthermore, as indicated in the intensity map below, the public chess games are not the epicenter of drug-related crime in this area of San Francisco; rather it is the area west of the chess games – on Leavenworth between Turk and Golden Gate– where drug-related crimes are far more prevalent. However, given the absence of posh commercial real estate in this part of the Tenderloin neighborhood, it is little wonder that SFPD drug eradication and enforcement efforts were redirected towards the tourism and commercial center of Market Street.
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that after the SFPD executed their crackdown on the chess games, drug-related crimes in the 100-meter radius of Market Street between 5th Street and 6th Street didn’t diminish; if anything, there was a slight increase in drug crime after the SFPD action. When the chess games disappeared, drug crime remained in the area; a fact that effectively undermines the SFPD’s entire rationale for shuttering the games. Based on this evidence, it is easy to infer that the motivation for the SFPD’s crackdown was not rooted in drug-related crime; but rather, that a revitalized Market Street, with its throngs of tourists, high-end retail and well-heeled clientele just isn’t the right place for homeless and transient men to be playing chess.