David Guzman’s job gives him a front-row seat to perhaps the most troubled corner in all of San Francisco: Seventh and Market streets. The 34-year-old has managed one of the city's few 24-hour public restrooms for just three months. Night in and night out, he says, he sees humans at their worst.
At 8 p.m. on a recent Monday, 20 feet from Guzman, the corner was thick with people. Some were under the influence; one man lay beside a bus stop shooting up into his leg. Nearly everyone else was busy purchasing goods from stolen cigarettes to clothing at what many call the city’s main black market, just a stone’s throw from City Hall and the headquarters of companies like Twitter and Dolby.
During his shift, several people openly bought and sold drugs, a fight broke out over $20 and a man with mental illness allegedly tried to abduct a woman’s baby. Police on patrol attempted but failed to disperse a crowd of some 60 people filling U.N. Plaza.
“There are human beings who are out here suffering and dying,” said Guzman, perched on a tall metal stool. A fetus was recently discovered in the toilet he manages.
Since June, city, state and federal authorities have poured resources into the area around Seventh and Market streets in an attempt to stamp out growing lawlessness since the Covid pandemic, making it the central point of the city’s current political battles.
Despite such efforts, the city is on track to set a record for fatal drug overdoses this year, and 20% of reported drug crimes in 2023 have been logged within a block of Seventh and Market.
At least eight government agencies have put manpower into the effort, which also includes park rangers, Public Works employees and employees for the nonprofit Urban Alchemy. Recently, city planners began construction of a skate park in the now mostly fenced-off U.N. Plaza.
“That’s the No. 1 area of focus right now, ” said San Francisco Police Department spokesman Evan Sernoffsky. “The chief himself has been specifically going out on numerous occasions to spread the word: The party is over.”
Many observers, from city employees to drug users and plaza regulars, say conditions in the area have become less sordid during the day. But at night, the intersection is a mass of humanity and suffering spilling into the street, and many say city efforts to secure the corner amount to a shell game at best and theater at worst.
Market Street intersects with Seventh Street at the edge of the tree-lined, brick plaza that commemorates the signing of the United Nations charter in the city in 1945. San Francisco’s grand City Hall dome looms in the distance. Before the pandemic, Market Street, the city’s central thoroughfare—now temporarily closed for construction—was typically filled with bus and trolley traffic, as well as groups of cyclists heading to and from the Financial District.
The city’s central library, the Orpheum Theatre, the Asian Art Museum and UC Law, San Francisco, are all within a block. The company formerly known as Twitter is three blocks away, and a Whole Foods opened last year within sight of the plaza’s central fountain. This spring, it closed, with management citing rampant theft.
This stretch of Market Street has been a focus of city improvement efforts since at least the mid-2010s. Before the pandemic and amid a tech boom, those efforts were bearing fruit, albeit unevenly. Still, the area has had a reputation for crime and drugs for decades.
Then Covid hit, and the shutdown forced workers, students, library users and arts patrons to stay at home. On the streets, though, things spiraled.
The city sanctioned homeless encampments a block away and put hundreds more unhoused people in a hotel at Eighth and Market. With the absence of a weekly farmers’ market and the foot traffic of government employees, commuters and theatergoers, the plaza deteriorated.
One night in early August, Police Chief Bill Scott paid a visit to the area with his assistant chief and other command staff. A few of those loitering at the intersection parted and moved away from the police brass, but many others stayed defiantly put, unfazed. Some yelled, “Fuck the police!”
“We literally walk around the block, and they come back again,” said Sernoffsky, who was with the chief that night.
Data shows Seventh and Market is at the center of San Francisco police drug enforcement activity.
While police data collection does not include the specific intersection, the three locations that have racked up the most drug incidents so far this year encircle it: Seventh and Mission streets, U.N. Plaza, and Stevenson and Seventh streets. Altogether, more than 20% of the nearly 2,220 drug-related incidents SFPD recorded through mid-October 2023 took place within a block of Seventh and Market.
Drug violations include all drug-related crimes, ranging from simple possession to dealing allegations. A single incident can involve multiple people.
Overdose data also puts the area at the center of the city’s deadly epidemic. The Seventh and Market intersection straddles two census tracts, small micro-neighborhoods used to analyze government data. The San Francisco Fire Department responded to 389 overdose calls between those tracts in the first nine months of 2023, by far the largest total in the city, according to statistics obtained by The Standard. In all, those overdoses accounted for about 16% of the citywide total during that period.
The troubled intersection draws people for all kinds of reasons, from its public restroom and open space to the easy access to drugs and transportation. A half block away, there is a check-cashing store, free meals and a dollar store. Numerous Muni lines cross the intersection, and BART’s Civic Center Station is beneath it. But the real draw, say regulars, is the fact that U.N. Plaza’s is the city’s central black market.
“It’s the center of the hustle,” Deborah Vetter, 57, said as she smoked a cigarette in her wheelchair in the plaza on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “People who go out and steal from stores” come here to sell, said Vetter, who has lived in San Francisco for a decade. You can buy everything there from coffee to meat, Tide laundry detergent to cigarettes and toiletries at a discount.
The intersection was lightly populated at 9 a.m. on a recent Monday. Some commuters rushed to work as a city employee power-washed the brickwork near the public toilet. Around the block, people sipped coffees and ate $5 croissants. Urban Alchemy workers, as well as police and park rangers, seemed to be everywhere, approaching anyone who appeared to be in distress.
Joseph Profit, a big, 60-year-old man from the Bayview, was monitoring the public toilet as a city contractor in a white jumpsuit cleaned it.
Profit credited the enforcement efforts for the palpable improvement he’s seen during his early morning day shift in recent months.
“Their presence carries weight,” Profit said of the police.
But San Francisco’s central square has yet to be completely transformed during its relatively placid daytime hours.
A short walk up Seventh to where the street dead-ends into McAllister Street, five figures stood against a fence. Two of them were freebasing from glass tubes over heated tinfoil. A doorway down, a woman lay unconscious in front of a shop.
Back on the plaza, an Urban Alchemy worker named Frank approached a group of people sitting or lying on the steps of a federal building. Frank, who declined to give his last name because he said was not allowed to talk with the press, checked on a man on the steps who was slumped over. His goal? Make sure “he’s not dead.”
Frank said he mostly offers to help people connect to services such as drug treatment and housing or, if they refuse, some water.
Along Market’s south side, Chris Worth and two of his friends hunched over the sidewalk. Two police officers had just told them to move, but they stayed put. The cops moved on. Worth, who is homeless and uses fentanyl, said law enforcement launched a crackdown on open-air drug use and informal commerce in advance of Fleet Week in early October, when visitors flood the city to watch an air show by the U.S. Navy’s famed Blue Angels and the parade of ships, among other family-friendly activities.
“They shut down the market for a few hours,” he said, noting that selling and using in the Plaza was back to normal levels soon after police shut it down.
Beside the entrance to the BART station at the corner of Market and Seventh, a woman who only gave her name as Melissa laid out T-shirts and other clothes for sale. One shirt with a bunny on it was $5, and another with a bunny and sequins was $20. At some point, she spotted the police approaching, and she rolled up the clothes in a black plastic bag and prepared to clear off.
Minutes later, a couple walked past the BART station, heading toward Hayes Valley.
The couple, Andy and Karen Hughes, were in the Bay Area on business from the United Kingdom, and they noted the blatant suffering on the streets of San Francisco compared with the wealth they’d seen around other parts of the Bay Area.
“It’s quite shocking to come to this city,” she said. “The divide.”
As soon as the sun went down, the mood of the corner and the people on it changed.
Guzman watched as folks lined up to use the toilet, slept on piles of plastic luggage, strummed guitars or talked to themselves. One woman made clucking noises like a chicken. Trash filled the street, and people high on drugs lurched about in a dazed stoop. Well-dressed couples hurried by as men on scooters whisked up and down Market Street.
Through it all, Guzman watched his post, helping people to the toilet and making sure it ran properly.
“There’s actually a lot of people who are regulars,” he said. “A lot of people are just trying to make enough to survive.”
During his Monday shift, Guzman said he witnessed emergency workers rush to the scene to treat two people who overdosed and break up a fight. Police came and went, temporarily pushing the crowd around the corner but never dispersing it. Officers were rarely out of sight. Roughly every 20 minutes, they rolled up to the corner, sometimes on foot, sometimes in patrol cars.
By 9 p.m., the corner was as busy as it had been all day. Two men chased each other through the crowd yelling, followed by a pair of BART police. The crowd hollered, “Cops, cops!” as the officers approached and broke up the fight, which turned out to be over $20.
Soon afterward, a San Francisco fire truck and an EMT van rolled up to the corner as SFPD patrol cars converged and officers jumped out with their guns drawn in response to the alleged baby snatcher.
Within minutes, the corner had calmed.
One of the police officers, Catia Avila, stood beside the EMT van talking to the baby’s mother. Meanwhile, her partner dealt with the “mentally disturbed person,” who Avila said tried to take the child.
She added that a bystander had punched the 30-year-old suspect in the face before police arrived.
At 9:30 p.m. a police SUV pulled up onto the plaza, and the officer behind the wheel said through a bullhorn, “The park is closed, folks. Gotta find somewhere else to hang out.”
The crowd parted, and the SUV drove away. The people returned.
By 11 p.m., Guzman’s shift was over, and the corner was packed. On the southwest corner of Market and Seventh streets, two drug dealers took cash from a buyer and began to retrieve their wares before noticing they were being watched. They fled.
Across the street, three men stood by a light pole, wavering. One took a pull from a pipe, wobbled and then fell. His companions pulled him shakily to his feet.
Police department efforts to showcase the chief’s hands-on handling of the corner have backfired, with some San Franciscans criticizing such actions as little more than theater.
On Oct. 6, Scott, the police chief, and Deputy Chief David Lazar walked past thickets of people along Seventh Street with a department cameraman in tow. A handful of people scattered as the two top cops approached, but many remained where they stood, shows a video by the Twitter account @FriscoLive415.
“Fuck the police!” someone yelled as the chief asked two men sitting in the doorway of a business if they needed help.
Another social media post from September on Twitter/X captured Scott and an officer on Market Street approaching a man who was apparently smoking fentanyl and called out the chief for not making an arrest. Scott pushed back: “For context, we approached this gentleman to check on him and offered him help. He declined. He was not using drugs that we could see, and he wasn’t committing any crimes.”
The department stressed that the chief has repeatedly made visits to troubled corners. But police declined to quantify the resources the department has devoted to Seventh and Market.
The SFPD argues that the problems of open-air drug trafficking and illegal sales at Seventh and Market, and in many other locations, did not arise overnight and will not be solved in a day or a week.
In June, the city opened its multiagency Drug Market Agency Coordination Center, which is located near the plaza and led by the SFPD. Its mission was to coordinate enforcement and reduce the number of open-air drug markets.
City park rangers, who have been tasked with enforcing park rules at U.N. Plaza since February, have issued 74 citations since Feb. 1.
Illegal vending, which is typically punished with citations and fines, is also a focus of the city’s enforcement actions in U.N. Plaza, according to the Mayor’s Office.
In the last four months, the Department of Public Works has issued almost 500 verbal warnings to people selling black market goods in U.N. Plaza and repeatedly impounded abandoned merchandise, along with one cache of raw meat. But no one there has been cited by the agency. A spokesperson explained that illegal vendors often abandon their belongings to avoid enforcement during the day. The hawkers can relax somewhat in the evening hours because Public Works enforcers knock off at 5 p.m.
The police department, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for data on the number of arrests for drug offenses and sales of illegal goods at the corner.
Stella Culhane, 25, who manages a small business on the block, said she has seen the recent efforts by the police have little to no impact.
“It’s really sad,” she said. “I love San Francisco, but it’s made it hard to want to live here for much longer because I just don't feel very safe walking around. At the same time, I feel really sad and hate having to see how many people are suffering and have to turn to drugs to face the horror of their lives.”
Not all people in the area have such a dire opinion.
John McCormick, 30, who works for a nonprofit in the neighborhood, argued that it’s a vibrant, multicultural area filled with law students, business people and families that amounts to more than just “people doing drugs.”
McCormick isn’t happy with the city’s recent crackdown at U.N. Plaza. He echoed the oft-repeated criticism that such efforts just push the problems elsewhere.
Chris Smith, 53, a methamphetamine user who gets around in a wheelchair, agreed that stepped-up arrests in the area won’t solve much.
“It ain’t gonna change. There’s too many people,” he said. “They can’t keep up with us.”
Noah Baustin contributed to this report.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org