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UN Plaza was long the epicenter of San Francisco’s drug crisis. Skaters have brought a new vibe

A person on a skateboard does a trick off a jump on a red brick skate park at UN Plaza with large glass buildings in the background in downtown San Francisco.
Skateboarder Drake Johnson jumps off a ramp in a newly unveiled skate park in U.N. Plaza on Nov. 8, 2023. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Zachariah Blade Dawson stood on a ledge with his skateboard at United Nations Plaza—the longtime epicenter of San Francisco’s drug and homelessness crises—and watched as a woman and a child made their way through the square.

“They can walk through here without a care in the world because we’re right here,” Dawson said, referring to skateboarders who have taken ownership of the public space since the city added a skate park to the plaza last fall.

“You think they would do that if it was surrounded by drug dealers?” he said as he smoked a cigarette. “You could bring your grandma down here now.”

Local officials say crime and reckless behavior have greatly diminished during the day since the park opened at U.N. Plaza. For skaters, the new park symbolizes a dramatic change in how the local government treats them. The sport was effectively banned in the plaza before.

Last week, the shoe company Adidas hosted a “skate jam” and video screening at the park with blind skateboarder Dan Mancina.

“Skateboarding was the next best crime,” said Dawson, co-owner of Low Key Skate Shop in the Tenderloin. “We self-regulate. … I guess they finally recognized that.”

A skateboarder grinds a ledge in a plaza with a domed building in the background, as pedestrians walk by.
Skateboarder Matt Blanton does a rail slide at the skate park in U.N. Plaza. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

From 2019 through 2023, U.N. Plaza, just two blocks from City Hall, was the location with the most drug overdose emergency calls in the city. The San Francisco Fire Department responded to 433 overdose calls at the plaza between Jan. 1, 2019, and Nov. 7, 2023, before the skate park opened. That’s according to The Standard’s data analysis of fire department calls with a high likelihood of being overdoses based on patient care reports filed by medics.

As part of a plan to “activate” the plaza, city officials launched a series of initiatives last year to make the area more inviting.

The plans were initially met with suspicion as vendors at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market were forced to move across the street, and others questioned how around $2 million in renovations could combat the city’s drug crisis.

Since the skate park opened on Nov. 8, the fire department has responded to about two daytime overdoses—between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.—each month. That’s about half the four daytime overdose monthly average the department logged at the plaza in 2023 before the skate park arrived.

Paramedics load a person on a stretcher into an ambulance labeled "San Francisco Fire Department."
SFFD medics load a person into an ambulance near U.N. Plaza on Wednesday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

However, the number of overdoses in the plaza has remained steady. An average of 12 people have overdosed in the plaza monthly since the skate park opened, as overdoses are occurring more frequently at night.

The data provides an imperfect picture of overdose calls at U.N. Plaza because the fire department logs calls to the nearest intersection. To get a count of calls to U.N. Plaza, The Standard selected intersections that have a clear entrance into the public square. The data documents calls between Jan. 1, 2019, and Jan. 19, 2024.

Drug Crisis Epicenter

During the pandemic, the city sanctioned a homeless encampment, known as a “safe sleeping site,” across the street from the plaza. That site closed in preparation for the return of the Pride Parade in 2022. 

Then, for 11 months in 2022, the city operated the Tenderloin Center, a supervised drug use site, in the plaza. Staff at the facility reversed 333 overdoses, but the center closed as some alleged it attracted criminal behavior to the area.

A person in white stands by a sign for a support center on a city street, with tents and belongings nearby.
Lisanne Seharton waits in line for services outside the Tenderloin Center near U.N. Plaza on May 10, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Following the closure, the city turned its efforts toward revitalizing the plaza. In December 2022, the Department of Emergency Management constructed a mural of trees and installed speakers blasting classic rock & roll, meant to “reinforce the area as an arts & cultural district,” where the Tenderloin Center once stood. 

In August, the city hosted a four-day carnival in the plaza that featured a Ferris wheel, a 100-foot super slide and spinning teacups.

In November, just before world leaders descended on the city for the APEC summit, Mayor London Breed unveiled the skate park and activity area, complete with chess tables, pingpong tables and an exercise space. The plaza’s fountain, designed to represent the continents of the earth, was also refurbished with new plants. 

In a statement, Breed’s office touted the renovations as “proof of what’s possible when we work together to deliver safe, clean, and vibrant public spaces to our communities.”

A large group of people including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, watches a skateboarder do a trick on a rail in a newly unveiled skate park in U.N. Plaza on a sunny day in downtown San Francisco.
Mayor London Breed joins elected officials, Tenderloin residents and community partners to celebrate the reopening of the U.N. Plaza, which includes the debut of a new skate park, on Nov. 8, 2023. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

But the root of the problems once seen at the plaza has not been fixed; these problems have simply been moved away during the daytime. The total number of overdose calls in the city has remained consistent, and many overdoses are still reported in the plaza at night. The city experienced a record number of overdose deaths last year, losing 806 lives, according to preliminary data from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.

Around 8 p.m. Thursday, a reporter for The Standard saw more than 100 people gathered at the edges of the plaza, hawking wares and using drugs as police cars sat parked nearby. Skaters rolled through the skate park in the middle of the plaza, while a new art display of LED plant fixtures glowed fluorescent colors.

“Don’t come here at night still,” Dawson, the skate shop owner, said. “Don’t be stupid.”

Starting in June, city, state and federal agencies began a collaborative effort to stamp out drug activity in the area around the plaza.

The San Francisco Police Department said in a statement that it’s focused many of its efforts on stopping drug activity in the area. However, the department said it’s still looking to further address drug activity at night but refused to give additional details.

“U.N. Plaza and the surrounding area where children and families come to enjoy our city is not an area where we will tolerate drug dealing or drug usage,” the statement read. “We are currently looking at implementing plans to address this 24-hour problem.”

Even the farmers’ market is doing better than many of the vendors initially feared, according to Steve Pulliam, director of the market. Pulliam said many of the market’s customers feel safer at its new location, even though it’s just across the street in the plaza between the Asian Art Museum and the main library.

Pulliam said 20% of vendors at the market have seen an increase in their business at the new location, while 40% reported no changes in their sales. Another 40%, many of whom are located on the far side away from the BART station, said they’ve seen a decrease in business, he said.

“It’s hard to say if customers feel safe because we moved or because of the increased security presence,” Pulliam said, referring to a seeming uptick of police officers and nonprofit ambassadors in the area. “They’re getting the support that we would have loved to have during the rough times.”

Meanwhile, at the United Nations Cafe, business is booming, according to Penglorn Sam, a longtime employee. Sam used to dread coming to work at the plaza, but now he can’t stop smiling as he sells coffee and sandwiches to skateboarders and passersby.

“Before, I wanted to leave. But now I’m happy to work,” Sam said. “I feel so much better than before.”

A man in a black jacket and blue gloves stands smiling on a wet brick street; blurry people by a blue cafe in the background.
Penglorn Sam, who works at United Nations Cafe in U.N. Plaza, is happy with the addition of the skate park to the area, which had been a magnet for drugs and illicit activity. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Sam, who’s worked the cash register at the cafe for six years, said he used to encounter people with severe mental illness daily. He recalled multiple times when the front window of the cafe was smashed and another occasion when someone crawled behind the counter and stole his tip jar.

But now, with the skate park, those types of incidents have decreased. The cafe has capitalized on the improvements, adding an outdoor patio where customers can eat.

Steven Rice, director of ambassadors for the nonprofit Code Tenderloin, told The Standard much of the drug activity has dispersed across the Tenderloin. 

A group of people in vests and jackets stand by a street corner, with traffic lights indicating stop for pedestrians.
Some say that the drug activity from U.N. Plaza has been dispersed across the Tenderloin, including around Turk and Hyde, where Urban Alchemy held a team meeting in August. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

At night, Rice said, drug dealers are mostly operating on the corners of Turk and Hyde streets—several blocks north of U.N. Plaza—and also at Jones and Market, one block east of the plaza. However, Rice is among those who consider the plaza’s renovations a success.

“It’s been lively. They’ve got a lot of people there during the daytime,” Rice said, noting that he enjoys eating at United Nations Cafe’s new patio. “But the drug dealing has spread out in many different areas.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at