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Drug market confessions: Exhibition sheds light on fentanyl crisis

A note pinned to a yellow background reads, "A recent disagreement I had was about stealing. My stance was... least I can breathe" with words blurred.
An art exhibit encourages people to talk about arguments, opening the door to some interesting tales. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

An exhibition at San Francisco’s Main Public Library has, in part, become a confessional booth for people living on the city’s fringes, giving insight into the minds of apparent local shoplifters and others enduring the drug crisis.

The city’s notorious open-air drug market recently moved to the library’s steps as the crackdown, which began last spring, shuffles the scene around the city. But at the new home for the illegal market, an exhibit provides catharsis for the crowd.

The exhibit invites anyone who spots it to reconcile a recent argument by answering prompts on a slip and hanging it off a yellow tower that reads, “Were you able to express another point of view?”

A yellow board with notes asking about expressing points of view, with a grand building and a clear sky in the background.
Submissions to an exhibit outside the library offer insights into life on San Francisco's streets. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

The Exploratorium is behind the “Flip Side” exhibit, which the National Science Foundation funded. It was recently unveiled alongside a rash of initiatives, including a skate park at United Nations Plaza, which aims to revitalize the troubled Civic Center neighborhood.

However, when The Standard visited the display on two different occasions over the past week, it revealed the admissions of people who said they had shoplifted from retail stores or shed light on the horrors of being addicted to drugs in the city.

None of the cards leave a designated space for the name of who is writing on it, but there are three printed prompts, which read, “A recent disagreement I had was …,” “My stance was…” and “If I were to argue the opposite, I’d say …”

One anonymous poster told of a recent argument they had about “boosting,” a slang term for shoplifting.

“A recent disagreement I had was about boosting an Adidas suede jumpsuit,” the anonymous poster wrote.

“My stance was,” they explain, “get it while it’s hot.”

Another participant phrased it even more bluntly.

“A recent disagreement I had was about stealing,” the note reads. But “at least I can breathe,” the writer confusingly argues. “If I were to argue the opposite, I’d say … you a sick bitch.”

Another poster described finding someone face down on the street and struggling with the decision of whether to call them an ambulance.

“My stance was … I see he is in distress [and] needs help,” the note reads.

However, clearly, the city’s drug crisis has taken its toll on the anonymous writer.

“If I were to argue the opposite, I’d say … I taking a break,” the note reads.

A yellow sign with text "Flip Side Turn an argument on its head," two inverted speech bubbles with chair icons, under a blue sky.
The exhibit is part of the city's efforts to enliven the Civic Center neighborhood, which has long struggled with the drug crisis. | Source: David Sjostedt/The Standard

“There are many topics discussed at ‘Flip Side’ and, in my experience over the past 11 months, does not back up the notion that most or even more than a few of the comments have been centered around our city’s substance abuse issues or homelessness,” said Shawn Lani, who explained the Main Library and Urban Alchemy partnered in 2023 to install 14 interactive social science on the Library’s Fulton Plaza steps. “These issues are certainly part of the landscape and we welcome people’s willingness to share their life circumstances.”

“We have collected these over three years and many are heartfelt expressions of what it’s like to be misjudged,” the statement added. “The topics vary, but it would be factually incorrect to say that any large percentage of these contributions center on substance abuse or criminal activity.”

The city’s librarians say security issues have made it increasingly dangerous for them to do their jobs. During a rally last week, workers protested unsafe conditions, calling on the city to fund more security guards.

“There’s tension in the air when there is no trained security around to de-escalate situations,” Jessica Choy, a part-time librarian, said in a press release.

But a library spokesperson said security incidents are down 13.8% year over year as of February. Seven of the system’s 28 branches recorded zero incidents, and six had just one during that time.

City librarian Michael Lambert said the library is the safest it has ever been.

“This is due, in part, to the pro-social activities that have been implemented in Fulton Plaza,” Lambert said. “Focusing on one aspect of this installation doesn’t do justice to the Middle Ground installation and the connections it promotes. Every day, I pay it a visit, and I see all ages and types of people interacting together in a positive way.”