As any visitor who takes an antique streetcar through the mid-market district finds out, there’s much more to San Francisco than just tourist attractions. Many mayors have tried to revitalize the area with some success, but the stretch is still dominated by vacant buildings, Single Room Occupancies (SROs), strip clubs, and populated by the city’s outcasts.
A little after 6am, a young woman in a spaghetti strap tank top is out on her morning run, a skinny transvestite in spandex pants says 'hello,' and a rowdy group who look like they’ve been up all night has gathered down on the corner of Stevenson Street. The corner of Market and 6th doesn’t feel dangerous so much as busy – and almost everyone stops to say 'hello.' A man named Michael wheels over his shopping cart of goods for sale. He’s got everything from high heel shoes to a stack of skater magazines from the last decade. Even with his varied collection, he says it’s hard to get customers.
“Usually other people don't like shop around when they see street people. They say ‘nah,’ even if you have something you want,” he says.
Soon after, two of the neighborhood regulars nearly bump into us with their shopping cart. The men look like they’re in their early fifties, but they’re probably much younger. One has a scraggly mane of blonde hair. He goes by David the Lion King. His partner has a costume covered in patches – which is what he calls himself. They say they've known each other for 30 years, and they’ve spent a lot of that time wandering the streets of San Francisco.
“It's been a long night,” David says, taking swig of vodka from the bottle. “It's been a long three nights.”
Around 7am, a fight breaks out right in front of Rite Bi. As people erupt in shouts and punches, a small, grizzled man pulls out a big folding knife and starts swiping. The fight unfolds underneath a sign advertising the beautification of 6th and Market Street – a stated goal of former Mayor Gavin Newsom. After a few tense minutes the man with the knife takes off.
Down the street at Sonoma Liquors, the owner, Nick, is busy serving early-morning customers. He’s been in the area for 35 years. Speaking about the neighborhood, he says: “It will never change. The mayor himself could change it. He could clean it up. He never come around here.”
Back outside a white kid in his late teens stops by the Windsor Hotel to talk with an older African-American man. It’s clear they’re talking about drugs. A few minutes later the older man comes out of the entryway with something clenched in each fist, and they head up together toward Market Street. They walk past Passion Cafe, a new French restaurant next to the Rite Bi. The “specials” board advertises Beouf Stu Germain with Julienned vegetables. The cafe opens at 8am, just 45 minutes after the knife fight that happened outside its front door. The contradictions continue.
This story originally aired on June 10, 2010. Read more from Sam Harnett's 24 hours on 6th and Market at The Bold Italic.