I-TEAM: Small park, big problems


The neighbors of Tutubi Plaza in the South of Market neighborhood want the parklet ripped out. The San Francisco Police Department has received 23,000 calls for service from there over the past three years -- more than 20 a day. So, Dan Noyes took his camera to document the problems, and had some close calls.

One morning, Noyes watched neighbor Ken Hornby's dogs get scared by a Tutubi Plaza regular nicknamed "Needles." Then, he takes out syringes and starts to use them. Hornby has warned Needles before to stay out of the area, and tries again.

Ken Hornby: "You need to go, you need to go."
Needles: "Son of a bitch, I'm going to tear your whole head off. Are you ready, son, to win like you're in a f__in' boxing match?"
Noyes: "Go away, no, no, no."

To calm the situation, Noyes told Hornby to take off, but Needles continued to rage.

"Now, I'm going to tear your ass off, you're on private property now," he said.

Some days, Noyes saw others openly smoking pot in the parklet. What appeared to be middle school students lit up, before they saw the camera and took off.

Noyes found discarded needles, and met Tutubi Plaza regulars such as parolee James Simms, who were willing to describe the scene.

Simms: "There's meth, pot, crack or whatever it is, it's a little stopping ground or whatever, you know what I'm saying?"
Noyes: "All right here?"
Simms: "Everything goes."

The neighbors tell Noyes, it hasn't always been this way.

"Before the park was there, it was a relatively safe area," Warren Jones said. "People didn't hang out there. Ever since they put that parklet in, there's been all kinds of trouble."

The city spent $100,000 to create Tutubi Plaza by blocking off this part of Russ Street at Minna Street south of Market Street and hiring an artist to stamp and paint a mural onto the pavement.

The San Francisco Arts Commission put out a video in 2011 to celebrate.

Meg Shiffler, SFAC Gallery Director questioned the artist, "And now we have this sweet little bird hanging on the side of the weathervane. What kind of bird is that?"

No question, everyone involved had good intentions, but Tutubi Plaza's neighbors tell Noyes, the project has soured for them.

"There's a saying, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions,' and the parklet should have been named the road to hell," Frank Garvey said.

One of Garvey's art-piece robots cut the ribbon to open the plaza -- his studio and performance space is right next to it. So, Noyes asked some neighbors to meet there, one recent rainy weekend.

"I've seen gangs sit there, I've seen drug users there, I've seen people selling drugs," Christopher Hegenmeir said.

"It's a safety issue, I think," Zac Wollons said.

"I avoid walking through there, I'll go completely out of my way and farther around, I tell people not to walk down that street and go through that area," McKenzie Minke said.

The neighbors tell Noyes the parklet attracts a bad element from 6th Street, which is lined with SRO hotels, porn shops and a needle exchange.

They've been taking pictures, documenting the problems -- the city's prized parklet, strewn with trash. Hypodermic needles too numerous to count. People sleeping there day and night. It's so bad that neighborhood children have stopped using the adjoining playground.

"I think the most shocking thing was when I saw an elderly man with his pants down defecating right by the playground," Evelyn Fotiadi said.

"Even blatantly having sex in the afternoon, or in the morning, or late at night," Hornby added. "It's just out of control."

A surveillance camera on an apartment building at Tutubi Plaza caught a couple in the act -- too graphic to show most of it on television.

The neighbors want it all to stop, for the city to rip out the parklet.

"These problems have destroyed the potential for us to feel like we are in a community because there's so much fear," Garvey said.

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim lives nearby and often walks through the area.

"I have personally never felt fearful on 6th street or on Tutubi Plaza," she said.

The neighbors tell Noyes that Kim has not been responsive enough. They've been peppering her office with complaints for more than a year, but Kim says she wants to give Tutubi Plaza another shot.

"There was so much resources that were poured into make that a nice plaza, I would hate to see it just go away," she said.

Mohammed Nuru heads the Department of Public Works, which designed and installed Tutubi Plaza. He told Noyes he wants to try better lighting, surveillance cameras, and fencing to discourage bad behavior at Tutubi. Only after those fail would he consider ripping out the parklet.

"Opening up the street will not solve the problem at this time," Nuru said. "I think we need to give it a chance before we take that step and if we all meet and that's the consensus, then that would be a discussion we should have."

The neighbors have presented a petition with more than 150 signatures to remove the parklet. The police captain in charge of that area tells Noyes, for now, it's up to the neighbors to reclaim Tutubi Plaza. The more they use it, the more that bad element will go away. But, that could be a tall order for the neighbors to face the type of people Noyes met.

This story began with a tip, and you can reach Dan Noyes on his Facebook page, Twitter, or 1-888-40-I-Team.

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