Mad as Hell on San Francisco's Westside
By Joel P. Engardio
Pervasive crime and violence were among the problems Peter Finch railed against in his Oscar-winning performance of a distraught television news anchor in the 1976 film Network.
“Nobody anywhere seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it,” he told a nation of beleaguered viewers. They followed Finch’s call to get out of their chairs, open the window and yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The classic scene has been prophetic for 40 years – except on San Francisco’s westside. The quiet and bucolic neighborhoods that spread West of Twin Peaks to the ocean seemed immune to urban plights elsewhere.
While property crime is up 17 percent citywide, there has been a 47 percent spike on the westside.
“It was a kick in the gut and a wake-up call,” Paul Barbagelata said about his car being stolen in front of his West Portal home -- only a few weeks after his neighbor’s car was also stolen. “I’ve lived in this wonderful neighborhood my entire life and had become laissez faire about how safe it was.”
Barbagelata said he blames Proposition 47, which reduced the penalties for many property crimes. He said the thief of his car had been arrested three months earlier for burglary and released. Then after police caught him for stealing the car, he was released again.
“This guy keeps getting back out on the street and that’s not OK,” Barbagelata said. “The police are doing all they can, but Prop 47 ties their hands. We need to put pressure on the district attorney’s office to address the revolving door of property crimes.”
I think pushing for more police resources and patrols on the westside will help the most. Years of low crime justified less police presence, which made the westside easy pickings.
Barbagelata and his neighbors want city officials to address the crime wave, no matter what it takes. They circulated a petition and gathered 500 signatures.
“This is a shot across the bow that we want change from our political bodies – our mayor, district attorney and supervisor,” Barbagelata said. “It’s their job to keep us safe and the status quo isn’t working.”
Barbagelata is one of many westside residents telling City Hall they’re “mad as hell.” A vacuum of leadership around the crime wave has motivated residents all over the westside to spontaneously start organizing.
When cars parked near the popular tiled steps at 16th Avenue and Moraga Street became the target of smash and grabs, Rachel Miller-Garcia and several other neighbors banded together to post homemade warning signs.
In a nearby neighborhood, several residents who work in tech are discussing how to install motion-activated, Internet-connected security cameras that cover the length of their street.
Andrew Mihailovsky spoke up at community meeting to share a great idea: educate dog walkers to look for suspicious activity.
“People have to walk their dogs every day,” said Mihailovsky, who walks his hound-terrier mix in Golden Gate Heights. “They don’t have to be vigilante group, but they can be eyes and ears.”
When J.C. Wallace learned that the elderly couple living behind him experienced a home invasion on a Sunday afternoon, he put flyers on the doors along his street in Merced Manor calling for a neighborhood meeting. Nearly 20 people showed up to Wallace’s living room to discuss starting a neighborhood watch.
“I subscribe to the broken windows theory of keeping up a neighborhood,” Wallace said. “If you tolerate a broken window, or graffiti, or people breaking into homes, it can lead to assault or murder.”
Violence has already plagued some of the 36 home break-ins since January on the westside.
Another home invasion near Wallace’s home involved thieves putting a gun to a woman’s head, according to news reports. I spoke to a woman in Golden Gate Heights who was working from home when a man broke into her house and hit her with a baseball bat.
Andy Segal volunteered to form the first-ever crime and safety committee in the 42-year history of the Greater West Portal Neighborhood Association.
“This is out of control,” said Segal, whose car has been broken into five times the past nine months on Wawona Street. “We don’t want to live like this.”
As a westside homeowner, I don’t either.