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Cop Shop: Where Dot-Com Meets Street Economy

A crisp wind pushes the smog off to Oakland as evening descends on Valencia Street.  Swank SUVs double park awaiting valets, as confident blonde girls in Capri pants and their khaki-clad men mob the sidewalks, ramping up for another night of wining, dining, and loud talk.

A block away lies a parallel universe where young junkies nod-off in rank smelling doorways and crack heads, stooped and nervous, scour the ground in the vain hope of finding one more hit.

Capp Street, Juilian, 16th, and Mission—they should be the names of battles.  This is Dopetown: zoned for crack smoking, dick-sucking, panhandling, and vicious beat downs; the played-out, filthy end of the road where black tar heroin competes with necrotizing fasciitus for the higher body count.

Here, in the northwest corner of the Mission, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, the yuppie playground collides head-on with the slow motion urban abattoir of the street economy.  Given such contradictions, it is no coincidence that gentrification here began to get frenzied around 1994, just after the construction of a prominent new police station at 17th and Valencia on the site of an old Pepsi Cola bottling plant.  This highly visible cop shop—one of the biggest and newest in the city—helps keep a lid on a neighborhood wrought by social tensions, and for that reason the building and its impacts are worth a closer reading.

“Police presence cuts down on crime,” explains Edmund Shum, one of the key architects of the new station.  “I’ve seen it before, like when the Bay View Station was built, the value of the houses around it rose.  After the Mission Station was built, the same thing, all these dot-commers started coming in, up and down Valencia Street.”

The new cop shop is indeed an impressive sight, one that telegraphs a dual message of threat and invitation, combining an old style military look with the pastel colors favored in S.F. zoning laws.  Local people we spoke with described it as looking simultaneously like a “frontier fort” and “a condominium.”  But the new station is not entirely unique.  Rather it is one example of a larger architectural movement that is itself a subset of the “community policing” revolution that is sweeping America.

Community policing can mean almost anything; it ranges from New York City style zero tolerance enforcement to setting up police hotlines for the removal of abandoned cars.  In all cases the movement wraps itself in the cloak of police-community collaboration.

According to Architectural Record, community policing involves both “sending the police into the community and the community into the police station.”  Whatever the case, community policing has not changed certain fundamentals: racism and brutality define American law enforcement.

Interestingly, the police first used the site of the new station in 1992, during the Rodney King riots, for the mass internment of protestors after the city jails were packed.  And it was in the new station that cops beat, pepper-sprayed, and smothered to death Mission resident Mark Garcia.

The new Mission Station involves both physical and ideological improvements over the old one up Valencia near 24th.  Opened in the early 1950s, the former station looked like a fortified bunker with its raised brick entrance and galvanized steel fencing.  Inside, the station was cramped, chaotic, and cluttered with desks and electrical wires.  Walled in on two sides by adjacent buildings, the station’s flat roof was vulnerable to attack.  In the ‘70s, the Haight Street Station was bombed and a similar device was placed on the roof of the old Mission Station, but never went off.

The 17th Street outpost presents quite a different profile.  Some two hundred feet long, the station takes up almost a quarter of a city block.  Its metal roof—broken in the middle by a raised lookout tower—is sharply angled, so as to deflect would-be bomb planters.  The outer walls are constructed with earth-toned, bulletproof “CMUs,” or concrete masonry units.  Surveillance cameras watch the surrounding sidewalks.

The “friendly” cop shop also features windows running the full length of its façade.  Such a design would have been impossible before now, both monetarily and ideologically.  In the past, Shum explained, police stations in San Francisco didn’t have windows below seven feet, for reasons of security.  But the new priorities of community policing—that is “bringing the community into the police station”—have justified the huge sums required to furnish bulletproof glazing, meant to safeguard against drive-bys.  These pricey windows convey a message of openness and accessibility.  This is important because order and obedience in an unequal society requires that the police be seen as legitimate: citizens must feel comfortable with the cops, or at least with the physical and architectural center of police power.

On the purely functional tip, there is room for 90 “black and whites” and 20 civilian cars in a lot that skirts the two backsides of the building.  This also gives a clean line of sight around the entire structure, further enhancing security.  The 20,000 square foot station houses the headquarters for the city’s 50-officer Juvenile Crime Division, gang units, narc squads, an armory, offices, interrogation rooms and, as the official literature says, “a community room, full handicapped access and expanded locker facilities.”  And the jail cells are “built with tile and laminated glass to prevent injury to inmates and to facilitate supervision.”  Because the City requires that 2 percent of all construction costs go to art work in public buildings, we find an absurd stone sculpture in the lobby.

But there is more than community policing’s concern about public perception shaping this station.  For police planners the new facility fits into a vision of future disaster.  Built to withstand a huge shaker, the Mission Station is part of a “seismic triangle” of three super-secure police buildings intended to serve as bases of operations in a chaotic post-quake landscape.  That’s fair enough.  But, read from another angle, this station already serves that function: it keeps order in a landscape strewn with social, rather than physical, wreckage and as such it guards against any rupture in the city’s plate tectonics of class and race.


Heather Rogers

Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.

Christian Parenti


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 00-JAN 01

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