San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood is at war. Shuttered old buildings, like the St. Francis Theater, opened in 1910, are in disrepair. For rent and lease signs line the streets. Men in old clothes ask for change and play drums on wine bottles, but young professionals with iPhones can shop at the downtown Bloomingdales. And some spaces, like the building where Blick Art Materials keeps shop, look shiny and new, with elegant columns and crisp facades.
This contrast is at the heart of Mayor Ed Lee’s plan to revitalize the neighborhood.
In a press conference Tuesday where he outlined plans for his tenure, Lee pointed to the district and the recent infusion of tech companies as evidence of that plan.
Lee wants the area to be a magnet for tech companies, he said, as shown by his recent decision to give social-media giant Twitter a tax break when they threatened to leave town. A strong relationship with the tech companies leads to job creation, he said. “They’re already signaling thousands of people that will come here or residents to be hired. So we had a mutual reason to get to know each other better.”
Zendesk, a web-based help desk, was one of the first to move in at Sixth and Market streets a year ago. And Zoosk, an online dating service, leased space in the same building this spring. They join Twitter and other tech companies in San Francisco like Imgur, Storify and Klout.
The city’s free spirit is ideal for innovation, said Zoosk co-founder Shayan Zadeh. “This infinite freedom to do your own thing seems to attract the most clever, creative and ambitious people from around the world,” he wrote recently on his blog. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’re taking advantage of the slews of tax incentives introduced by Mayor Ed Lee for pre-iPO startups.”
Blick Art Materials moved to the area two years ago, and inventory manager Alex Braboy, 41, said he’s seen a change. “If it gets companies in here it’s not a bad thing,” Braboy said of the tax breaks.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, companies with payrolls higher than $250,000 pay a 1.5 percent tax on employee pay. Lee’s plan gives companies that move into the Mid-Market and Tenderloin districts a six-year exemption.
Just up the street from Blick, Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers is on the edge of the revitalization.
Owner Sylvia Yi, 43, said she moved in after she was courted by the mayor’s outreach program. “We wanted to be part of the rebirth,” she said.
Down Sixth Street, however, is a stark change from the upscale shops. There are liquor stores and pawnshops and graffiti-laden walls. Further down, there’s an XXX adult video store that offers “more viewing time.”
Braboy has noticed a larger police presence and cleaner streets. “People are less afraid to come into this part of town now,” he said. “But there’s still a ways to go.”
The pier doesn’t look like much. Just rows of cars on pavement, sweaty from a recent rain. The San Francisco Giants game is on at Red’s Java House along the Embarcadero, and in the distance you can see AT&T Park, where they would complete a four-game sweep of the Cubs. The Bell M. Shimada, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel, is the only boat docked — at the far end of Pier 30-32, almost two football fields away.
Mayor Ed Lee has plans for this place. He calls his push to bring the Golden State Warriors, with a privately financed new arena, his legacy project.
But it’s more than that. For him, it’s sports for the love of it.
Bringing in the Warriors would take some of the sting out of the city’s spurning by the ‘49ers, who have a deal for a new stadium in Santa Clara. It won’t be easy, though. Lee will have to fight to bring the Warriors to the bay. He said he’s developed relationships with Warriors owners Peter Guber and Joe Lacob.
“They have to know they can have somebody they can trust in the government here,” he said. “It’s like in basketball. You just give me the ball I’ll go to it and score.”
Lee was not supposed to be mayor — he didn’t like the politics. He liked working behind the scenes. But when former mayor Gavin Newsom left the job to become lieutenant governor, he embraced the job with a tenacity that old friends recognize from his battles to prove himself on the basketball court.
He’s not a tall man. His hair is gray and he wears glasses. He has a mustache and he likes to laugh, but he can quickly switch to a more serious tone.
He grew up in Seattle, and his father died when he was 15. His mother was a garment worker.
He’s met his wife Anita while in Hong Kong in 1974. They have two adult daughters, Tania and Brianna.
“Deep down, he’s a very humble man,” his friend, prominent San Francisco lawyer Dale Minami said. “He never wanted to be a politician.”
Minami recruited for Lee for the Asian Law Caucus after Lee got his law degree from from the University of California, Berkeley law school in the late ‘70s. The first time Minami met him, Lee led a strike at the college in favor of affirmative action.
“He took a bit of a risk there,” Minami said. But he was impressed by Lee’s passion and gusto. Lee was a fighter, but not in the traditional sense. He was smart, self sacrificing and a good negotiator. Minami said Lee made $19,000 a year so he could fight for the rights of people with Asian descent. And on Sundays, they played basketball.
Minami played high school varsity basketball and a little in college, and he said he didn’t think much of Lee on the court the first time they played.
“I thought, ‘He’s guarding me? He’s shorter than me even. I’m going to abuse this guy.’’ It didn’t work out that way, Minami said. “He was so quick and so strong. He played gracefully, and he was a little guy like me. He was a terrific defender but he could also shoot. I was very frustrated by his playing.”
Minami remembers how Lee always played point guard, and how he stayed cool and collected. Even with other players, usually other lawyers who were super competitive, he just had this sense of humor and a laugh that could diffuse any situation. And his attitude toward how the game was played, Minami said, was respectful. He understood the context, and where he stood in it.
He played tennis, too, with his college roommate, Hawaii Attorney General David M. Louie.
Louie said Lee understood tennis is a sport where the player is totally responsible for success or failure in the game.
“It teaches you to prepare and then perform, or not, when the moment arrives,” Louie said in an e-mail. “I think Ed has put that training and mindset to use in his work as an attorney and now in his position as mayor.”
Louie said when Lee took office, he immediately took the best interests of the city to heart. Interests like a brand new stadium. Lee knows, he said, that there’s always another point to win. Whether the last one was a choke or a brilliant play, you have to focus on what’s ahead, or you’ll lose.
“Ed was quick on the court, a tenacious competitor … and always had his trademark grin on his face, whether winning or losing, because he enjoyed the game,” Louie said. “I think he approaches politics and the administration of the City of San Francisco in the same manner.”
His long-time friend, the Rev. Norman Fong, the executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center, said he thinks the stadium plan will come together because of Lee’s tact, and because of his love of sports.
“He’s always watching the ‘Niners or the Warriors or whatever,” Fong said. “He goes to all the big events.”
And, he said, Lee doesn’t like the political squabbling that San Francisco is famous for.
“He’ll find a way to get it done. He’s passionate in a humble way,” Fong said. “He’d rather be negotiating.”
If Lee wins re-election in 2015, and opens the arena on the pier in time for the 2017 season, he’ll experience a unique victory — the opportunity to cut the ribbon on a project that required all the cunning and negotiation of the man who played point guard all those years ago. The challenge doesn’t seem to bother him though, he’s used to big challenges.
“If the center’s taller than me,” Lee said, “he’s going to hurt after walking off the court.”
It’s busy at Fisherman’s wharf in the morning. The air is crisp and sharp as the bustle of joggers and sightseers battles trolley car clangs and seagull calls. Cars zip by and bikes weave in and out of traffic. For a man in a straw hat and rolled up jeans on a slow three-wheeled bike, life can be a little hazardous.
Johnny Mize starts his day at the piers, just like he has for the past 20 years. He’s a pedicab driver, and he makes his living carting people around the bay.
He only looks 55 around his eyes. The lines and cracks show more when he smiles, which he does often. He waves to all the cars and people he passes. He says no matter how much tension he encounters on the roads, it’s important to be kind.
He picks up two passengers outside the entrance to the Alcatraz Island tours. Francisco Llara and Carla Bllaces are visiting from Colombia. It’s a stuttering start as he switches from street to sidewalk, like his two-wheeled counterparts, and pedals the few blocks to Pier 39. He keeps his right hand on his thigh and looks back to talk.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I have eyes in the back of my head.”
He doesn’t own a car. When he needs one, he gets a Zipcar, a by-the-hour rental service. He says it would be great to see less cars on the road, but cars understand and respect cyclists, for the most part, and cyclists should be just as considerate. He credits San Francisco’s liberal nature for the somewhat peaceful coexistence.
“San Fran’s always been a magnet for free thinking and liberal thought,” he says. “There’s a whole alternative lifestyle culture here.”
But recently there have been collisions.
According to Chris Cochran, spokesperson for the California Office of Traffic Safety, San Francisco ranks worst out of all California cities in bicyclist, pedestrian and motorcycle injuries and fatalities. In 2010, 3,945 people were killed or injured from sort of traffic fatality.
“Pedestrians have always been a problem because of the dense nature of the city,” he said. “It’s not like L.A. where everyone drives cars.”
Recently, two pedestrian deaths made headlines. Mize remembers an incident last year where a cyclist hit a 68-year-old woman after running a red light. She died.
In March, a bicyclist plowed through a busy intersection in the Castro district and hit a 71-year-old man, who also later died.
“It’s a big city,” Mize says, “and some bicyclists go overboard.”
Mize is not that type of cyclist. He’s learned over the years how to stay above the fray.
“It’s almost like mental health therapy,” he says. “I very much see a simple life as a pedicab operator and a tour guide as a spiritual life.”
Mize leases his bike, and he pays about $120 a week to San Francisco Pedicabs, and the rest he takes home. He starts at 10 a.m. and works to around 3 p.m., so he can get his boys from school.
“Sometimes I barely get by,” he says, “but on good days I can make around $300.”
He lives for the movement, in the moment, and when he pedals, his legs are taut like sharp rock. Llara, his passenger, is staring at them. “I really like his legs,” Llara says to his friend, “he’s really in shape.”
After he drops off his Colombian passengers, he rides to Pier 9, a long wooden walkway framed by lampposts, with lines of nails like tracks in the wood. The ride gets bumpy, but he does what he always has when things get that way. He moves forward.
He grew up in Missouri, and then he joined the Navy. He worked in an office as a desk clerk. He fell in love, and had some kids. Then came what he calls an unbelievably bad divorce. He lost his boys Shawn and Raine, now 12 and 15. It took years to get custody back. Like the streets he rides, those days were dark and treacherous, he said, but he always had the bike. No matter what happened in his life he could come out and feel the sun and listen to sound of the city.
“It’s so great to have that opportunity,” he says. “To be spontaneous and in the moment and leave those troubles behind.
“It’s through suffering that we find ourselves.”
Mize pauses at the end of the pier and takes off his bracelet of wooden mala beads, used for Buddhist meditation. “As much as I can,” he says, “I use my job to help generate Buddhist concepts of kindness and compassion.”
Down the street, he passes another pedicab driver named Matt Swanson, and they stop to talk. They chat about the recent deaths and the dangers of pedaling through the cramped streets.
Swanson describes Mize as “very Zen, very calm.” He says he appreciates his good attitude, one that embodies a pedicab driver. Then Mize is back on the move.
He knows his bike and moves in and out of traffic with gestures and nods, sometimes slowing to merge, but always moving. He enters Aquatic Park, where the lapping water rolls over the sand. He drops to a low gear to rumble up a hill. The blond hair on his hands shines in the sun. He holds out his hand to point things out. People on the street barely glance, but he waves when they do. Cars give him space and don’t honk.
He heads downtown, and the cars move faster. It’s all tall buildings now. Cars to the left speed by. He’s in the right lane going fast. There’s a white postal service van in the way. He looks to the left and the cars don’t let him in. The van gets closer. Too close. He puts out his left hand out to merge, and right before he hits the van, he slides over, smooth and safe, moving forward.