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The Excelsior's Gambling (and Nightclub) Problem 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2015

Nothing much goes on at a former clothing store on Mission Street in the Excelsior District until about 5 p.m., when a man starts wheeling hand trucks loaded with cases of beer into the "empty" store.

The "guests" start arriving after midnight, and, according to workaday residents and merchants in the area, they sometimes stay all night, stumbling out onto the street at 6 or 7 in the morning. Further up the block, at another supposedly vacant storefront next to a Round Table Pizza, a tightly packed semicircle of what police say are video poker machines is visible from the street. On a recent evening, a large man resembling a bouncer could be observed escorting visitors with baggy clothes and shifty glances in and out before locking the door and disappearing back inside.

For several years now, the Excelsior has been home to a collection of modern-day speakeasies: gambling dens and illegal nightclubs that open up shop in one of the 36 empty storefronts in the mostly working-class area on San Francisco's outer rim. At any given time, there could be as many as 10. Possibly connected to Norteno gang members, a handful of the establishments have been raided — most recently, the all-night beer emporium on Nov. 9, where officers also found cocaine on the floor and made two arrests.

"All my officers know about them," says local police Capt. Joe McFadden, who noted that one of the "nightclubs" even earned a review on Yelp.

But they keep coming back, flummoxing law enforcement and frustrating the local neighborhood activists watching their home turning into an underground, low-rent Reno.

"This has gone on long enough," says May Wong, a lifetime neighborhood resident who wrote a letter last month to District Attorney George Gascón, begging him to do something (the Nov. 9 raid resulted in drug charges and liquor citations, but the after-hours party has continued). "Our patience has run out. Nightclubs, gambling — what else is going to pop up here?"

The cause seems to be simple enough. Running an unlicensed bar or hosting gambling is a lucrative enterprise. Landlords — some of whom are absentee — are more than willing to accept cash up front to rent a long-vacant property, no matter who the renter is.

The solution is less clear.

Businesses that hosted Vegas-style "sweepstakes games" on computer terminals were shut down thanks to civil lawsuits over the past two years. The same strategy might not work against an underground speakeasy, which police must stake out for months to build a case before making a raid, McFadden says. An economy strong enough to attract legitimate businesses would eliminate the opportunity presented by empty storefronts, but for some reason, the city's tech-fueled transformation has yet to reach the Excelsior.

In the short term, Supervisor John Avalos, who represents the area, is pointing the finger upstairs. If Mayor Ed Lee took a strong enough interest and made ending the late-night tomfoolery here a priority, he says, enough city agencies would figure out a coordinated solution and the games would stop.

Lee has pledged to meet with Avalos later this month. Meanwhile, Wong fears things will have to get worse before they get better. "Nobody's gotten killed — yet," she says ruefully.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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