A vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

I don’t think this Atlantic piece on “porch pirates” in San Francisco is meant as an ad for Ring video doorbells (and Nest cams, too), but it achieves that goal nonetheless:

It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of Fairley’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that Fairley realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property-crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime subgenre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.

Fairley and her neighbor do not agree — will likely never agree — on what happened in the minutes prior to the photos of Fairley going up on Nextdoor. Fairley has sworn that the boxes she picked up were from down the street, where they had been laid out for the taking, and that her 6-year-old daughter was helping to haul them to their home in the public housing down the block.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a black lives matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.” Margett snapped photos of the mother-daughter haul act — in one, the young girl sticks her tongue out at the camera — and, after calling the police, uploaded them into a Nextdoor post: “Package thieves.”

So, Fairley told me two years later, sitting in an orange sweatsuit in a county-jail interview room, that was the real acceleration of the epic feud of Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance that would tug at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city. The clash would also expose a fraught debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. As Fairley says, “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Parts of potrero hill feel like the sort of charmed place where Amazon deliveries could sit undisturbed on your stoop. The hill’s western ridge, overlooking the city, is filled with cozy bungalows and Victorian houses that once were affordable for San Francisco’s working and artistic classes but have appreciated during the tech rush; now most of them sell for well over $1 million. The public hospital where Fairley was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.

Meanwhile, the hill’s eastern and southern flanks are still lined with decrepit 1940s-era bunkers of public housing between patches of scruffy grass and concrete patios. The unhoused have set up camp around the neighborhood too, the city’s homeless population having spiked 30 percent in the past two years. This sometimes has led to hostile and politically divisive clashes, like when a luxury auction house at the foot of Potrero turned its sprinklers on the tents clustered outdoors in 2016. (The auction house claimed that the sprinklers were meant to clean the building and sidewalks, and were “not intended to disrespect the homeless.”)


  1. Jeff R says:

    “Unhoused.” FFS, Atlantic.

  2. Ezra says:

    Doesn’t matter if the perp is caught. If less than about $900 theft [at least in California] charges very menial. Not a felony.

  3. Graham says:

    I’m not too sympathetic to either party. I likely wouldn’t want to live near either one of them, but this line made me a little sympathetic to Fairley:

    “The public hospital where Fairley was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.”

    That’s got to be near enough the last straw of gentrification by the plutocrats of the progressive oligarchy.

    Hospitals should be named after Catholic Saints, Jewish mountains, so to speak, or have solid WASP names like [Insert City Name] General.

  4. Kirk says:

    What the oh-so-politically-correct forget is that the police and courts don’t exist to protect the lawful; they exist to protect the criminal from the rightful rage of impinged-upon lawful, and to regulate the whole process.

    At some point, people are going to quit calling the police, and instead either deliver their own private justice, or they’re going to find an alternative informal course to take that the government is not going to like. Private security forces that supplant and overtake the government-run police are not out of the question, and I believe that they’re still in California law.

    I don’t give it too much longer before people grow impatient with it all, and decide to hire some thugs to come clear the streets around their businesses of the derelicts, who will be carted off into the wildlands and abandoned like so many pets that later turn feral and prey on the locals, who then shoot them dead.

    You don’t want to do the job of maintaining order in the streets, Mr. Man? Someone else will take up the job in your stead. At which point, the locals will begin wondering why they’re paying taxes, and Hey! Presto!, we’ve got a preference cascade and a revolution in public administration going on.

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