An out-of-town journalist’s splashy piece about the Mission district fires is chilling alright. But it has little to do with the Mission.
San Francisco magazine
June 27, 2017
Is San Francisco burning? And are greedy landlord arsonists to blame for a perceived uptick of fires in the Mission district? Last week, GQ published an article by journalist Jon Ronson that wanted desperately to show that the answer was yes. But the article was all smoke and no fire.
Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and The Psychopath Test, is one of the most widely respected writers working today. But this is a big miss.
Ronson opens the article in a coffee shop in the Mission district in San Francisco. He’s here to meet a landlord—“nice-looking, in his early 50s, with shaggy hair and tinted glasses”—who served a prison sentence for plotting to burn down a residential apartment building he owned.
We are never given the landlord’s name. Instead, Ronson gives him a pseudonym—Gideon. He gives the building a pseudonym too—the Mountain View. “I found Gideon’s name buried deep in the cuttings. His crime had been barely reported. I e-mailed him to ask if he’d talk to me as a cautionary tale, a warning to other San Francisco landlords who might be contemplating arson.”
Ronson doesn’t give us very clear details about this “barely reported” crime. He does tell us that it’s an SRO that Gideon bought at auction for $10,000. Soon, the tenants, which he calls “the bottom of the population pool,” began to sue him for civil rights violations.
At this point, Gideon met a man named “Frank,” who was in trouble for financial crimes. He cut a deal with authorities to wear a wire and lure Gideon into burning down his building. Gideon agreed to pay $65,000. Their plot lasted five days, before the authorities arrested Gideon of plotting to commit arson. He served seventeen months in jail.
Ronson never tells us where in the Mission Gideon’s building was, but he wants us to think it’s in the neighborhood. He says that he met with Gideon in a cafe near the Mission. At another point, he describes Gideon as though he's “speaking directly to a Mission landlord plotting arson." As soon as he leaves Gideon’s story, he jumps to an interview with a resident of the Graywood building, an SRO just outside the Mission, which burned down.
The problem is that the most likely person that Ronson spoke to isn’t a Mission landlord. Instead, he’s Richard Earl Singer, a Tiburon resident, who in 2011 pled guilty to paying an FBI informant $65,000 to burn down a building he owned in Oakland named the Hotel Menlo. (See what Ronson did there? He swapped out one building named after a Silicon Valley suburb for another—Mountain View.)
Singer’s case is far from obscure, and it’s far from the Mission. Here’s a dispatch from CBS during the trial, which describes the allegations against him. “Federal investigators accuse Richard Earl Singer, 44, of telling an informant last month that he wanted the seven-story Hotel Menlo destroyed in order to get the maximum insurance payout,” adding that Singer agreed to pay the informant $65,000 and that “the Hotel Menlo and another owned by Singer are embroiled in civil litigation claiming the buildings are uninhabitable.”
Here’s the Berkeley Daily Planet story covering his plea, which identifies the other building as the Ridge Hotel, also in Oakland. Here’s the Marin Independent Journal covering the case. Here’s the East Bay Times. Here’s the FBI press release. Here’s the Street Spirit’s story, here’s the Mercury News, here’s ABC, here’s SFist.
This, if it’s true, raises a major question: Why did Ronson and GQ think that an interview with a Tiburon man who plotted arson in an Oakland building in 2011 shed light on the Mission fires?
This isn’t the first time that Singer has been discussed in connection with the Mission fires, even. In 2015, Al Jazeera covered suspicions of arson in the neighborhood, and identified Singer by name, as an example of how difficult the crime of arson is to prove.
Leaving Gideon—and Singer—aside, the article is marred by failing to take into account what Fire Department investigators have actually found regarding the Mission fires. Last year, in an article for Curbed, I put together a statistical analysis from public data that showed that, in fact, the Mission was burning at a slightly higher rate than would be expected from its population, but so were the Tenderloin, SoMA, the Financial District, and the Western Addition. Despite the popular narrative, there's no fire cluster in the Mission.
What we do have in San Francisco, like many cities, is an unfortunate truth that older, poorly maintained buildings that often house poor people burn more often than others do. Arson just doesn't seem to be the cause.
For example, KQED points out that the fire at the Graywood “was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to a Fire Department investigation.” No evidence that the fire was deliberately set was found. A January 2015 fire that killed one person was found to be “unintentional.” When the dollar store at 2632 Mission Street went up in flames in April 2015, investigators found code violations—no smoke alarms or sprinklers—to be part of the problem, not arson. That was also the case in the March 2016 fire that killed two.
Ronson doesn’t cite any of that. Instead, he offers this: “As I stared at the charred walls, a passerby called out to me, ‘Was it arson or something? Then he shrugged and answered his own question: ‘I guess nobody knows.’”
Not good enough.