Commentary

Commentary: Here Comes Nextdoor, There Goes the Neighborhood

Social media platforms like Nextdoor have Richmond residents feeling uneasy about crime. The results are not pretty.

By Julie Pitta

An elderly Black man regularly strolls a quiet block in the Richmond. Jeffrey Devine is autistic and grieves for his mother, who died several months earlier, in the only way he knows how — by walking.

One sunny afternoon, another Richmond resident shoots a video of Jeffrey as he makes his way down the street. She posts it on Nextdoor, a wildly popular website that purports to create stronger bonds between neighbors. Jeffrey, the woman claims, is “casing” houses. In less than an hour, he is pronounced a threat to neighborhood safety by dozens of Nextdoor members.

Jessica Devine, Jeffrey’s niece, is eventually alerted to her uncle’s newfound notoriety. “Searching for human contact is not `casing,’” wrote Jessica. “I fear one of you, who is hyper-vigilant, will become aggressive and harm him …. Now that would be a true crime.”

A quick scan of Nextdoor reads like a crime blotter. It depicts the Richmond, long known as an oasis of calm in an otherwise bustling city, as a neighborhood riddled with crime. The portrayal is inaccurate, says Richard Corriea, a former Richmond District police captain and retired San Francisco Police Department commander. “This is still one of the safest neighborhoods in the City,” Correia states.

To be sure, COVID-19 has changed crime patterns in the City. The Richmond has seen an uptick in garage break-ins, particularly along the neighborhood’s wealthier corridors. Some attribute the recent crime wave to the dearth of tourists during the pandemic. (Tourists are, sadly, often a target for thieves.) Others blame it on empty streets. The most plausible explanation is that the pandemic simply expanded the chasm between rich and poor. 

Even so, San Francisco fared better than many American cities during the pandemic: Overall crime dropped by about 25% in 2021. Violent crime, the standard by which law enforcement measures public safety, is at a historic low.

Why, then, are we feeling so uneasy? The answer is social media and those who use it for political gain, most notably the backers of an effort to overturn the election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Nextdoor is only one of their social media tools. They’ve taken to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spin their tales of a city out of control, a narrative rejected by veteran lawmen like retired SFPD Commander Correia.

The early months of shelter-in-place saw many of us turn to social media for human connection. It should come as no surprise, then, that social media platforms like Nextdoor have experienced exponential growth during the pandemic. Backers of the Boudin recall grabbed the opportunity to reach a captive audience, cynically using social media to intensify our unease during an unprecedented public health crisis and attempting to gather supporters for their causes.

The results have been as predictable as they are ugly. In the Richmond’s corner of Nextdoor, members have called for taking up arms. One man boasted of stabbing a homeless man he discovered sheltering near his car. Another posted a video of three Latino men entering the gate of an impressive Lake Street home, the implication being that they were there to steal. The men, as it turned out, were hired by the homeowner for a renovation project. 

Not all Nextdoor crime posts are created by backers of the Boudin recall, but nearly all lead to unfairly blaming the district attorney for the pandemic-related increase in crime. No matter that Boudin is prosecuting cases at the same rate as his recent predecessors.  Somehow, the SFPD, which is making arrests in only about 3% of burglary cases, is immune from criticism.

As the City is reopening, crime is beginning to drop. Those backing the Boudin recall would have you believe otherwise. The unintended consequence is that a Black man, walking down the street where he lives, was targeted as a thief by his neighbors. Jeffrey Devine’s mother, Beverlyn, a 40-plus-year Richmond resident, worried what would become of her son after her death. “She was a pillar of the community and kind to everyone,” says her granddaughter, Jessica. “Her only wish was that her son would be OK when she passed and was very much scared to die because of this.” 

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com

10 replies »

  1. Julie is totally correct. Nearly two months ago I left Nextdoor. I find it is a sinkhole for every disaffected, smug, self absorbed and self entitled citizen to complain endlessly and mindlessly about DA Boudin and push their climate killing agenda to destroy The Great Walkway. An environmental treasure.

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  2. I agree. It’s a platform for person’s who wish to astro-turf localism and a billboard for contrived cranks. I once called out someone who was pushing a “take back the Richmond” mantra and didn’t even know Sandra Fewer had decided to not run again. Then I got bashed with the backup goons once that someone’s cover was blown.

    A lot of folks get their notions about the city and their urban reality by what they see on corporate local news stations, not from actual statistics. Crime was much worse 10 years ago. Where was the recall effort then?

    I often wonder if the SFPD old school hierarchy is purposely slow-walking their duty because they don’t like Chesa. I’m not a Chesa partisan, but I don’t think the recall is deserved. He is not corrupt and the underlying socio-economic conditions that got created by the pandemic is not due to anything Chesa did or didn’t do. What’s he supposed to do when the jails and prisons and courts close or release prisoners because of COVID?

    It’s a disgusting sham of democracy when an election in which 26% vote and someone wins with only 13%.

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  3. Julie Pitta’s opinion accurately describes the ugly prejudice and bigotry that’s causally expressed and even celebrated on Richmond Nextdoor. What it doesn’t explain is how it’s allowed to continue and flourish. The short answer is Nextdoor corporate has tasked local people, volunteer “community leads” to monitor and review the forum to be impartial and maintain “community standards”. In the Richmond, those “community leads” are the very ones in sympathy with the rampant bigotry and political agendas. They have very little oversight and unilaterally remove comments and entire postings. That explains why the remaining posts and comments are so skewed to particular viewpoints.

    Nextdoor selects community leads based on the number of members they recruit. Nextdoor further allows them to unilaterally recruit friends and similarly minded people as additional community leads. Some of the community leads are active political partisans, even employed by Nextdoor corporate as second level reviewers. So it’s no surprise that Richmond Nextdoor is insular and intolerant of viewpoints and opinion and lines of argument other than what the cabal of “leads’ deems acceptable. Practically, it’s all in service to Nextdoor’s business model. Nextdoor revenue is income from ads based upon the number of members. Volunteer “community leads” reduce costs and create a credible cover that the sites are being supervised. In fact there have been several scandals in other places where even uglier comments and outright racism was being tolerated and condoned by the community leads.

    In perspective, I look at other SF Nextdoor sites besides the Richmond. From what I’ve seen, the Richmond Nexdoor site by far has the largest proportion of ugly prejudiced and bigoted posting and comments. That’s just sad.

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  4. What a great reminder that, whether we can see it or not, not everyone we pass on the street is just like us. 20% of people have some sort of a disability. The incidence of Autism is rising very quickly. Approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2016 data. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.

    50 years ago, people with big special needs were hidden away in institutions. Now we know people with disabilities do vastly better when they can live in the community with their families, friends and neighbors.

    The numbers of our neighbors with differences, some small and some big is only going to increase with each year that goes by. Thank you, Julia Pitta, for telling this story.

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  5. Thank You! for caring so much about Jeffrey Devine to mention him in your story. I would say that most parents with children with disabilities, worry what will happen to their loved ones, when the parent is no longer with us. I am a parent of a child with a disability and my heart goes out to Jeffrey and his family. I am sorry that they had to endure the pain of this Nextdoor incident. If you ever see Jeffrey, can you please let him know that I would be happy to take a walk with him.

    My heart was so moved by Jeffrey’s story though I realize he was being used as an example of how things can pivot out of control on Nextdoor. I also saw it first hand with a friend of mine, I believe she wrote a comment on Facebook, and the next thing people are calling her insane and all these terrible things. They didn’t know anything about her but everyone was commenting because this one person started a thread on Nextdoor. I was pretty upset to read all this false info and I had to enter the conversation to defend my friend. Nextdoor finally took down the thread.

    Thanks! again for your story and let’s pray people in the Richmond district, when they see Jeffrey, are polite enough to make him feel welcomed and most importantly, he feels safe as he walks the streets of his own neighborhood.

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  6. Wow– so to hear from Julie, I should expect and be totally fine that all my friends in the neighborhood should get used to having their garages broken into and their bikes stolen, as happened in the past year, which was the first time in my over 25 years here that has happened. I should expect and be fine that the buildings on my corner should be graffitied every day. I should simply feel its natural that the homeless should be passed out on our sidewalks and bus stops with needles still in their legs. I should be content that my neighborhood business on my block are broken into nearly once a month and after this year, should just expect it to reoccur from now on at the same cadence. To Julie, we should it’s fine that the newspaper rack on my corner was thrown at a mother and child recently, and just laugh that off. Julie wants you to enjoy seeing purses and luggage strewn in the street — tossed away after being pilfered. She wants us to feel pride at how quickly people can steal catalytic converters on our blocks.
    I have been on next door for a decade, but I learned of my friends break ins through talking to them. I learned of store break-ins by seeing their broken glass. I learned of the purses and luggage, the graffiti and the needles by seeing them often myself. Next Door has been around for years, but no matter what numbers in our city of many neighborhoods Julie wants to use, the crime we are seeing in our neighborhood has not in memory ever been so visible on the street. To see Julie discount the merchant break-ins, the vandalism, the quality of life deterioration in a column in a paper that relies on advertising of our local merchants, seems to me to be a slap in the face to the the very businesses struggling to keep afloat. Perhaps Heller’s has been spared so far, but don’t expect your luck to last, no matter what hands-over-eyes-not-seeing-reality Julie Pitta says.

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  7. Thanks for this. Many of the same folk who vilify Chesa think *Facebook* is a cesspool of *Trumpian* lies and anti*vax misinformation. They never think that Nextdoor is that as well. Again, if you don’t pay for the service, don’t trust the information on it…their business model always has a thumb on the scale.

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