The sidewalks are for everybody (depending on just how you define “everybody”)

Coming back to the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco after many years away has been something of an education in the lower limits of urban metabolism for me. Despite a few significant disappearances and subductions, it’s astonishing just how many of the storefronts on the street remain precisely the same as they were when I first encountered them at the tail end of 1990 — in quite a few cases, businesses that barely ever seemed to enjoy any traffic or clientele, or have much future hope of same.

The neighborhood’s issues, as well, are sadly perennial. Since the mid-1960s, these few overdetermined blocks, and the lovely public park onto which they open, have served as a very strange attractor indeed. As the continent’s final stop, as a microclimate sporting permanently moderate conditions, and (after the so-called Summer of Love fixed it in the popular imagination as all-welcoming hub of benevolent creativity) as a destination of particular choice for the putatively free-spirited, the Upper Haight has for decades been a sink for those who have found the constraints of life elsewhere too much to bear. As you might imagine, a significant percentage of those attracted to the Haight for such reasons have historically wound up living on the street.

While there were originally at least the rudiments of an institutional support infrastructure in place to support such a life — including the network of crashpads, Free Stores and Free Bakery established by the anarchist Digger collective — all that was long over and done with by the 1980s. Nor has anything appeared to replace that infrastructure in all the long years since, given the gutting of municipal budgets by Proposition 13 (1978), the general souring and inward-turning that followed in its wake and continues to condition American constructions of public life, and the restatement of the Haight as a corporate simulacrum of itself.

Local property values had soared in the intervening decades, too, meaning that the selfsame flats that had once furnished errant hippies with welcoming, if crab-infested, places to crash were now home to knowledge workers in the creative industries — knowledge workers that needed their sleep, that had a harder time tolerating noise and other chaos, that just wanted to get out their front door without being harassed for change or having to step over a fresh pile of human shit.

By the turn of the century, the problem had hardened still further. If, for a variety of reasons, the Haight had lost whatever porosity it might originally have called upon to absorb this kind of influx, the folks sleeping rough on its streets had changed, too. They’d become angry, resentful crusty punks accompanied by pitbulls, trying to eke their rudimentary existence from the residents and visitors of a neighborhood that didn’t particularly want them there.

And this is the situation as it’s persisted, or been allowed to persist, all the way down to the present. I daresay the issue is so intractable because here San Francisco finds itself torn against the better angels of its own nature, and the desire to extend unlimited self-expression to all that is such a wonderful part of this city’s history and (forgive me) brand; most other North American cities, certainly, would have long ago targeted a revenue-generating neighborhood thus affected for Quality of Life intervention. The trouble for the would-be liberal or progressive is that any neat talk of a Lefebvrian “right to the city” breaks down on the sidewalks of the Haight: here it’s nakedly clear both that some legitimate uses of urban space inherently infringe others…and that the infringement need have nothing to do with a state actor or other convenient boogeyman. (The latent threat of state violence may certainly be invoked by one contesting party or another, and has in fact been invoked here, but it’s not a necessary precondition.)

In the end, unless you’ve got nigh-Solomonic abilities to reconcile conflicting claims, you’re going to be forced to choose which vision of “everybody” you wish to uphold. In San Francisco, that choice has crystallized in a measure to be voted on in the November election, Proposition L, which would amend the San Francisco Police code to prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks. Here are two sites representing very different perspectives on the issue: fighting the For corner, the “grassroots movement” Civil Sidewalks, and standing Against, the advocacy group Sidewalks Are For People, formerly known as Stand Against Sit/Lie. (The scare quotes are there because Civil Sidewalks — however much I may sympathize with certain of its aims and goals, however much I may believe these aims to reflect feelings genuinely shared by the community’s residents — is clearly an initiative of merchants’ associations rather than anything truly organic.)

In the distance between the arguments For and Against can be seen the reason why constructions of “the public” (and therefore of what legitimate interests that public may wish to pursue) are so dangerous. As Kristine F. Miller reminds us, there can never be any such thing, except as a screen for one or another set of interests. There are only publics, and policy is almost always going to mean disappointing some set of them.

For the record: I fully agree with neither the For nor Against positions as stated, though I think aspects of both have deep claims to truth. My sense, as you’ve certainly already inferred from my word choices above, is that the people who have made some longstanding investment in the neighborhood (physical and psychic, that is, far more than merely pecuniary) deserve to walk and chat and, yes, sit, on their sidewalks, free from hassle and threat. Why not fully embrace Prop L, then? I know that police departments historically have a nasty habit of invoking legislation like this to justify their repression of other populations; that panel in the Stand Against Sit/Lie comic was no hyperbole. Beyond that, though, I guess I prefer the flavor of the classic anarchist solution to situations like this — self-organized, robust citizen’s patrols — to invoking the firm hand of the Daddy State.

But maybe that’s a little too much like vigilante justice for this community. Maybe it would require more time, energy and exposure to personal risk than people are willing to invest. And if that’s the case, then maybe the crusties and the pitbulls and the spanging are something people ought to learn to live with. I’m not saying they’re pleasant, or attractive, or make any kind of meaningful contribution whatsoever to the neighborhood. I am saying that, if their presence on your sidewalks is really so offensive to you, there are other and better things to do about it than giving the police historically problematic powers — powers that they’re not even asking for.

5 responses to “The sidewalks are for everybody (depending on just how you define “everybody”)”

  1. igj says :

    And then there is this: possibly subtle merchant pressure to change the dynamics of the street scene:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/09/06/BA7H1F4J2T.DTL

  2. AG says :

    That’s pretty interesting, actually. But not as telling as this: http://www.baycitizen.org/politics/story/pacific-heights-moguls-fund-sit-lie/ (my thanks to Nancy Sue Choy for ferreting this out, and I think it speaks highly of the Bay Citizen that they’d run a piece potentially so unflattering to one of their funders.)

  3. Eric Rodenbeck says :

    Two things:

    Is an “initiative of merchants’ associations” by definition not “truly organic”? It seems to me that putting together an association is a perfectly natural and organic and grass roots thing to do—you run a business, you get together with other businesses, you advocate for the change you want to see, you put your resources behind it.

    and

    Does the question change in your mind at all if applied to the Tenderloin? Living there for 10 years and seeing the deleterious effects that hostile street people can have on a whole neighborhood is the thing that made me stop worrying about police brutality and learn to love Sit/Lie.

  4. AG says :

    So I’ve thought about that first question a bit since posting this, and my wording there, and I’ve decided that I mostly agree with you: there’s nothing inherently inorganic about a merchant-driven initiative. As long, that is, as the merchants in question are local. (See Nancy’s link above.)

    W/R/T the second bit, I think I’d still prefer to see self-organized citizens taking matters into their hands. I imagine any such patrols certainly couldn’t do any worse than the SFPD have managed.

  5. Jeremy Dunck says :

    I don’t live in SF, but read this and was wondering — it was narrowly passed, right?

    What effects has it had? Too soon to tell?

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