Last Tuesday in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced legislation to the Board of Supervisors to create a sit/lie ordinance for the city, making it illegal for people to sit or lie down on the sidewalk. Newsom introduced two versions of the ordinance: one that would make it illegal city-wide, and another that would only make it illegal along certain commercial corridors, like 24th Street in Noe Valley, or the Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, where the impetus for the creation of the law originated. The Haight Ashbury Improvement Association*, an group of merchants in the Upper Haight, have been pushing for City Hall and SFPD to do something about what they consider to be a serious impediment to business: Haight Street “gutter punks.” Not only that, but Mayor Newsom recently moved to the Upper Haight from the ritzier Pacific Heights neighborhood of the city. He just so happened to go for a walk on Haight street, saw someone smoking crack, and became convinced of the necessity of the city-wide ordinance.
As a native San Franciscan, I can’t help but be amazed at the irony that the mayor who won his first election with compassion for the homeless as his trademark issue would introduce the most draconian piece of legislation San Francisco has seen yet, in the neighborhood that spawned the Summer of Love. On the other hand, I know just how annoying these “gutter punks” who populate Haight Street can be, and that they aren’t exactly the flower children who made the neighborhood so famous. What upsets me is not that Newsom’s law will take away Haight-Ashbury’s hippie vibe — despite all the head shops, that vibe has been gone for some time — but that the Haight Street gutter punk story is a way for the city to gather support for an otherwise oppressive, and possibly unconstitutional, law.
No one in San Francisco will tell you that gutter punks aren’t obnoxious. Probably not even the gutter punks. A lot of the general distaste for them stems not only from their aggressive panhandling techniques, but the fact that they are perceived to be homeless “by choice”; that they bought in to being homeless through punk culture, and not the other way around.
Though San Francisco is known for its liberal politics, and its tolerance and compassion for the homeless, Haight Street gutter punks have done everything in their power to be left out of this equation, and the rest of San Francisco’s homeless might have to pay the price, should the sit/lie law go into effect. Naturally, homeless advocacy groups are upset, but I think this sort of policy should concern all San Franciscans, and it probably would if City Hall and the local media didn’t center the conversation only around Haight Street gutter punks.
One of the things that most people love about San Francisco, and what sets it apart from every other city in California, is its vibrant — and sometimes bizarre — streetscape. The sit/lie law, in my opinion is a direct threat to that. C.W. Nevius, who favors the ordinance, mocked these concerns in his most recent column for the Chronicle, whose editorial board has recently come out in favor of the law. “What about the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf,” writes Nevius, “All they do is sit and lie. And they’re belligerent, too. I say lock ‘em up.” Clever observation, but they’re not on the sidewalk, C.W. They’re in the water, and as long as they stay there, the sea lions will be safe from the long arm of the law. But guess what famous Pier 39 fixture isn’t? By my interpretation of the law, the World Famous Bushman could definitely get arrested for scaring tourists in his playful fashion. So could one of those robot-alien-people, though that wouldn’t be such a big loss.
So much of San Francisco’s culture is based on this eccentricity, this freedom to do what you want, be who you are, et cetera. In San Francisco you don’t get the feeling that the city is merely a place to do business. It’s also a place for people to live, and for many it’s a refuge. I challenge anyone to catch that feeling in Midtown Manhattan.
Furthermore, SFPD doesn’t need a sit/lie ordinance to harass gutter punks on Haight Street; they’ll go ahead and do it anyway. They probably ought to. But a city-wide law that makes it illegal to sit or lie on the street anywhere in San Francisco strikes me as a real threat to any sort of city life other than that which makes the wheels of commerce turn smoother.
Back in the 1970’s, when San Francisco’s skyline was springing up with lots of new skyscrapers, residents complained about “Manhattanization”. They feared San Francisco was losing its character and its gorgeous vistas to all the new development. The two are inextricably linked, after all. I’d argue that this sit/lie ordinance is yet another round of Manhattanization in San Francisco. The sit/lie law is similar in nature to most of Mayor Giuliani’s “broken window” policing tactics that he used in the early 90’s to “clean up” New York. But even Guiliani didn’t need to make new laws; he just made his cops enforce laws already on the books. And, further, the public support for this form of policing came from residents of a crime-ridden city that people felt was on the verge of self-destruction, not from residents of a prosperous city with incredibly low crime rates who get annoyed when a person probably undeserving of charity demands money or cigarettes from them on a certain street in a certain neighborhood. San Francisco doesn’t need the sit/lie laws like New York needed Giuliani’s tactics. If the Board of Supervisors passes this law, San Franciscans might lose something they never knew they loved so much. Just ask a New Yorker.
*The Merchant Chair of the Association is Kent Uyehara, owner of FTC Skateshop on Haight. Ironically, FTC is understood by most younger skateboarders to stand for “F—- The Cops.”