On Aug. 24, San Francisco's simmering debate about Proposition L, a proposed ordinance that would ban sitting or lying down on city sidewalks, bubbled over at a neighborhood meeting held on the block where all the controversy originated. Merchants affiliated with the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association (HAIA) — a neighborhood association that backs Prop, L — got an earful from Jim Siegel, who owns a Haight Street shop called Distractions. "I told them, you better be prepared to put your money where your mouth is," Siegel, still steaming, recounted to the Guardian shortly after the HAIA meeting.
A Haight Street business owner for 34 years who once endured a period of homelessness himself, Siegel said he views Prop. L as an unnecessary law that would target the homeless and advance gentrification along a historically alternative strip. He was gearing up to rally Haight Street businesses that oppose Prop. L, and had gone on Facebook to publicly call for a boycott of HAIA-affiliated businesses. ("I will monitor HAIA activities and keep you posted," he wrote in a recent Facebook post.)
Kent Uyehara, who owns FTC Skateboards and SFO Snowboards on Haight Street and chairs HAIA's merchant group, is in many ways Siegel's foil on this issue. Asked about the meeting, he chided Siegel's in-your-face approach and delivered a line one might expect from someone touting something dubbed the Civil Sidewalks Ordinance: "I was like, can't we just agree to disagree?"
Uyehara told us he's been canvassing businesses up and down Haight Street to try to garner support for Prop. L. "This legislation is not targeting any individual group. It's not targeting the homeless," he said. "It's targeting behavior." He had a friend who was stabbed on Haight Street, he added, and wanted to do something to prevent future violence.
As for the merchants up and down the strip, it's tough to say just how many are in Uyehara's camp versus Siegel's camp. When the Guardian called Haight Street businesses to try to gauge opinions, we learned that — contrary to reports suggesting that a unified corridor of fed-up merchants is driving the push for the new law — perspectives on Prop. L were nuanced, varied, and without much of a consensus.
And some merchants complain that the drum-beat of publicity for sit-lie — based on reports that the Haight has become dangerous — have hurt the local business climate and driven away customers.
A lot of it comes down to perspective. Rick Braun, a co-owner of Positively Haight, a shop that has been selling tie-dye for 18 years, described himself as "a live and let live" kind of guy — and his attitude applies to the kids who hang out in front of his store as well as the businesses that support Prop. L. "I realize how hard it is to make ends meet," he said. "But there are already enough ways to deal with it without being so police state about it."
Usually, he said, when he asks people blocking his storefront to move, they do. Braun said he tries not be mean about it — in a way, he can relate to kids who just aren't interested in being part of the mainstream. Recalling the mid-1980s when he arrived fresh out of UC Santa Cruz with a backpack and a car to live in, he said, "We could've gone that route — but we found a way to make a life out of it."
Justin Lawrence, who has been the shop manager for 10 years at Haight Ashbury Tattoo & Piercing (formerly Anubis), also struck a note of balance. "On some levels, it's a good idea," he said. "A lot of times, it discourages people from coming to Haight Street. At the same time, I think it's not really the right answer. More foot patrol of police would be more effective than making it illegal to sit on the sidewalk."