44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
The mayor threw his support behind a sentiment already being voiced by the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, a resident-merchant alliance in the area. HAIA sees the street kids as disruptive outsiders. "These are not the flower children of the 1960s. It's narcotic fueled, antisocial thugs who act like a quasi-gang," Ted Loewenberg, president of the association, was quoted as saying in Business Week.
Adds the Prop L website: " ... the Haight-Ashbury district — once synonymous with peace and love — this corridor is now a hot spot for street bullies, pit bulls, and drug abuse." It's a deft cultural lobotomy that dissociates drugs from the Summer of Love, and a devious one that implies that street kids weren't major players in that social revolution.
As for the bullies, I didn't see any violence from the street kids in the days and nights I spent out on Haight Street.
I couldn't get cops to talk to me about it, either. There were two police officers on foot traversing Haight's main strip and I introduced myself when they stood chatting with a coffee shop owner in the afternoon sunshine and asked them about the sort of neighborhood complaints they regularly received about the street kids.
"No comment," Cop No. 1 told me. Okay, Cop No. 2, your thoughts? "I don't speak English."
To my requests that they share their view of crime on Haight, I could get one response: "It's complicated." Later, when I returned to write down their badge numbers, they were standing silently, staring at a lone young man sitting against a wall next to his skateboard. The kid was looking at the ground. Eventually they handcuffed him and put him in a police car while he pleaded meekly about it "only being a little bit of weed — and I was only skateboarding on the sidewalk."
The most aggression I witnessed from any party took place while I was tapping my feet to a group of traveling bluegrass musicians performing around 10 p.m. on a Thursday. Their cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway" had inspired an older homeless man to strike up a curiously graceful stomp dance on the sidewalk. He was so drunk and fully immersed in the music that the bottle of Jim Beam in his flailing hand didn't even register when the police officer approached him and asked, "What do you think you're doing?"
The musicians began to pack up. "I could have told you this would happen 20 minutes ago," one tells me, nodding toward the old man. "Don't say a word or I'll fucking take you in," said the cop, who poured out the half-full bottle and wrote a ticket for the older man, who had made a few feeble protests that ended abruptly with the cop's obscenity.
The officer said he'd received a complaint about the music, a line I heard from each cop I came into contact with on Haight — including one officer who cautioned a family with a toddler to pack up the bracelets they were selling to pay the towing charges on their van. "People don't like to see people with kids out here, you better move it along," the cop said.
"I've seen aggression because people start shit," Steven tells me when I ask him about his experience with street violence. A man has just walked by chanting "dirty, dirty" in Steven's and his friends' faces. "They don't like to see people sit on the ground."
"There are people who come down here just to make themselves look better," chimes in Oz. "Like 'ha ha ha, I have air conditioning.' All kinds of people start shit"
I asked if they knew they were the focus of a massive political debate in San Francisco. "No, what debate?" asked Steven.
"You mean sit-lie?" Oz asks. "It probably has to do with tourism. I don't see why else they would do that."
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