44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
Of course, these kids aren't sleeping in the public parks of Cuzco — but in countries with plenty of cheap travelers' hostels, you don't have to. And though international flights cost more than the van rides and freight train hops that brought in most of the Haight Street kids, backpackers abroad do the same things: take fewer showers and flaunt social norms — not because they want to cause a problem for the natives of the lands they pass through, but because they are young, and discovering themselves for the first time, and can't see much past that. Piss isn't being violent, but he has lost the language to deal with "normies" and he's seen as unpredictable to the not-traveling, not-disenfranchised around him. Which to those who see public space as a place that should be predictable, mean he's a threat.
The clash between the settled and transient in the Haight is not new. Indeed, it's what made the neighborhood famous. As far back as the mid-1960s, officials have been simultaneously fighting and publicizing the Haight's worldwide reputation as a traveler's meeting place, a place with a culture of loosened societal moorings and enlightenment through free love, drugs, and art.
Businesses claim that the omnipresent homeless drive away paying customers from Haight Street. It a curious claim in an area where the vagrant hippie culture made the place the tourist attraction it is today, and one that is belied by the entry of Whole Foods, which plans to open a branch this year at a lot at Haight and Stanyan vacant since 2006. When contrasted with the Tenderloin — another neighborhood with a visible street community — and its chronic problems attracting a grocery store, the Haight street kids' effect on local commerce doesn't seem to be all that grave.
They certainly aren't making the place any less desirable of a neighborhood to live in for the wealthy. Real estate website Trulia.com puts the median listing price for homes in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood at $962,264.
The Haight Street kids I spoke could all too easily see what sit-lie would mean for San Francisco. When you control public space, you control who is in public space — and they have no illusions about whether or not they're included in the perfect world of those who push the measure. If it's enacted, the subculture that made Haight famous — part of which still survives today in a different form — would be gone, leaving it sterile and safe for the head shops and clothing boutiques, an even less authentic version of the '60s love fest their patrons come to the street for. One wonders if a scrubbed-clean Haight is even what the residents and business owners who have thrown their lot behind sit-lie truly want, or if they've been duped into sit-lie's efficacy by the same forces that on a national level have convinced us that curtailing civil liberties will lead to freedom for the real Americans. It comes down to this: What do we want Haight Street to be? Do we want to capitalize and benefit from the accepting, messy, wildly creative legacy the 20th century endowed our streets, or do we want a clean, friendly, outdoor mall? The powers of homogenization and gentrification can demonize the little heathens on Haight Street all they want, but they've miscalculated if they think that they don't belong in San Francisco — after all, Haight created them, not the other way around.
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