Sonic attack on the poor

Concert promoter blasts industrial noise at illegal levels to drive away homeless people


It was 11pm on Thursday, May 3, and the ballet was just letting out. Affluently dressed dance enthusiasts streamed arm in arm down Grove street towards the Civic Center BART station chatting about the evening performance. That night's show of Don Quixote at War Memorial and Performing Arts Center was likely excellent judging by the theatergoers' exuberance.

As they passed by the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a half-dozen homeless people seated along the route begged the procession for change. Across the street and a block down Grove, a few homeless individuals had bedded down for the night in front of the Main Library.

It is these encounters, normal to urban life, that are at the center of a controversial strategy by Another Planet Entertainment, which leases the auditorium from the city, to drive the homeless away. They hope that by blasting a late night sampling of industrial noise through the venue's sound system between the hours of 11pm and 7am, making sleep nearly impossible, that the homeless will be discouraged from congregating there.

A women selling the Street Sheet newspaper on the corner sums up the social tension that invoked the strategy. "They're doing it to keep the homeless from sleeping there. All these people don't want to see the homeless when they come through here," she said, gesturing to the now thin stream from the ballet.

She had heard the noise over the past few nights and described it as deafening. "The first time I heard it I thought the building was under construction, then I thought a motorcycle gang was coming through. It is so bad it makes the windows of the building shake."

Another Planet had no comment on the racket and would not say if the strategy would continue. But in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, company founder Gregg Perloff said the venue has had "an enormous amount of complaints" from their patrons about the homeless.

Late at night, police are powerless to respond to such complaints. The city's carefully crafted sit-lie ordinance, which bars people from assuming either of those postures on city sidewalks during the day, is lifted between the hours of 11pm and 7am to satisfy constitutional concerns that have overturned similar ordinances in other cities.

"This it the first time I've heard of a strategy like this used against the homeless," Bob Offer-Westort, civil rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said of the noise. "It is really problematic for a business to say that people on public property not breaking the law are a public nuance. It is a intrusion of a private company on public space."

Standing in front of the building late on a foggy night, it's easy to see why the homeless would gravitate to here. The building's huge awning, covering much of the broad sidewalk, must be the easiest place to stay dry outdoors for many blocks. And since the demolition of the city's old central bus terminal last year, it is perhaps the largest dry public space in the city's core.

But is this sonic attack even legal? That's a question that the Mayor's Office and the San Francisco Police Department, neither of which answered our repeated inquiries, don't seem to want to address.

San Francisco's noise ordinance is a weighty document. Most cities suffice with a paragraph or two to regulate noise, while San Francisco's ordinance runs nine pages. Noise, or rather the relative lack of it, seems of great importance to the city. There is even a city committee on noise.

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