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."
Joey Cain, a member of the Haight Street anarchist collective Bound Together Books since 1979, voiced strong opposition to the ordinance and said he felt Prop. L was being pushed by a small minority who weren't really representative of the merchants. Cain is the president of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), which is often at odds with HAIA. He views the whole thing as a political move on the part of HAIA, the Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Police Department. "We just see it as a nasty, divisive, unnecessary action," he said. "I have no doubt it will pass. People are looking for a scapegoat, and homeless people are the scapegoat of the age."
Cain was also miffed at HAIA's cooperation with San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, who penned articles that triggered the debate. "HAIA worked with Nevius on trashing the neighborhood — just before the Christmas season," he said.
Tony Green, a manager at Amoeba Music, said there was certainly some genuinely bad behavior on Haight Street. "The trouble is, making one law that covers everybody is difficult," he said.
Kimberly Digregorio, store manager at Crossroads Trading Co. on Haight, said her own gripe is that the sidewalks are filthy, and she welcomes the sight of the high-pressure hose crews that come through to blast away the grime. Although she attributes the problem in part to pets of kids who camp on the street, she doesn't think a law banning sitting or lying on the sidewalk is the solution. "You just ask them to move away from the business. I've never had an issue with that," she said.
The Civil Sidewalks web page features videos of the owners of Iris, Recycled Records, and an employee at Pure Beauty voicing support for Prop. L, and there is a fourth who does not give his name or business. Uyehara claims to have spoken with most of the roughly 140 businesses along the block and found that the majority support the law. But only 55 supporters are listed on the Civil Sidewalks page under "Upper Haight Street Merchants."
Calls to The Alembic, Squat & Gobble, the Red Vic Movie House, Braindrops, and the Haight Street Market went unreturned. The owner of The Looking Glass Collage-Stained Glass declined to comment, a retail clerk at Ben & Jerry's said the manager was vacationing, and the phone at Martin Macks rang unanswered. A call requesting an interview with Park Station Police Capt. Teresa Barrett was not returned.
Ted Loewenberg, the president of HAIA, is a strong advocate for Prop. L. "The problem is real and it needs to be dealt with," he said. "The problem is not whether they're standing or sitting," he said, it's "being territorial." He added that "one of the key focuses we have is to bring merchants and residents together to give people a reason to go back to Haight Street."
Praveen Madan, an owner of The Booksmith, is a relative newcomer to Haight Street, and says he's still gathering information before deciding how to vote on Prop L. "While there are some genuine issues, they've gotten blown out of proportion and distorted," he said. "I don't feel an outright threat to my safety." He said that if he asks someone to move from outside his bookstore, "nine times out of 10, they leave. They just pick up and go to a different spot." For his part, Madan is trying to encourage a more informed dialogue. He told us there's a lot of misinformation floating around and "a paucity of good info and facts." Soon after he and his wife moved onto the street three years ago, they noticed that homelessness was a problem — so they decided to host community forums exploring the topic in depth. Since the Prop. L debate surfaced, "We have been thinking of organizing another one," he said. "We bring people together ... so people can get some real insight on these issues and make up their own minds."