An Inconvenient Lie
I like to tell people I live in Lower Cole Valley. No, you don’t need to go check in with the neighborhood-naming realtors association – there is no Lower Cole Valley. I just don’t like to admit that I live in The Haight. Why? Haight-Ashbury comes with a strong identity I haven’t been attracted to since I was 19: weed, hippies, the ’60s, and bohemian drifters.
Haight Street is the central thoroughfare of a neighborhood, a high-end retail destination, and a tourist trap. It’s also home to a diverse population of homeless people and transients. The derisive stereotype is of young kids out here by choice, not by circumstance, panhandling, and performing: the street kids, the vagrants, the gutter punks, the travelers. Take your pick.
But The Haight seems to be changing. Local transients, whose presence has been a constant for decades, are being displaced. Proposition L is at the center of this. The “Sit/Lie” law would make it illegal to sit or lie on San Francisco sidewalks during certain hours.
I’m personally conflicted about L. On the one hand I believe in the right of my fellow (wo)man to sit anywhere (s)he damn well pleases. On the other hand, I live in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. It was in the spirit of this internal conflict that I set out to Haight Street, a block and a half from my front door, to spend some time talking with local merchants about it.
I start in the midmorning. I consciously make myself walk straight to Haight Street. Normally I’ll do my east-west travel on Waller where no one asks me for change. It sounds like a little thing, but it can be wearing to be asked two or three times when you are just making a quick trip to pick up a six-pack at your local liquor store.
Liquid Experience is one of The Haight’s best-kept secrets. It has one of the most excellent beer selections in the city, and this is all thanks to Firras Zawaidh, a tall man with a shiny, clean-shaven head. It’s 10 a.m. and I’m the only person in the store. I get right to the point and ask him about Sit/Lie. Firras says he is torn. “The homeless guys are okay, but the street punks bug me. We deal with them all night because we’re open till l2.” He pauses. “I stopped selling malt liquor. All of it. There’s too much shit going around.”
Firras doesn’t think Sit/Lie will do much of anything because no one will enforce it. He tells me a story about a street kid that vandalized his car. “The cops told me it was his second offense in a day. And they told him to take a walk.” He shakes his head. The vandal was only in town for a month and then he was gone. Suddenly a voice from the front yells, “Fucking b-monster, bitches!” It would seem like last night’s party isn’t over for this guy who beelines for the Odwalla case.
I thank Firras and head back out into the street. I‘m asked for change two different times in the same exact wording: “Hey bro, spare some change?” The second petitioner holds a sign that reads, “We [heart] [an illustration of a slice of pizza] a lot!”
RVCA sits right on the fabled corner of Haight and Ashbury in a space that used to be occupied by Gap. There are designer clothes, art books, and dressing rooms decorated like tiny saloons with velvet wallpaper. In the back is a white-walled room with hung art.
I walk over to the employees hanging out by the marble-topped counter and introduce myself. Neither one of them has a strong stance on Sit/Lie. Will’s first response is that he’s “...all kinds of divided on it.” The streets kids can be annoying sometimes, but these guys aren’t all that bothered by them.
Will and Kenny laugh about some of their favorite panhandling slogans. Will: “Give me a quarter – you can throw it at me.” Kenny: “Kick me in the butt for a dollar.” “Half of the appeal of Haight Street is to come and see the people,” Kenny says. He thinks the measure reflects the way Haight Street is going in the future. “It’s Haight Street,” he says. “Get rid of that and it would be like Union Street.”
Later on my way out, Keating grabs me. “I figured out my stance.” He’s looks serious; this has apparently been bugging him. “I get annoyed, but I think it’s just wrong to tell somebody they can’t sit anywhere.” He nods definitively. That’s his opinion.
As I walk out of RVCA I’m startled by a man hunched in the doorway. He’s no vagrant, he’s holding a multi-thousand dollar camera, and he’s waiting for just the right snap of the Haight and Ashbury street signs.
I choose All You Knead for lunch because a few days ago its sign out front read “No on Sit/Lie – don’t you need a place to sit, too?” My waitress is Aurélie. She looks cool: a lip ring and a few delicately intricate tattoos on her arms and shoulders. I order a cheeseburger and ask her what she thinks about Sit/Lie.
She shrugs. “I’m cool with people sitting on the sidewalk. I do it too, you know.” I ask about the sign I’d seen out front. “We’re kinda against the whole thing.” She explains that she lives in the Tenderloin, and it’s the same experience over there. “You ask them to move and they’ll go. I’ve never had any problems.” She’s also never heard any complaints from tourists. “It’s part of Haight-Ashbury.” She excuses herself to bring menus to another table.
As I’m sitting, the table in front of me fills up with two young couples. They’re dressed in hippie-inspired fashion: loose, casual clothes for the girls; long hair and beards for the guys. One of them wears a rasta hat and the other has no less than three dangling accoutrements made from feathers. Their clothes are clean, the colors bright, the cuts expensive. They order a pitcher of Blue Moon and all show Aurélie their IDs.
It’s kind of a scene in here. It’s not unenjoyable, but it is undeniably The Haight. And that’s what I imagine these four not-from-around-here hippie kids came for: the scene. To pay homage to a bygone era that lives on in some ghost of an echo. Outside, the street kids are a part of that scene. Hell, I remember when I was 19 and wanted to “ride the rails.” I had read On the Road and I just wanted to travel, man. “Free Bird” hits its always-satisfying crescendo as the kids get their pitcher.
It’s 4 p.m., the shadows are getting long, and the heat is starting to fade. I’ve committed the rookie San Francisco mistake – I’m wearing only a T-shirt. I need to warm up with some whiskey. I’ve chosen the Alembic because it’s the classiest of the Haight Street bars, with cocktails written up in the New York Times and pork belly sliders. Surely they’re firmly behind Prop L?
Behind the bar, Daniel Hyatt mixes me a Sazerac. He wears a blue plaid shirt, clear-framed glasses, an impressively bushy blond mustache, and a Goorin Brothers hat. Daniel says he’s annoyed by street kids and homeless people, but doesn’t think much of the Sit/Lie law. “Personally, I think it’s a cheap effort. A day late and a dollar short.” If there’s a new law, who will enforce it? “There were beat cops on the street when we first opened four years ago. But that changed a few years back.”
I ask Daniel if Alembic has problems with street kids or homeless people hanging outside or harassing patrons. “Once in a while we have a little bit of trouble. They come in trying to use the bathroom.” He tells me people on the street aren’t hurting business at all. I agree, and observe I can’t get a seat most nights. He neglects to offer me any sort of VIP pass, to my great disappointment. “It’s an edgy neighborhood,” he says. “You’re getting into what you’re getting into.”
Sure it’s edgy. The Alembic is not a reflection of the culture of the street though. It’s here in spite of it. No one is going to panhandle enough change to come in here and buy a craft-brewed Magnolia beer. I finish up my Sazerac as Daniel gets called away to mix another drink, and I stroll down the street, pleasantly warm beneath my skin.
I walk past the Goodwill at Haight and Cole, and out front four people are yelling at one another. In the delicate division between “homeless” and “street kid” I guess they’re the former: older, more worn, and they seem more unhinged. If there’s a chronic cycle to homelessness in The Haight, I might think it moved from backpacker to panhandler to street resident to homeless.
Sit/Lie seems to me to be an attempt to break that cycle. In The Haight it’s been endless: The neighborhood attracts pilgrims of bohemian ideals and some of them get swallowed whole. When we talk about the law targeting street kids, we’re talking about adding San Francisco to a list of cities to avoid on the “traveling” circuit.
But we’re also talking about the identity of a neighborhood. The Haight has been synonymous with that free-living ideal for decades. And if the city’s residents vote to give cops the ability to stop it – that’s a big change. Is it worth fighting for?