A Brand of Justice

Homelessness has put the city's image in danger. Our options: Hound the poor. Fine Safeway. Corrupt Lance Armstrong.

Postcard San Francisco is all bulgy-windowed Victorians and fog-enveloped trolley cars. Real-life San Francisco is a glinting sea of shopping carts. They scurry furtively under park cypress. They roll down our steep hills before crashing into the gutter. They stand lonely and abandoned in Excelsior District lots. City workers claim to find 900 of these abandoned vehicles in the city each week. The Department of Public Works retrieves them and sends them home to grocery stores -- at a cost to the city of $600,000 per year. Putative mayoral candidate and Supervisor Gavin Newsom wishes to turn this statistic into a cause célèbre.

"This contributes to a climate that is becoming more and more untenable in the city. People are hauling their personal belonging in those carts, and that's untenable," explains Newsom, who brought the cart stats up at last Monday's meeting of the Board of Supervisors. "Without getting into a philosophical discussion, I'll say I don't think it's advantageous to use other people's property to transport their own personal property."

While I'm not entirely clear how one examines property rights, private enterprise, and poverty without getting into a philosophical discussion, I have to grant our Pat Riley-haired supervisor one thing: San Francisco is heading into a severe crisis of branding.

A week ago Friday, the Associated Press moved a feature headlined "In "Paris of the West,' renewed calls to clean up city streets" that gave readers in Salt Lake City and elsewhere a view of scenes such as this: "A block from City Hall on a recent day, a disheveled man stood next to a pay phone, gripping the receiver for hours on end as passers-by strolled by, pretending not to see the gaping hole in the crotch of his pants ... [T]here is a growing headache that isn't advertised in the guidebooks: The sidewalks are full of homeless people."

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, meanwhile, letter-writer Brian P. Davis described last week how he "just returned from the tourist city of San Francisco and was shocked at the number of people who live on the streets every night in that progressive city."

San Francisco cannot afford this kind of assault on its already-battered image. Our once-swaggering dot-com industry is now a joke; our once-burgeoning tech-publishing empire all but dissolved last week with the closure of the Industry Standard. Now, worst of all, the poor live out in the open, where the tourists can see them.

San Francisco, a city known as Madison Avenue West for the ad agencies located here, is seeing its brand name roll into the gutter like an abandoned shopping cart. As it turns out, in fact, San Francisco advertising agencies are faltering just as their home city needs them most; according to the advertising industry trade press, S.F. agencies are laying off employees in droves.

Concerned, I sought the advice of SF Weekly marketing consultant Brittany Walker, principal of Walker Consulting (www.walker-consulting.net). She assured me I was right to be concerned. "Brand managers speak in terms of operationalizing the brand," Walker explained. "These managers have a vision of what they think this company should be. So you have to live up to the vision of the city if you are going to create a strong brand."

In short, San Francisco has to successfully be itself, if it's to protect its brand.

In an apparent brand-protection effort, Newsom told me he plans to work on figuring out a way to make grocery stores pay for rounding up shopping carts that the poor have appropriated and then somehow relinquished. The $600,000 per year the city would save on shopping-cart retrieval could be spent on, say, methadone clinics, Newsom said.

"Callous I am not, but critical of the status quo I am," Newsom said, slipping into a rare form of Cat in the Hat speech, "though some might think otherwise."

Actually, what some people think is that Newsom doesn't care much for the poor. They say he does not like them in a house. He does not like them with a mouse. He does not like them in the park. He does not like them with a cart. He does not like them here or there. He does not like them (these folks say) anywhere. (1)

This opinion has been bolstered by Newsom's objection to proposed legislation, drafted by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, that would require police to warn the homeless before seizing their shopping carts and confiscating their belongings. But the shopping cart data Newsom has unearthed may help the supervisor with his own image problem. That the city picks up 900 carts a week is the perfect piece of marketing information; it is astonishing, yet carries no specific portent. It might as well be a statement that 73 percent of Americans wish they had whiter teeth. Accordingly, Newsom apparently plans to play the cart problem both ways.

The city ought to crack down on illegal-shopping-cart users, Newsom says, and it ought to crack down on supermarkets that don't "monitor their own property."

"I can tell you that if at one of my businesses, I was allowing my property to become a nuisance," says Newsom, a restaurateur, "I would be hearing from the authorities."

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