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Monday, August 6, 2007

SF's Homelessness, Gangs, and Needles: A Schizo Summer

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2007 at 6:19 AM

Is this summer’s political madness an aberration, or are we kidding ourselves?

By BENJAMIN WACHS

Is it just me, or is San Francisco having a schizophrenic episode?

I’m not talking about our ongoing “Summer of Love” flashback (if the '60s are this dull in retrospect, imagine how boring they must have been to live through). I’m talking about the weird, hallucinatory conversation our body politic seems to be having with itself right now:

After going out of our way to create a city that is friendly to transients, we suddenly want squatters the hell out of Golden Gate Park.

A year after opening a major clean needle giveaway program, we’re insisting that somebody clean all those needles up.

After 30 years of “transit first” policy, a small but vocal minority is saying “Hey, we need more damn parking spaces," and after passing policy after policy to encourage law enforcement to respect the civil rights of poor minorities, the District Attorney’s office is specifically trying to curtail the civil rights of a group of poor minorities in order to fight gang activity.

Do we need help?

Medication (well, many of us are already medicated) ? an intervention? Is there a major backlash going on? Why are we having such a schizophrenic summer?

Sadly, according to experts, we were born this way.

“San Francisco has always been a city that clings … I wouldn’t say desperately, but with pride … to its liberal and progressive social values, and its reputation as a city which celebrates those things,” said SFSU Professor Joseph Tuman. “But it’s also a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, large business interests, and a city thrives on tourism. Those things are always at odds.”

Schizophrenia is the natural result, with each half of the city’s brain having a conversation that makes no sense to the other. .

Richard DeLeon, author of the book “The Left Coast,” agreed – and said he particularly likes schizophrenia as a metaphor for how politics work in San Fran.

“I’ve never seen any effective central control over anything in the city,” he said. “It’s not surprising that it seem schizophrenic if you try to ascribe some rationality to the cities actions. I think it’s a good metaphor: the city has schizophrenia embedded in its structure.”

The result is a government that makes a lot of noise – in either the progressive or (vaguely) conservative direction – about many issues, but never actually gets much done.

“It’s a very decentralized government,” Deleon said. “You’ve got all these governments and board and committees and timetables and they never match.”

But don’t let your civic pride get wounded – there may be a method to our madness. While San FranSchizophrenia may be bad at getting things done, there is one thing our crazy ways is awfully good at.

“A lot of people would say that what gets done in this city, like no where else, is preventing certain bad things from happening,” Deleon said. “San Francisco is beautifully organized at saying ‘No.’”

In our madness we have placed more limits and caps on land use and high rise development, more revenue controls and linkage fees on building businesses, and more local neighborhood councils with actual teeth, than any other city on record. Ironically it may be we … and not America’s conservative bastions … that have truly found a way to grind progress to a screeching halt.

“If you feel that the side-effects of capitalism are one of the most dangerous forces in the world, and if you say that an important goal is minimizing the pernicious impact of global capitalism, then San Francisco’s schizophrenia is a strong policy in favor of community in the battle of capital versus community,” Deleon said.

Go us! Just … not anywhere.

The bottom line is that however bizarre and self-contradictory our summer episode seems to be, we’ll be doing it again soon … and for a long time. Despite all the sound and fury, you can bet that in another 10 years we’ll have passed more laws making life easy for the homeless in Golden Gate Park while we demand they get the hell out, we’ll have given away more needles that we want people to stop using, and we’ll be leading the nation with innovative ways to curtail the civil rights of the criminals whose civil rights we’re dedicated to protecting.

It’s what we do. And we’re the best at it.

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David Downs

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