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Whose Haight? 

Street kids expect the neighborhood to welcome them as it did their forebears in the '60s, but residents, merchants, and cops are planning a different future

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
"We've got enough bums here already."

The four blue-uniformed police officers surround two young people lounging on Haight Street, in front of Amoeba Records. Two grimy backpacks lean against a garbage can. The officers ask for ID; Lilac, who came to San Francisco yesterday from Santa Cruz, says he doesn't have any. The officers bluster briefly about sending the pair back where they came from, but soon move on to patrol the rest of their Upper Haight beat. There's plenty to do today: All along Haight Street, from Buena Vista Park to the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, there are nearly as many street kids as tourists on the sidewalks.

Lilac — who won't give his real name — has long blond dreadlocks tangled up under a camouflage hat, a blond goatee, and startling blue eyes. He says he hasn't slept in three days, and he talks very quickly — sure signs of a speed binge. He has roamed the country since 1998, he says, and often comes to S.F. in the summer or fall, when the weather is nice enough to sleep in the park. Haight Street is his automatic destination: It's just understood, he says. Haight is where the street kids belong, where they've always come.

But this Sunday saw an influx of a different demographic. The "Opera in the Park" extravaganza brought an estimated 15,000 patrons of the arts to Sharon Meadow, just a short stroll from the park's Haight Street entrance. At 9 that morning, the street kids trekked out of the cold, foggy park, sleeping bags rolled onto their backs, walking just to get their blood moving. They passed enthusiastic opera-goers trekking in with thermoses of coffee and coolers full of fruit, sandwiches, and cheeses. The early audience members spread blankets and set out folding chairs and tables, well prepared for their six- or seven-hour stay outdoors. By late afternoon, they had all gone home.

"I heard some of the opera. I started playing tapes over it," says Lilac. "I mean, I like opera. I'll listen to the symphony, or go to some Shakespeare in the Park, but I've got to be in the right mood. That's for when you're hanging out with a girl, drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers. Not when we're sitting around smoking bowls and trying to sell some bud. You know what I'm saying? Not when it's in my day-to-day. And this is our living space — Golden Gate Park is ours," he goes on. "It would be like if someone walked into your house and started singing opera."

There are a growing number of people who take issue with Lilac's claim of ownership. Fed-up Haight residents and merchants, not to mention the Park Station's police officers, say they have a different vision for the Haight; in theirs, the sidewalks aren't crowded with teenagers in hooded sweatshirts, hunched over scraps of cardboard. These dissenters have recently reconstituted an old organization, the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, to agitate for new policies to reduce the number of homeless young people they see every day.

Just in time for next year's 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the neighborhood has resurrected ancient arguments over who belongs in the Haight and what to do with the homeless young people who flock here. The Improvement Association's ideological foe is the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, which has been spearheaded for many years by Calvin Welch, a low-income housing advocate. "There is an enduring element in the neighborhood that is at war with its very nature," Welch says. "[The Improvement Association] has picked up the old and enduring chestnut — that there are too many migratory young people. I've lived in this neighborhood since 1962, and this old chestnut has [been] around since the Summer of Love. Someone always had to say, 'There are too many young people hanging around with too much time on their hands; something has to be done.'"

The kids, the subject of all this debate, don't seem to want to be part of the conversation. They say they're proud to exist outside of society, living on ingenuity and generosity. Meanwhile, the Haight's aging residents look at them and see either dangerous misfits or damaged kids from broken homes. In an ironic full circle, the children of the '60s are now trying to show a new generation of kids the error of their free-spirited ways.

"We all experimented with drugs, we all had sex when we were told not to, we all hated the government and dodged the draft," explains Richard Shadoian, an aggrieved neighbor and resident chair of the Improvement Association. "And we grew up."

In an increasingly prosperous Haight, there's less room and less tolerance for the drifters, the dreamers, the derelicts, and the down-on-their-luck who have seen the neighborhood as a haven for four decades. These days, the area's beautiful Victorians sell for more than $1 million. Haight Street still has a few liquor stores and head shops, but it also boasts vintage fashion boutiques in which a pair of 40-year-old shoes can set you back $300. And the neighborhood's heart has shifted to Cole Street, where the gourmet cheese shops and upscale salons are far beyond the reach of anyone turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.

Apparently the kids haven't gotten the message about the area's transformation, because they keep coming. They still arrive in unregistered cars and beat-up vans, or they ride the freight trains to Oakland and hitchhike over the Bay Bridge. They still feel entitled to the Haight's street corners and to pieces of the park. Some, like Lilac, drift through when the weather's good, and take off again whenever an interesting opportunity presents itself. Others have been hanging out on Haight Street for years and think of this city as home, like the group of friends who call themselves the "San Francisco Scum Fucks" (they tattoo the "SFSF" logo onto their hands and shave it into their dogs' fur).

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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