Ken Garcia: Backers of S.F. seediness take preservation to the extreme

One of these days I’m going to read a story in one of the national newspapers that paints San Francisco in a positive light.

Sadly, those days are probably still years from now.

I know this because last week the Wall Street Journal wrote a story with yet another “only in San Francisco’’ theme — in this case,a tale about some small, radical gay group that is fighting efforts by a community organization that is trying to beautify an area of the gritty Tenderloin.

I realize that almost every issue in San Francisco can find a tiny constituency, but it turns out that the pro-crime, pro-drug dealing, pro-prostitution advocates have a wider network than anyone imagined. And the idea that there are forces promoting seediness in San Francisco is particularly timely because it’s playing a key role in the District 6 supervisorial race, where bombastic bad boy Chris Daly is facing a very real challenge from Rob Black to retain his seat.

Last year members of the Lower Polk Neighbors organization came up with the idea to plant 400 trees in the Tenderloin, the much-neglected area that is best known for having by far The City’s highest crime rate. The green project seemed a natural and easy way to spruce up the concrete jungle — except that nothing is quite that simple in a town where creating chaos is considered a civil liberty.

The effort by Lower Polk Neighbors, led by Dan Diaz, David Overdorf, John Malloy and Carolyn Abst, was viewed by one fringe group as an attempt to root out pimps, hookers, transvestites, drug dealers, social deviants, crackheads and other proud residents of the Tenderloin from their cherished soil. So the group, Gay Shame, took it upon itself to distribute a wanted poster of then-organization head Abst and lead a campaign to stop the beautification effort.

I hate to spill ink on any group that delusional, but the Wall Street Journal writer was transfixed by the story and tracked down one of Gay Shame’s members, Matt Bernstein Sycamore, who was identified as a former prostitute and drag queen. Sycamore told the Journal that the reason they don’t want the Tenderloin to be cleaned up is because it’s a place for people who don’t fit in, you know, normal society. And some people might think the same of the district’s official representative, who gave a rather startling and revealing quote to the reporter.

“Yes, people are addicted to drugs and, yes, there’s homelessness,’’ Daly told the Journal, which headlined the story “San Francisco Residents Fight to Stay Seedy in Low-Rent District.’’ But “why shouldn’t these people have a place of their own?’’

To which Black responded: “I think it’s disgraceful for Daly to be advocating to leave a neighborhood dirty and dangerous. Thirty percent of all of San Francisco’s crimes are committed in District 6, and he’s saying that’s OK. And it’s not OK.’’

And you wonder why San Francisco enjoys the national reputation it does. Not since Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval went on national television to say the U.S. shouldn’t have a military has a local official so clearly exhibited what people in the other 49 states like to refer to as San Francisco values.

I doubt that planting trees will stop junkies from shooting up on the streets, or drug dealers from plying their trade, but it’s certainly a noble idea to bring some light to such a dark place. Abst, an architect who moved to The City in 1988, said that she’s gotten notes from people all over the country thanking her group for its plan, and even received $100 from a man in Wichita.

“Nobody in our neighborhood wants it to become Union Street or Chestnut Street,’’ she said. “But the idea that the minute it gets pretty that it drives out the deserving poor isn’t true. And it isn’t a good thing when a neighborhood tips beyond edginess to scariness.’’

Abst said Daly once told her that her group wasn’t among his constituents — apparently because they’re trying to brighten the area. I’m not sure that’s a winning campaign strategy, but reducing crime doesn’t seem to be part of Daly’s agenda and he’s already been elected twice. So maybe he’s on to something.

Yet I think most sensible people would agree that the terms “preserve’’ and “Skid Row’’ generally don’t belong in the same sentence. And that beautification shouldn’t be confused with gentrification. Or that planting a tree isn’t an attempt to chase out those engaging in alternative lifestyles.

But I know that if there’s a nutball cause out there, it will eventually find a place in San Francisco — and a national correspondent just waiting to pounce on it.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.