Looking for new energy in neighborhood activism

My favorite Muppets are Statler and Waldorf, the cantankerous yet lovable old men shouting wisecracks and hard truths from the balcony. I get to see them regularly because I go to a lot of neighborhood meetings in San Francisco, where there's never a lack of Statlers and Waldorfs in the audience.

Consider the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People (SHARP). At first glance, its crowd and cadence resemble the typical neighborhood gathering hell bent on fighting City Hall.

“We're mostly an older group, over 60,” said board member Jeremy Friedlander, 64. “We remember some pretty lunatic city proposals in the past, like a freeway in Golden Gate Park, which explains why old timers are skeptical about or hostile to city development plans.”

But something different is stirring at SHARP in the Inner Sunset.

“The other day a 20-something guy showed up with a mohawk — or at least what I thought was one — and we swooned over him,” Friedlander said. “You will not find a hip demographic at SHARP, though I'd love it if we could change that.”

Recently retired as a deputy attorney general for the state, Friedlander wants to re-imagine the purpose of the neighborhood association. He envisions a “salon,” where ideas are discussed rather than ideologies debated.

When SHARP hosted speakers on the affordable housing crisis, the controversial topic didn't generate the typical fireworks.

“Instead of a shouting match, I asked each side to give a TED talk,” Friedlander said. “People need information, not another community boxing ring.”

Friedlander also wants to expand programming beyond politics with meetings that feature a local musician giving a concert or a scientist in the neighborhood presenting her latest research.

He hopes the quality of the programming will attract audiences with the time to physically attend, while technology can let anyone experience it online at any time (www.sharpsf.com).

“Trying to turn out lots of people to monthly meetings doesn't work in an age of Facebook, smart phones and jobs with irregular hours,” Friedlander said. “The traditional model of the neighborhood group acting as a squeaky wheel to influence politics is becoming obsolete.”

SHARP has been around for more than a century. Its name comes from a regrettable period of San Francisco history when Westside neighborhoods were designed to keep non-white residents out.

“Back then an association of 'responsible people' was probably a respectable way to say 'racist people,'” Friedlander said. “Today our name is merely ridiculous.”

SHARP has long since redeemed its origins. The group aims to be a philanthropic force — especially for at-risk kids — and has found a way to generate revenue.

Until 2008, SHARP occupied a rundown building it owned on two lots near the corner of Ninth Ave. and Moraga. One lot was sold and the old building was demolished to construct two rental apartments with a community room on the ground floor.

“Thanks to the rental income, we will be a bigger philanthropist organization with every passing year as our mortgage dwindles,” said longtime member Jack Barry, who was instrumental in realizing the group's vision. “Like the old song goes, 'If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?'”

The call to change can be infectious. I spoke at SHARP about my views on city issues. Someone asked me about the influx of tech workers and I hesitated, expecting the older crowd to bristle at my answer. I said tech should be embraced, not feared.

Then, as if on cue, a gray-haired man of 70, perhaps 80 — a Statler from the Muppet balcony — barked his commentary for all to hear.

“It's the future,” he said.

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at jengardio@sfexaminer.com.

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