The SF Examiner recently launched a Q&A series that seeks to connect readers with the people that keep San Francisco moving forward, literally and figuratively. Transit newsletter subscribers will get the first look at these conversations as they appear in the weekly Friday email. Subscribe here.
It was Summer 2010 when Manny Yekutiel first came to San Francisco for a college job to canvas for same sex marriage. He spent those few months traversing The City by public transit to various street corners where he’d be stationed, armed with a clipboard and splashy t-shirt, asking passersby to support Equality California, a statewide nonprofit that fights for LGBTQ+ rights.
Yekutiel says that summer was when he fell in love with San Francisco, and after a few stints in political campaigns and internships for the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, he returned to the foggy city he’s now called home for the last eight years.
Today, Yekutiel runs Manny’s, part-coffee shop, part-civic gathering space in the Mission and, sits on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, a post he was nominated to by Mayor London Breed in October 2020.
We discussed how small business and public transit intersect, and why he believes Shared Spaces advances the goals of the SFMTA. (Yekutiel is speaking for himself, not on behalf of the board or agency).
Q: Why did you decide to start Manny’s?
A: I was pretty lost before Manny’s. The idea came slowly, there wasn’t one lightbulb moment. I saw millions of people after Donald Trump got elected, and I thought where else are these people going to go after these marches are over. The truth is, San Francisco had places like Manny’s for a long time. It’s not a new idea, but many of the places that used to serve this purpose — a politically active community space with food and beverage — for a variety of reasons, those places are gone. I realized it might be time to bring one of these places back.
I didn’t think it was possible until it happened. I was in my late twenties, and there wasn’t much of a rubric for it because there were coffee shops, political spaces, lecturing organizations, but there wasn’t a place that was doing it all, and I kind of had to make it up as I went along.
Q: How has Manny’s been impacted by the pandemic?
A: People should understand that almost no one goes into small business to make money. My father opened a restaurant when he first emigrated to Canada, and my mother’s family owned a grocery store in Brooklyn, so this is something I know about. People open up a small business because of a passion for what that business does and a desire to be independent and self-sufficient, but also in community.
Who do I say that? Because, yes, I think the most immediate impact of the pandemic has been financial. Revenue at Manny’s went down 80 percent in certain parts of our revenue streams. It was the same for a lot of small businesses, and that has been disastrous from an economic standpoint, from a jobs standpoint and from a personal standpoint for anyone involved in small business.
The second piece that doesn’t get talked about as much is the emotional damage of not being able to do the things you built your space to do. For Manny’s, I built it as a gathering space around politics, but just when we needed gathering the most, I couldn’t gather people.
Q: Why did you choose the Mission for Manny’s?
A: One of the main reasons I chose the Mission was the importance of being near mass public transit for access to the kind of social justice programming I was going to be putting on in the space. I knew that if I built a physical space with the purpose of gathering the community around politics and it was not near mass public transit, I was immediately putting up financial and class barriers to people.
I take this responsibility very seriously, and I feel deeply privileged and honored, especially at a young age, to have the ability to help my peers who are small businesses in many communities.
Q: What’s been your experience on the SFMTA board so far?
A: I am so impressed with my colleagues on the board. Our board is well run, everyone is brilliant, everyone takes it extremely seriously, and you can tell.
It is a very difficult board to be a part of because you could spend all your time on just one of a selection of thorny issues. What is difficult is how do you marshal your time as a board member and prioritize what you work on outside the meetings and where you choose to focus.
The issue I’ve found is not in the complexity of the topics, but in the difficulty of moving the needle. How do you bring people together? How do you get stuff done? Our constituency is complex. We run an agency, so we must consider how we play with other departments, transit riders and just the general public that maybe doesn’t even use transit but is also affected by the decisions for transit.
Q: What do you think the relationship between small business and SFMTA should look like?
A: Historically, there has been a lot of tension. A lot of our SFMTA projects, not all of them, have resulted in disruption to street life, which is essential to the working of brick-and-mortar small businesses. There’s always going to be some inherent tension when the goals of one particular body may not always, but sometimes do, interfere with the working of another community. I’m glad there’s now someone on the board that has a foot in both communities because the translation hasn’t always gone very well.
I think it’s getting better. The pandemic put into stark reality the delicate balance our small businesses have on our streets and how important it is that the entire City family, the folks responsible for the allocation of the budget, realize we need to invest in small businesses if we want them to stick around.
Q: You’re on the record as a loyal proponent of Shared Spaces. Can you explain why you believe it’s so important from the perspective of your role as an SFMTA board member?
A: Putting my SFMTA hat on, supporting the health of our commercial corridors is in the best interest of our MTA. Shared Spaces supports our economy, supports our lower income workforce, our neighborhood vibrancy and our transit first policies.
Secondly, Shared Spaces is about job creation. I know that might sound like a line, but I can tell you firsthand it’s true. At Manny’s, I hired another person because we need extra hands. If this program is implemented in a way that is affordable and accessible and easy to use that’s more jobs created.
I have found the SFMTA to be extremely flexible in working around folks’ Shared Spaces with capital projects, too, and honestly I have to say that being on the inside and see how they’re moving projects and expending staff time to figure out how to make adjustments to projects so parklets don’t get demolished or destroyed is very impressive.
It’s not perfect. We can’t have a Shared Space everywhere. We need to make sure people are safe. There’s a little bit of a dance here. That’s unfortunate, but I don’t think the availability of a space to build the platform is an equity issue. That’s frankly about luck of the draw. I don’t think anyone chose their business thinking about whether they will be able to turn a parking space into a deck.
However, cost is certainly an equity issue. I do think Shared Spaces fees should be paid monthly. There’s a cash flow issue. It’s important to remember there are up front costs to building and keeping these spaces, and small businesses and their owners make a lot less money than you think.
Q: How would you push back against criticism that until SFMTA can fund Muni, it shouldn’t divert resources towards a program like Shared Spaces?
The service question is more complicated than just money. That’s important and a limiting factor, but so is human capital and staffing. Hiring, promoting, training doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger.
We have a budget deficit that needs to be filled. Any cut in expected revenue is going to be hard, and you have to figure out a way to fill that cut. While it is worrying to potentially have a $10 million cut in expected revenue, I believe that what would be a much worse thing is potentially missing out on the economic and emotional and jobs impact of having this program be affordable and accessible.
I think it is exactly the right time to be doing this program, whether or not it has an impact on the budget of SFMTA because it furthers the goals of the agency. This is not the turning of public space into private space, it’s the using of that private space to generally welcome the public in much more open ways than with parking spots, and this is only a tiny fraction of parking spaces in San Francisco.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.