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Nowhere to Sit in San Francisco

 
Public seating has been removed in tacit surrender to homelessness

Benches 02

On a recent sunny day in San Francisco, Rebecca Scalfaro left her office to eat lunch and read a few pages of a John Steinbeck novel in Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall. As usual, Scalfaro, a petite 48-year-old who works in accounting, found a seat along one of the low-lying concrete walls that surround the square patches of grass on the plaza.

“They’re very uncomfortable,” she said as she sat on the eight-inch high ledge and tried to rearrange her legs.

“A bench would be great,” she said. “Or even if it wasn’t a bench, just some chairs would be really nice.”

All around the city, San Franciscans can be found seated on steps, curbs, retaining walls and on the grass — but not on benches. In a tacit surrender to the overwhelming problem of homelessness, the city has simply removed public seating over the last two decades. Benches in Civic Center Plaza were removed in the 1990s. Those in nearby United Nations Plaza were ripped out in the middle of the night in 2001, to discourage the homeless from congregating and camping there.

“Because San Francisco has been unwilling to deal with homelessness in a serious way, we have instead removed public seating from virtually the entire city,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, an urban policy research group. “It’s such a sad statement and it makes the city that much less livable for everyone.”

Benches

Despite its problems, some people are now speaking out for public seating. In the last two years, a movement has been growing to create small, lively public spaces with places to sit. Inventive miniparks, called parklets, are popping up in parking spaces around the city, some of them with permanent seats, albeit uncomfortable ones — to discourage prolonged sitting. Food-truck operators bring temporary tables and chairs with them. Public rights-of-way are being transformed into plazas, like the Castro’s Jane Warner Plaza, an erstwhile intersection where residents now sit at tables sipping coffee in the sunshine.

“The city is focused on improving the public realm and that’s demonstrated by projects like parklets,” Christine Falvey, a mayoral spokeswoman, said.

This resurgence has reignited the debate over public space and homelessness. Scott Wiener, a supervisor who represents the Castro, has introduced legislation to prohibit people from smoking, camping or parking shopping carts in Jane Warner Plaza and nearby Harvey Milk Plaza.

The legislation, which Wiener said could be expanded to cover parklets across the city, has been met by an outcry from some old-time Castro leaders and advocates for the homeless.

“It’s really ridiculous, it’s stirring up the anti-homeless sentiment,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

“It targets a class of people that may find themselves sleeping in a plaza or pushing a four-wheel shopping cart.”

Falvey said “the city has been doing significant work on homelessness. In the last seven years, we have moved nearly 15,000 people off the streets.”

San Francisco city planners are now working on plans that could reintroduce some outdoor seating along Market Street, the city’s major thoroughfare, from Civic Center to the Embarcadero. Granite benches were removed from Market Street in the 1990s after business owners complained about homeless people, according to a 2010 study.

Benches

Neil Hrushowy, an urban designer for the city who is working on the Market Street project, said that past planning based solely on “the fear of quote-unquote undesirables” was not good for urban design — and did not actually work.

“There is a pretty broad agreement that depriving the public of seating is not going to solve the problem of who has access to public spaces,” Hrushowy said. “The question is, how can we happily coexist?” Indeed, the homeless still hang out in United Nations Plaza, a 2.6-acre pedestrian mall whose benches were removed 10 years ago. On a recent sunny day, Wayne Biggs, 61, was in the plaza waiting for a truck that offers free lunches.

Biggs, who said he was homeless, was neatly dressed and seated on a cement retaining wall next to a large suitcase filled with his belongings.

“There used to be benches here,” he said. “They even had these dividers so people couldn’t sleep on them. Now there’s just this concrete. It’s cold and there’s always pigeon poop on it.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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