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December 7 - 11, 1998

Tuesday, December 8, 1998

Bidding for dollars

My old grandpappy used to say, "Them that has, gits." And this holiday season, the hard-working people at the City Center Partnership are hoping to "git" a whole stockingful of goodies, in the form of a brand new Union Square Business Improvement District.

BIDs are the latest wrinkle in the privatization boom that's blanketing the country. I lost track long ago of all the brilliant ideas that have surfaced to solve the ills of postindustrial America, but in recent memory we've been treated to suggestions that private organizations take over public schools, public transportation, public water districts, and social security. And now the security and maintenance of public spaces.

The proposal, which has just come to the full Board of Supervisors for approval, is completely up-front about its purposes. The acronym is BID, not DID. We're not talking about the creation of a general civic project to spiff up the downtown area for the increased enjoyment of San Francisco's citizenry. We're talking about a special business project to improve sales, with the legal and financial backing of the city's resources.

The district, which derives its legitimacy from a state law passed in 1994, would assess the 90-odd property owners in the 10-block area bounded by Grant, Sutter, Powell and Market to pay for a level of services it feels is currently unavailable from the city. In 1994 businesses began to contribute $240,000 a year to fund the area's Ambassador program, charged with making visitors to downtown stores feel safe. But what they came up with was small change compared to the new BID, with its anticipated annual budget of close to $1 million.

Where will the money go? In a project this size, coordination counts. About $125,000 will pay a managing director and staff, hired by the City Center Partnership, a private, non-profit organization representing the area's property owners and tenants. About 40 percent is earmarked for street cleaning, trash pick-up, graffiti removal and the like, conjuring up bizarre images of workers in brightly colored overalls singing happily (they've got jobs, haven't they?) as they march through the crowds in front of Macy's, scrub buckets in hand. Another 40 percent of the money will fund an expanded Ambassador program and something that creates a far more unsettling image --- an on-duty, privately funded officer in the San Francisco Police Department. Does he or she, I wonder, get to wear a special badge with dollar signs incorporated into the city seal?

The public and the private merge elsewhere as well, because the law carefully distinguishes between programs that provide a "special benefit" to the parties putting up the money and those that confer a "general benefit." Heaven forbid that a BID should help out the populace at large! Funding for such benefits must come from somebody else. In the case of the Union Square BID, when the engineering firm of Edward Henning and Associates somehow identified 21 percent of the expected results as "general," the city offered to kick in $200,000 a year to pay for them, an arrangement that is both reassuring and disturbing. By contributing $1 million over the five-year lifetime of the district, the city can require the project to comply with its minority/women-owned business programs and Equal Benefits Ordinance. But the contribution also means that the city has become party to a private project over which it has only limited control.

In considering this BID, San Francisco is hopping on a train that has been chugging merrily across the country for several years. Hollywood; Coral Gables; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; even Wheaton, Illinois, and the Pelham Parkway Mall in the suburbs of New York --- they're all on board. But the question is, do we really want to go where it's headed?

Two BIDs in New York City offer glimpses of things to come. One in Times Square, with an annual budget of $6 million, boasts of a 47 percent reduction in crime since 1993. The BID, which prepares comprehensive retail and market analyses of the area, has made it a special mission to regulate "adult use" establishments, and indeed, the number of porn shops has fallen from 47 to 19. Every day a crew of 50 workers in easily identifiable cherry-red jumpsuits literally sweep through the district; they also scrub, vacuum, and paint offending spots. Other crews, drawn from a pool of 45 unarmed public safety officers, patrol the area from 10:00 to midnight, traveling on foot and in a variety of vehicles, including bicycles and a BID-owned Jeep. In constant radio contact with the NYPD, their affidavits provide evidence for arrests by police officers.

This BID participates actively in the city's much-publicized Midtown Community Court, which tries only defendants charged with "quality-of-life" crimes --- graffiti artists, illegal peddlers, prostitutes and other people who might offend the sensibilities of potential shoppers. The punishment is speedy and visible: the convicted --- more than 1,000 in 1997 --- are assigned to BID-supervised sanitation crews in the area. Nor are more humanitarian concerns absent. The Times Square Consortium for the Homeless, composed of the BID and local social service organizations, makes special efforts to reach "service resistant homeless." In the past two years, the TSC has placed 20 mentally ill or substance-abusing people in housing.

Farther downtown, the Village Alliance BID also offers private supplements to public sanitation and safety services. But the historical nature of Greenwich Village has endowed it with another role as well. This one's a bit mind-boggling. Welcome, the advertising blurbs say, to a clean, safe and friendly environment, "where Jimi Hendrix built the Electric Lady sound studios;...and Andy Warhol and Lou Reed created the citadel of Hippiedom at the Electric Circus on St. Marks Place." And in the background, the rumble of many bodies rolling over in their graves.

The Business Improvement District. A program for economic development? A private extension of the public justice system? The ultimate theme park? Could be all three. As my old grandpappy used to say, "Them what pays the piper, calls the tune."

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, December 11, 1998

You don't need a weatherman...

The novelist Raymond Chandler made a habit of checking the police blotter during the season of Southern California's Santa Ana winds. The hot, dust-laden winds are a worldwide phenomenon; in the Mediterranean they have names like sirocco and meltemi, forming over the Sahara and gaining humidity and destructiveness as they move north. Chandler employed his regional variant and its swaths of havoc as a cameo of human nature: the goads and stirrings which tilt the psyche and often cause the daggers to be unsheathed in all manner of vendetta and ricompensa.

For the past two days the winds originating over the high deserts of Nevada and Arizona have packed 100 m.p.h. strength from the weighty cold air at high- and low altitudes, blasting through the narrow Santa Ana Mountains canyons and sparking wildfires, overturning trucks and downing power lines throughout the Los Angeles area. Perhaps we should keep the literary instincts of the master of noir within reach as we seek useful metaphorical understanding of some recent events. The usual approaches of political and economic analysis aren't furnishing us even the slightest gust.

Can we utilize Emerson's Law of Eternal Compensation as explanatory of the PG&E blackout? (On the Chandleresque revenge scale, Ralph Waldo is Pollyanna.) PG&E, we can now officially confirm, was lying to us about the potential impact of Proposition 9. The California Energy Commission, in a report which was withheld from the public prior to the November election, determined that the passage of Prop. 9 would have easily cut consumer electricity bills by 20 percent, and would not have affected overall energy efficiency and environmental programs. Further, the report states that PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is not essential to the state's power requirements.

New York real estate tycoon Abe Hirschfeld has been charged with the murder-for-hire of his 40-year business partner, Stanley Stahl. The avuncular Hirschfeld is reported to have paid $75,000 in cash to have Stahl killed. Hirschfeld's bail was set at $1 million, and he attempted to pay it himself with the check for $1 million he had offered to Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. Hirschfeld was briefly the owner of the New York Post, where this sort of thing plays daily as the lead story.

Satori at Omaha Beach: Tom Brokaw, on assignment in 1984 for the 40th anniversary of D-day, experienced a sudden and profound precis on the human condition. He underwent a "life-changing experience" walking with the vets who had landed there, men he says he had failed to appreciate for all they had gone through and accomplished while he was growing up. The incident has led to his first book, The Greatest Generation, which he "thought a journalist should do," given his personal epiphany. Earlier he had thought the highlight of his assignment to Normandy would be the region's "celebrated hospitality, its seafood and its Calvados, the local brandy made from apples."

There'll be an old-fashioned ritualistic Christmas in Cuba this year, it has been widely reported, one without state interference. Unreported by high-profile newsreaders and everyone else in this country is Cuba's offer to send 2,000 doctors to Central America and Haiti to help establish a long-term integral health plan for the two devastated regions. Cuba has also offered 5,500 medical scholarships to Central American students over the next decade.

In his November 21 speech Castro called on the wealthier governments of the world to finance the plan, and appealed for volunteers from other Latin American nations and elsewhere to join the Cuban doctors. He also requested that Washington suspend deportation of undocumented immigrants to Central America, and asked that other governments cancel Central America's debt to them.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but it isn't the IMF or the United States.

The ability to get a handle on the spread of HIV cases has in large part been due to anonymous testing. With the new CDC recommendations for states to report HIV infections by patient name or identifying code, federal monies for research and treatment hang in the balance. Needless to say there has been no concomitant urgency to strengthen state and federal privacy laws, as the attempts to sanitize and monitor the Internet attest. The latest instance of Uncle hovering is the FBI's asking the FCC for permission to use an individual's cellular phone as a location tracking device. It also wants access to information you send over the Internet via e-mail and packet-mode communications.

All of this of course is presided over by the most prominent among us, even as he is displayed in full-scrotal vise. Have you epiphanied yet, sir?

Bill Bradley's forte, it was said, was that he played well without the ball: Clear out the key, run the baseline, set picks, know where everyone was on the court, and arrange to be there if no one else could take the shot. Now he wants to extend the metaphor as a political template. He'll join a squad of the similarly clueless like the Kerrys, Bush, Pete Wilson and the senior Bush's running mate, Rick Dees.

Bradley is a man so embedded in neoliberal folderol as to make the notion of differentiation synonymous with entropy. It's all there: the subservience to markets, free trade, the efficiency of privatization, capital combines, less taxes for elites, the can't-we-all-get-along homilies, the virtue of the clan and the hearth and other moist truisms, etc. Why the hell is he even bothering? I suppose all these guys see themselves as the one to "bring us all together," with each confident that, unlike Clinton, he is clean enough to go unsavaged by those across the aisle with whom he is essentially in accord, despite party nomenclature. Can you pick me out one of this gang who will, for example, voice the least bit of antitrust misgivings over the corporate mergers dooming working people?

December 10, 1958: Fifteen years old and sitting with my buds at Haps, a blue-collar bar in the Brookland section of Washington, D.C., watching Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle fight for the light-heavyweight title. Mauling each other like club fighters, both go down four times before Moore stops him in the 11th. "Look at these guys!" someone yells. A few blocks away the federal city abuts the real city. The divisions are real, worlds apart, and we know it. Forty years later and on the tube from the federal enclave familiar men flail at each other, unable to get out of each other's way. It's not difficult to spot stumblebums when you see them. Turn out the lights and write it on the wind.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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