News you can use | Trial balloons | All the city's a stage | Home | Current issues | Back issues |


April 26 - 30, 1999

Tuesday, April 27, 1999

News you can use

April 23

Dear Supervisors:

A reading of the proposed amendments to sections of the Municipal Code regulating signs, handbills and banners which you will vote upon Monday reveals that a "newspaper" in this city is now defined as a publication that "contains at least 3 separate sheets of paper" (SEC.184.69.f.2).

As publisher of the San Francisco Flier, an award-winning single-sheet newsletter which appears three times a week, carries back-page commercial advertising and is distributed through 75 free-standing newsracks and some 50 cafes, I find this definition at best arbitrary, and at worst utterly subversive of constitutional guarantees. One could easily imagine the reaction of Sam Adams and Tom Paine on perusing Deputy City Attorney Mario Kashou's declaration that, in effect, the Founding Fathers' one-page broadsides were not engaged in the actual gathering of news.

You should pardon my attempt at historical elocution; were not First Amendment rights already imperiled in this city due to the effort to rid the streets of free-standing newsracks, surely such a gibe would be unnecessary. But unfortunately, "prior restraint," that fastidious fop, has many changes of clothing.

Let me be as succinct as possible about my own situation:

I'm a registered business in the City and County of San Francisco, with the stated purpose of reporting and analyzing the news both in printed form and with my Internet syndication service. I pay taxes and fees here on that enterprise. I am required to provide proof of insurance to the city for my newsracks. I am duly credentialed by the police department, and have worked on and off as a journalist for more than 30 years. Withal, my publication, currently one separate 8.5x11 sheet of paper, two short of the requisite separate sheets to qualify as a newspaper as determined by our bureaucratic guardians, will henceforth be legally classified as a "handbill."

I've gotta tellya: I've got a real, real strenuous problem with that. And, I submit, you should too.

When, within the next six months, I begin publishing Monday through Friday and become the city's third general news daily, I'll go to four pages. Those four 8.5x11 pages will still only comprise one separate (11x17) sheet of paper, apparently yet not sufficient bulk to satisfy the size-queen inductions of this municipality's tort-minded sentinels. And next, as I expand to eight pages I'll be printing but two separate sheets of 11x17. Eventually, if I go to 12 pages, I will revert to a single broadsheet, folded twice, the better to retain the aura of a flier-like appearance. If you'll allow me a parenthetical observation, I suspect Supervisor Ammiano has a wealth of material here with which to turn into a standup routine.

My point, it should be obvious, is this: with these proposed changes to existing law the city is potentially negligent in legally conferring on my enterprise the status to which it is due by dint of its proven expertise and its ongoing conformity with the city's regulatory directives. In due course, this arbitrary classification of my newsletter as a handbill undoubtedly precludes my ability, for instance, to bid on a contract for publishing city notices. Further, such a classification, as distinct from the designation of a "newspaper," makes it problematic for any distribution of my product on private premises. Zoned home-delivery advertising, for example, of the sort the Independent  does, would require me to first undergo a cumbersome registration process, registration fees and registration stamping on each piece of distributed matter --- all of which are not applicable under SEC.184.72 of the proffered legislation, to "newspapers," as so codified by the city's barristerial wisdom.

I'll wind down with a bit of personal reminiscence, if you'll indulge me. A couple of years ago, soon after Mayor Brown publicly demonstrated his ability as a football analyst, I ended a column about the planned newsrack ordinance with the line, "Persist in this effort, Mr. Mayor, and we'll be on you like a fumble." And so it has come to pass, with the press piling on with litigation this city patently deserved.

For those of us in the business, our newsracks are not only our shop windows and essential tools of our livelihoods --- they're part and parcel of our friggin' souls, have no doubt about that. As I write this, CNN is broadcasting the pinched tonality of British military briefers in early-morning gloating over the destruction of the Serbian TV complex in Belgrade. Many journalists, sharp-tongued, dedicated professionals whose presented facts differed from those of the West's political elites, are strewn around the rubble. Our brethren there no longer enjoy the notion of access, but we do, if we insist upon it. Ask around, and most of us in the trade will tell you that to stop us you'll literally have to kill us as well.

You can count me among that group, as you've doubtless surmised. But as I've detailed above, there remains the elementary matter of your formally according my newsletter its due. I can tell you that the notable thing about running what has been, until fairly recently, a one-person publication, is that everything one has ever done or learned is wrapped up in that one separate sheet of paper, thoroughly enmeshed with every last comma and drop cap on the page. A few years ago I had some business cards printed up which read, in part: "Never audition. Shape your own access. Don't give a shit about applause." The second of those admonitions, of course, implies that one already has at least a measure of legal standing. Thus to be notified, by those whose lexicons are limited to the word "whereas," that what one produces doesn't qualify, is to be insulted with the insinuation that one's life hasn't passed muster for even the benign courtesies of public certification. Ordinarily, I could care less about outside valuations of the work I do; denying me equal protection under the law, however, gets my rapt attention. At the risk of redundancy, you bet your ass I take it personally, and at this juncture any further discussions should be about your authenticity --- or the lack of it.

I trust you'll enjoy your weekend. Respite usually engenders the best reflection on the big issues we all grapple with. Myself, tonight I thought I'd head up to Nob Hill and look out over the city. I don't know if you're familiar with Balzac, but there's a wonderful line he uttered one night while standing on the highest hill in Paris: "It's between you and me now."

Vote away.

John Hutchison

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Wednesday, April 28, 1999

Trial balloons

Questions, questions. Some, like the Four Questions posed by young Passover celebrants --- beginning with "Why is this night different from all other nights?" --- lead slyly toward complex, meaningful answers. Others, like the Four Questions recently posed at Glide by the North of Market Planning Coalition, provoke a lot of heat but little warmth as they spin vainly in place. It usually turns out that these whirling dervishes are decoys and the really important questions point in an entirely different direction. This was the case on Monday evening.

NOMPC had formulated its questions to serve as the basis for a community meeting on homelessness: Are you disturbed by the appearance of homeless people on the streets in our community? Do we need to "eradicate" homeless people, services, and shelters in our neighborhood in order to have economic growth? Can we end homelessness in our community? Our city? Where do we send our tired, our poor, our huddled masses? A  weighty panel, chaired by Amos Brown and including hands-on practitioners such as Director of Public Health Mitch Katz and Swords to Plowshares director Michael Blecker, attempted to find satisfactory answers. Round and round, they revolved on the same pointy axis.

The audience --- homeless people, brown-robed Franciscans from St. Anthony's, well dressed representatives from the mayor's office, corporate types from the Hilton and Market Street, the usual assortment of activists --- tossed more questions into the pot. What is the city doing for people coming out of jail? Where's the support? How do we keep the Tenderloin from becoming the city's dumping ground? How can we promote economic development and still maintain affordable housing?

Round and round, the words of wisdom whirled, faster and faster. Human Services director Will Lightbourne: We must fashion and fathom constant responses. Supervisor Leslie Katz: New measures are in the works. Glide's Anita Valentine: The whole person needs to be embraced, not just where they will sleep tonight.

The three supervisors spun predictably. The concerns of the motley trio for problems of homelessness are as varied as their personal styles, and their statements were noticeably out of sync. Leslie Katz, less vocal about homeless problems than some of her colleagues but considering a run for the SoMa/Tenderloin district in 2000, quickly affirmed her opposition to the "run-'em-out-of-town" approach. "This is a city based on diversity, of all economic strata," she insisted, "and we must create more housing."

Leland Yee, a familiar face in the Tenderloin and a sponsor of legislation to limit massage parlors and liquor licenses, spoke of his anguish at the divisiveness that homeless problems had spawned. Differences have led to demonization, he said. "Balkanization --- moving individuals from the community, moving individuals from the parks --- is not the answer to economic problems in the city."

Amos Brown, whose name has been badly blackened by homeless advocates, arrived late from a family emergency and walked right into a question about his own past statements. "Amos Brown speaks for himself and no one but Amos," he bristled. "I offer you this disclaimer: I have been greatly and grossly misrepresented. I am a product of the Civil Rights Movement." The preacher of Third Baptist, who has "worked like a Trojan to make sure public housing is cleaned up and sustained," came armed for action. It's time, he suggested, to do some politicking, to join forces with Southern California, to form a coalition with Yvonne Burke and lobby for more state and federal money.

Haven't we heard this before?

Caduceus director Mary Kate Connor thought so. "The people who are disengaged are the people who are in power --- the politicians. I want to believe the platitudes I'm hearing, but I don't think they have the political will to make things happen. The feds won't bail us out. We need to do some out-of-the-box thinking on our own."

But gradually, astonishingly, the mood of the meeting began to change, as another theme took over. Someone --- I think it was Blecker --- said the "C" word. Crisis. "This is a crisis of the first order. There is a tremendous lack of housing right now. Let's be honest and tell the public that there's a real crisis." Supervisor Yee added, "Simply as an observer, I'd say that the city is in serious trouble." And Captain Susan Manheimer of the Tenderloin Task Force: "Let's ratchet down to reality. There are really several issues --- homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, veterans --- concrete issues to be dealt with."

The tempo of the comments sped up. Hands waved vigorously. Questions and answers flew back and forth, often landing on top of each other. The supervisors got into the act. Leslie Katz: I concur. We have a problem, a crisis. Let's hear the audience's suggestions and begin to take real steps. Amos Brown: No, the supervisors should be the ones to start. Leland Yee: Yes, the politicians are the ones with political clout. Let's use the  strong relationship between the mayor and Sacramento.

But the audience upped the ante. Tenderloin resident Roger Langford: Let's set a date right now for our next meeting. St. Anthony's Father Louis Vitale: The city isn't responsive. This is a crisis situation.

The last word had hardly formed in the good priest's mouth when Amos Brown cut in. "It's time for action. I invite this group to hold Supervisors Yee, Katz, and Brown accountable for their leadership in getting the needed resources through a three-pronged approach at the federal, state, and local levels. Let us meet here again in two weeks, when we will have an action plan to present to you."

Will they? Will the plan be more than pretty window dressing? Will these three politicians then --- expeditiously and enthusiastically --- carry it out?

These are the hard questions. Questions whose answers will shape, for better or for worse, the future City of San Francisco.
The next Community Meeting on Homelessness will take place on Monday, May 10, at 6:30 p.m. in Glide Memorial Church.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Friday, April 30, 1999

All the city's a stage

Recently, in a dusty attic, a learned scholar stumbled on an old packing crate containing several manuscripts by William Shakespeare that reveal an intimate knowledge of San Francisco. The Bard later revised them extensively for his London productions, but knowledgeable readers may still recognize a few familiar lines in the excerpts that follow:

From PacBeth

Construction, construction, construction,
creeps across the city from day to day,
to the last tremor of recorded time;
and all of our promises have shown stadiums
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief Candlestick!
Your life was the story of a sad slugger, a poor player
who strutted to the plate, fanned three times,
and then was heard no more. It was a tale
told by Debartolo, full of wind off the bay,
signifying nothing.

* * *

From Roaming on Judah

O Muni, Muni, wherefore art thou Muni?
Deny thy record and refuse thy unreliability;
or if thou wilt not, let me ride for free,
and I'll no longer be a carper.
'Tis but thy inconvenience that is my enemy;
Thou art thy self though, not a Muni.
What's Muni? it's neither seat nor wheel,
nor horn, nor route, nor any other part
belonging to a bus. O! be some other name:
What's in a name? that which we call a schedule,
by any other name would smell as sweet;
so Muni would, were it not Muni call'd,
retain that dear ridership which it owns
without that title. Muni, doff thy name;
and forsaking that name, which is no part of thee,
take me downtown.

* * *

From Hammiano and Angeletto

To run, or not to run, that is the question:
whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the mud-slinging of outraged critics,
or to do battle in an election year,
and by losing end it? To lose: to disappear;
no more; and by disappearing, to say we end
the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
that politicians are heir to, 'tis a consummation
devoutly to be wish'd. To lose, to disappear;
to disappear: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
for what dreams of future office may come
when we have shuffle'd off the political stage,
must give us pause. There's one aspect
that makes calamity of a long public life;
for who would bear the scorns of Timeand Newsweek,
the press's wrongs, the columnists' contumely,
the possibility of imprisonment, the donors' delay,
the insolence of investigators, and the spurns
that even the most patient of canvassers receive,
when he or she might take just leave
with a simple refusal to run? who would these fardels bear,
to form flatulent deals for few rewards,
but that the dread of something beyond the public eye,
the political oblivion from whose precincts
no traveler returns, paralyzes the will
and makes us rather live in the office we have
than fly to another we know not of?
Thus fear of dreaming does make cowards of us all,
and thus a native love for San Francisco
is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of caution,
and enterprises of great promise and daring
float out to sea --- their constituents turn away ---
and lose the name of action.

* * *

From The Merchant of Market Street

The quality of life is not engrain'd,
it droppeth as the gentle rain from City Hall
upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
it blesseth him that gives up his shopping cart,
and him that takes it back to Safeway:
'tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
the sitting Mayor better than his fedora.
His wardrobe shows the force of temporal power,
a fashion plate of awe and majesty,
that once controlled the Sacramento kings;
but the quality of life is above this display,
it is enthroned in the Mayor's heart,
it is an attribute of the Supes themselves;
and Mayoral power then shows like the Supes'
so that the quality of life seasons justice.
Therefore Honorable District Attorney,
though justice be thy plea, consider this,
that in the course of justice, none of us
should see salvation: we pray for the quality of life,
and that same prayer teaches us, the clothed and housed,
to render up the great unwashed.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Home | Current issues | Back issues |