Standing Up for the Right to Sit Down in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 17, 2011 - 11:10:00 PM
Moms and kids sitting on the Derby sidewalk enjoy the sunshine  at the Farmers' Market.
Becky O'Malley
Moms and kids sitting on the Derby sidewalk enjoy the sunshine at the Farmers' Market.
Youthful Santa Cruz street-sitters perch on public art on Saturday night.
Becky O'Malley
Youthful Santa Cruz street-sitters perch on public art on Saturday night.
On Santa Cruz's Pacific Garden Mall, young people sit along the sidewalk.
Becky O'Malley
On Santa Cruz's Pacific Garden Mall, young people sit along the sidewalk.

It’s hard to believe, but it seems that the clueless owners of the commercial buildings in downtown Berkeley and on Telegraph are pressing on with their campaign to ban sitting down. It appears that their proposal is still on the fast track for passage in mid-summer, in that convenient sweet spot when most students and many other residents are out of town and the Berkeley City Council can do its dirtiest deeds relatively unnoticed.

Since there are already many well-organized opponents, passing an ordinance like this would be a guaranteed recipe for disruption: certainly demonstrations, possibly calls for boycotting businesses in the target areas. But there’s very little indication that the struggling small business owners who meet the public at street level every day even support the sitting ban.

Boycotting retail merchants and family-owned restaurants seems like a bad idea, because these establishments are more likely to be victims of the high and ever-increasing rents demanded by predatory property owner landlords than instigators of the anti-sitting move. Many small-time operators, such as Fred’s Market and Shakespeare Books on Telegraph, are patient and generous with the down-and-out population on their doorsteps. A better tactic would be a “shop-in”, a reverse boycott in which public-spirited businesses like these are supported by patrons who appreciate their stance.

A major problem for many retailers in such areas is the prevalence of business improvement districts (BIDs) which are controlled and funded by the big property owners, with voting power proportionate to the amount of property owned instead of one-business-one-vote. Telegraph Avenue already has such a BID, the Telegraph Property BID, which, represented by director Roland Peterson, is a main proponent of the anti-sitting move. 

Often, membership in BIDS is compulsory and expensive. Downtown’s existing BID, with John Caner at the helm, is proposing much higher rates, according to this letter from a small property owner received by the Planet: 


“I haven't seen any mention in the Planet of the proposed business improvement district (PBID) now being voted upon by downtown merchants and owners. I live in downtown Berkeley and have some rental apartments in my building. "Currently we owners are forced to pay tax to the Downtown Berkeley Association in addition to the regular, and high, Berkeley business tax. The tax is based on gross receipts, and in my case amounts to around $300 per year. The DBA is supposed to enhance business interests in the downtown area, and sometimes it does. The people in charge of the DBA seem to be the chief promoters on the new entity, spending their time and my money on the idea of a larger organization and a much bigger budget. If the scheme is approved my bill will quintuple, to about $1,500 per year. Others will be similarly impacted. "What will we receive for this greatly increased tax? The largest portion of the receipts ($750,000 of a total expected of $1,207,500) will supposedly be spent to make the downtown streets safe and clean! Isn't that a city responsibility? Don't we have a right to expect clean and safe streets when we pay our regular property taxes plus our regular business tax? Apparently not.”  

He has a point.  

And the most annoying thing about sitting bans is that they just don’t work as promoted, as experience in San Francisco and Santa Cruz clearly shows. The people on the streets who need social services will not just disappear if they are forced to stand while they beg, though their hard lives will be even harder. The rootless young who congregate in public spaces will continue to do so as long as they lack any better alternative. 

On Santa Cruz’s Pacific Garden Mall (which is an open street, not a mall in the usual sense) last Saturday night I saw a normal assortment of what used to be called loiterers. Santa Cruz, which has a nominal sitting-on-the-sidewalk law, has seen fit to enhance the area with a lavish amount of street furniture, including sculpture both traditional and modern, little fences in the middle of the sidewalk and many benches, at least two per block. All of these amenities were in active use by the street population, the same kinds of people who sit on the sidewalk in Berkeley. They were doing the same kinds of things: playing music, chatting, scowling, begging for money and food and just plain hanging out. 

I suppose it could be argued that if Berkeley were to add a lot of nice new benches in commercial areas as a tradeoff for forbidding people sit on the sidewalk it might be an improvement. Certainly we need many more benches all over town. 

In 2006 the Planet received this letter from the late Pat Cody, a founder of Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, which on her watch had a good relationship with street people: 


“Many of us elders walk daily for our health and for errands, as we no longer drive. I want to advocate more resting stops, like the ones found at bus stops, but scattered through neighborhoods where buses do not go. Lack of such benches keeps many elders virtually housebound.”
Putting in more benches would be good for everyone, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to appear in Berkeley. In San Francisco, however, guerilla bench-installers have been plopping unauthorized seating spaces all over town since that city’s anti-sit law was passed. We could try that here. 

The more agile young are already to be found sitting down around Berkeley—see the accompanying photo of moms and babes, a charming regular sight on the Derby Street sidewalk at the Tuesday Farmer’s Market. On the other hand, police already feel entitled to harass some possibly less charming young people on Telegraph and elsewhere, whether they’ve sitting or standing, as a recent video provided by Copwatch clearly demonstrates. 

Carol Denney notes in this week’s Commentary section that unequal enforcement of existing laws is pattern and practice with Berkeley police, and there’s no reason to expect that adding an anti-sit ordinance would have a different outcome. But police have more important matters on which to spend their time, as the letter in this issue from out-of-town visitors who were burglary victims shows. Perhaps more police time should be devoted to investigating break-ins and less to moving people around on Telegraph. 

This weekend the rapidly expanding coalition of those who oppose the proposed ordinance will again demonstrate their opposition. Members now include civil libertarians, homeless service providers, youth advocates, artists, religious leaders, student activists and more. 

On Friday night from 7 to 10 the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center will present a free night of poetry and song sponsored by the Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down Coalition and The Revolutionary Poets Brigade. Participants include Lincoln Bergman, Gary Hicks, Dee Allen, Andrea Pritchett, Dottie Payne, Miguel Robles, Ava Bird, Arnie Passman, Carol Denney, and other special guests. 

Then on Sunday downtown Berkeley will enjoy the first-ever Chair-a-pillar, a light-hearted event which will be held at the Downtown Berkeley BART station from 12 to 2, in conjunction with weekend actions in San Francisco's "Sidewalks are for People Campaign". The poster to the right on this page has details. 

This week’s activities, benign and colorful, are just the beginning. If the property owners don’t see the error of their ways, things might get more tense. Good sense suggests that city councilmembers should Just Say No right now to this bad idea, whose time has not yet come and never will. It would save us all a lot of trouble.