Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Legacy business legislation in San Francisco is necessary to survival of humanity


"Family-owned bars and restaurants, corner groceries, unique boutiques, and arts- and culture-related businesses -- the very places that once gave San Francisco its charm -- have been the first to go" in the city's hemorrhage of small businesses. Cuco's, a Lower Haight taqueria, was run for 23 years by Carmen Campos and her husband Domingo.

"To live in a city without small businesses owned and patronized by people of all ethnicities is unthinkable to me."
-- the author

by Denise Sullivan

I don't know about where you live, but here in San Francisco, we have a disturbing phenomenon:  The city is hemorrhaging small businesses. Family-owned bars and restaurants, corner groceries, unique boutiques, and arts- and culture-related businesses -- the very places that once gave San Francisco its charm -- have been the first to go.

In the final quarter of last year, San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Mark Farrell released the findings of a report they'd commissioned which revealed that by the end of 2014 San Francisco would lose 4,378 of its small businesses. Drawing on previous studies, the report stated the uptick in small business displacement was  "a significant increase from the 693 businesses lost in 1992, the first year of the study." Significant?  I'd call it criminal, but for corporations and tech-based companies in San Francisco it's just business as usual.  As you've no doubt read, the escalation of hyper-capitalism run amok (I hope that isn't a redundancy) is that much more . . . amok here.

Just today, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about people with more money behaving like jerks more of the time than the rest of us. Referring to a survey conducted out of UC Berkeley, studies suggest drivers of luxury cars are more likely to run over pedestrians in a crosswalk than those behind the wheel of a "beater."  I'm fascinated by the stats, and believe the findings, based on personal experience. I'm also intrigued by the use of language in the article, as it reveals how changing mores, changing attitudes, changing language are all part of the gentrification process, though sometimes it's hard to tell garden-variety change from generalized gentrification, hyper-gentrification and what our local activists call "gentrifucation."

Since the city's initial 1992 report and its final analysis in 2011, the stats on closures and relocations leapt from 1,300 annually to nearly 13,000. The report judges this bleed unacceptable and, further noting that among those businesses many were longstanding neighborhood and community-serving establishments, for example purveying plaintain burritos and vending vintage housewares, advises a move toward legislation. Adding to the urgency is that many of these closures were in Campos' district, the venerable Mission, home to Latino families, artists, and now the tech elite (Facebook Mark Zuckerberg lives on a bordering neighborhood, where his McMansion looks down on the flatlands). Farrell's district recently lost 28-year-old All Star Donuts.

All Star Donuts closed in September after 28 years in the Marina.

The supervisors' report claims that London, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires have policies to aid local heritage, and San Francisco has established a program for its local bars and restaurants that qualify for legacy status. It's possible we could really lead the way here and become the first U.S. city to add small, local, and culturally relevant businesses to a roll call of brick-and-mortar establishments deemed worth preserving. Incentivizing commercial property rentals for landlords, providing assistance through city agencies for purchase of properties for tenants, issuing small business loans to businesses that need increased cash flow will all go some way toward preserving our neighborhoods' character and keeping jobs local. It's said stable local neighborhood businesses also lead to reduced crime.

But the political will of voting-age San Franciscans is weak: Aside from the overworked and underpaid activist and community-organizing committees who do the heavy lifting, the few here who vote on local issues are not enough to carry support for these kinds of measures. We who support protections are labeled old and in the way; it's said we are nostalgic, pining for a San Francisco that no longer exists.  That may or may not be true, but to live in a city without small businesses owned and patronized by people of all ethnicities is unthinkable to me.

"City Hall has a responsibility to protect successful businesses from the unnatural economic pressures created by the affordability crisis," said Campos in a prepared statement. Though one wonders what qualifies as a successful business?

I'll  tell you what a successful small business means to me, based on personal experience. One night, at closing time, I was at the counter of the bookstore where I work (one of my three jobs, supplementing my income as a writer, of course). A man asked if we had a Spanish-language copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. To my great pleasure and his relief, I said yes, and grabbed it off the shelf for him. We chatted, as you do in a bookstore, and he told me he was off to visit his relatives early in the morning; he needed the book as a gift for his 12-year-old niece, hoping it would inspire her to follow her dreams.

If not for transactions like these, a young woman may not have received the priceless gift of the message The Alchemist has delivered to its millions of readers. The human touch, books, and dreams are not generally the way of city governance, though they could be. Today, I am embarrassed to say I am San Franciscan, though I have hope that we can turn things around. "When we love, we always strive to become better than we are," writes Coelho in The Alchemist.  "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too."

Bruce Springsteen, "Human Touch"

The rights holder doesn't allow us to embed the song, but you can see and hear it here.

Denise Sullivan, the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, is a San Francisco writer whose most recent DWT contribution was the January 19 post "Selma Songs and More Music for MLK Today."

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