Little-known fact: Stonehenge was actually installed when a group of Neolithic Briton homeowners passed the Neolithic Briton hat, bought a bunch of rocks, and dumped them into Salisbury Plain to ward off unwanted Druids.
Eh, it might have happened. Frustrated people or groups tossing up their hands and saying, “Nothing else is working. I’m gonna buy a bunch of rocks” must trace back to the Stone Age.
Stones were, back then, in great supply.
With that said, the anti-homeless boulders in San Francisco’s Clinton Park — a small street even lifelong city denizens may only have previously known as the road between Pet Food Express and Whole Foods — are large and heavy. But not on the scale of a Neolithic monument. And yet, anyone wandering into the vicinity of Clinton Park in the last month would probably have the same thought as visitors to Salisbury Plain: “How the hell did that get here?”
Representatives of city government certainly wondered that. That’s because these stones were purportedly installed here, unilaterally, by area residents fed up with homeless encampments and alleged overt drug dealing and criminality.
Of course, this became Internet manna and a national story.
That this emplacement is comparatively small (and easy to dislodge) is fitting. This is a small moment for our city. It is the metaphor for our time and our place that’s clumsy and ugly and horribly on-the-nose and as subtle as a boulder on the street. But it’s the metaphor we deserve.
In San Francisco, perhaps the richest city in the history of cities or money, we’re fighting a proxy war over rocks. We’re doing this while the level of suffering on our streets resembles a scene out of a failed state. We’re doing this after the city’s neglect regarding unsafe and miserable conditions on this and so many blocks led residents to consider vigilantism as an attractive option (there was, apparently, no city permission sought nor granted prior to dumping tons of rocks on the sidewalk — this, in a city where installing a pink flamingo in the front yard likely requires several rounds of permitting).
Vigilantism begets vigilantism. Those rocks have been, on at least four occasions, toppled into the gutter. In replacing them — time and again, at taxpayer expense — our Public Works department has seen fit to questionably insert itself into a cat-and-mouse game.
And, in doing so, it has put the city squarely behind this vigilante emplacement.
And that’s a hell of a thing to do.
Years ago, your humble narrator wrote about the small army of city workers required to approve — and, ultimately, remove and reinstall — a handful of bronze art chairs on the street near the Church and Duboce Muni stop. Representatives of the Art Commission, Mayor’s Office on Disability, Public Works, Municipal Transportation Agency, and a handful of private actors all had a hand in this action.
And, remember, this was regarding installations meant to comfort and welcome people.
These rocks, by contrast, are meant to induce discomfort and unwelcomeness. Our records request is pending, but it appears they were installed with no apparent government approval or input.
And the city seems just fine with that. “We are in the process of sanctioning these boulders … on Clinton Park,” notes a communique from Public Works.
It’s jarring to see city government relegate itself to the role of the referee at a pro wrestling match.
And it must be jarring for the unhoused city residents who’ve had their tents and possessions confiscated during city enforcement actions to watch Public Works employees repeatedly hoist these unpermitted rocks back onto the sidewalk instead of carting them off to the warehouse from the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But, to be fair, it must have been jarring for area residents who made hundreds of calls regarding unsanitary or unsafe behavior — and have alleged overt drug-dealing and menacing behavior — to watch cops, a few blocks over in Dolores Park, busting up kids’ outlaw lemonade stands.
This is, again, a small moment for San Francisco. It’s a made-for-clickbait frenzy in which our city comes off as petty and sclerotic and not just incompetent but creatively incompetent.
So, it’s small. But it’s also big: It’s hard not to see the flashpoint at Clinton Park as an indicator of how this city’s response to its homeless crisis is failing. Failing writ large.
Putting rocks on the streets was a mean-spirited thing to do. But it was also feckless; whether it’s homeless campers or tent-based drug-dealers, rocks are not going to make a difference.
If rocks could have won the Drug War, this nation’s quarries would have been mobilized during the 1980s and vast quantities of stone would’ve been dropped onto Colombia, Afghanistan and Humboldt County.
So, this was a misbegotten move, and the city’s expensive coddling of it is doubly misbegotten.
But, in a way, it’s good this happened.
Because now, this block’s problems might actually be addressed. And — if we’re being honest — we’re forced to come clean about our failures. About a shelter waitlist 1,100 people long in a city where homeless people still have had their tents seized by authorities during driving rainstorms. About our lack of productive and coherent policies regarding overt drug-dealing and property crime. About police being deployed instead of social workers or mental health professionals. About a dearth of housing. About a dearth of treatment on demand. About a dysfunctional, even cynical mental health system.
About a surfeit of misery in this city, emanating from each and every person huddled in a doorway or stretched across the pavement.
About all the things you can’t solve by merely scattering rocks on the sidewalk.
Update: Unwilling to continue throwing good money after bad, the city has today announced it will cease replacing the rolling rocks and simply cart them off. The problem of unwarranted big rocks on Clinton Park has been solved. Every other problem remains.