A sleeping man finds room between the anti-homeless stones placed on Clinton Park, purportedly by fed-up neighbors. Photo by Taylor Ahlgren

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. 

Your tax dollars at work. Photo by Mirjam Washuus.

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.

Failing everyone. 

Photo by Taylor Ahlgren.

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. 

It’s time. 

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.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Why don’t the glue to rocks to sidewalk with industrial adhesive?

    What am I missing here?

    PS: these rocks would be in many, many more places

  2. I live less than a block from Clinton Park, and have for about twenty years. Of course the homeless situation has gotten much worse, and the amount used needles strewn about is unprecedented. And of course the residents of that narrow quiet street deserve a respite from the nightly transformation of their street into a camping strip. And as for the rocks, well the article’s author made jokes about them, but no actual comment as to what’s wrong with their presence? They’not unattractive, nor do they impede basic sidewalk traffic. Is the city thus saying that the homeless have the right to camp there at night? And for that matter perhaps Mr Eskenazi could offer some actual suggestions as to dealing with the problem instead of merely scolding in general.

  3. The city itself pulls benches out of parks to keep the homeless off them. San Francisco divides benches up with barriers to keep the homeless from seeping on them. The city ruins public fountains by fencing them off or allowing them to fall apart to keep the homeless from using them as baths, and you have a problem with poor rent and mortgage paying citizens trying to do the same thing to hang on to the sidewalks around their homes?

  4. Wow, great article.

    From the lede on Stonehedge, to the realization that this is a metaphor moment for the City rather then just a story, and to learning a new vocabulary word, “sclerotic”

    This AM I am reading in the competition’s paper that MrCleanSF is saying the problem is that the rocks were too small and that he looking to put bigger ones there. Hahaha, the fun continues.


  5. These musings, while philosophically entertaining, are reading way too much into the whole affair.

    As far as the specifics of what was happening on Clinton Park (i.e., the pervasive drug dealing and drug doing — and all the “supplemental activities” that accompanied the drug, the installation of boulders was an inspired idea that was simply poorly executed — and it grossly underestimated the extraordinary measure that the enablers would go to maintain the status quo.

    Accordingly, for Round 2, the pro-boulder neighbors should do the following:

    1. Procure larger/heavier boulders.

    2. Space them closure together — while still maintaining a minimum 48-inch wide ADA-compliant pathway along the sidewalk.

    3. impale them upon substantial Type 316 (marine-grade) stainless steel spikes set in the sidewalk and affixed with non-shrinking grout.

  6. Who the hell has time to wait outside these people’s doors and harass them? Talk about tale of two cities. Some of us are actually out working to pay our rent..

  7. Only in San Francisco can a group of neighbors with good intentions to fight crime on their block be vilified for their efforts when the progressive city government refuses to address the issue. And now the criminals (auto break-ins, drug dealing, drug possession, bike theft, littering, camping on public property, etc) are presented by the loud progressives as the actual victims because they are being hindered from continuing to break the law on this block.

  8. in my view the main problem is that SF is being considered the poorhouse of the nation, both in the mind of homeless people/ junkies/ vagrants, etc. as well as other states/counties’/regions’ governments.
    as in ‘let’s go to SF, where the weather is mild, handouts are abound and where the city government let us do whatever” and ‘let’s send them to SF where the city gov can take care of the problem’.
    maybe we should help only the local homeless and junkie community, those people who have let’s say a 10 year record here in SF, showing that they are from here (proof such as criminal record, previous residential sf address, medical records etc).
    we obviously cannot and shouldn’t take care of all of the nation’s socially disadvantaged people.

    1. Baby strollers have to share the street with cars where I live off of mid-Market because the sidewalks are covered with the “homeless”. We have a new 6 month old baby where I live and so I’ve seen it. And so would wheel chairs because when the sidewalks are covered with people who are often tweaking there is no room for a pedestrian much less something as big as a wheelchair. I wonder about the people making some of these comments. If you don’t live in a flat or home surrounded by a shantytown of drug users you really don’t have the right to be putting in your two cents. I mean what do you know?

  9. “The city’s expensive coddling” ….Wow! this was directed at the desperate efforts of taxpaying actual “residents”. Would you say the same thing regarding the 350 million dollars directed every year to vagrant programs ? And I dispute any claim that vagrants are actually “residents” (a person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long-term basis). I say “homeless” are not residents.

  10. Rule of Karma number 5, ” You are responsible for what happens in your life”. Notice it’s not, everyone but you. So no matter how much we try to “help” vagrants and how many billions we spend on these efforts. They are doomed to fail, just like they have for the last 30 years. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

  11. If only the compassioneers used the same vigor that they do to virtue signal against San Franciscans who are fed up with gridlock on addressing encampments in residential neighborhoods to do their jobs on policy advocacy and moving their agenda.

    We have sufficient data points that such messaging of inaction: “be compassionate, do nothing” has failed over and again, changing the trajectory of SF and CA politics. Care Not Cash kneecapped progressive power in SF and only exacerbated the tensions and pressures surrounding housing and homelessness today. Now that neoliberal sits in the governor’s mansion. Care Not Cash was critical to Newsom’s political rise.

    After Care not Cash, every compassioneer set themselves up as a cottage industry mom and pop “service provider” to take the cash to deliver the “care.” That created a dependency relationship of the compassioneers to the conservative Democrats that run the City having wedged the progressives from the electorate via homeless measures. Over the lifetime of CnC, conditions on the streets for homeless people as well as housed people has deteriorated.

    The conservatives are going to be punitive. That’s their shtick. My concern is what are the compensated advocates and service providers putting forth as their program. The answer to that is little more than “be compassionate, do nothing.” Even Prop C would take 15 years to build the housing and treatment to make half of a a difference, twice as long to address today’s housing and treatment deficit.

    Would that the compassioneers did the heavy policy lifts to change the trajectory from down to up on homelessness as they did to move to virtue signal by moving boulders.

      1. You provide one more data point confirming my suspicion is that many of the compassioneers are lapsed Catholics who are bringing that faith, hope and charity schtick to poverty politics.

        It is like they are trying their hardest to prove that they are good Catholics so that the priest keeps his hands to himself during their next confession.

        This is why so often vacant properties of the Church were targeted for occupation. And it is why compasioneers compete with one another to wash the feet of the most leperous.

        1. Marcos, save your anti-Catholic tropes for whatever type of genocide you are trying to stir up.

  12. Joe,

    True weird bit of history.

    In the olden days SF’s sidewalks were wooden.

    And, hinged.

    They dug out pits and rolled the drunks into the space and then closed it.

    Am I the only one having all of these great ideas?

    Hmmm, should that worry me?

    Boudin for DA!

    Preston in D-5!

    Raju for Public Defender!

    Miyamoto for Sheriff!!

    Go Niners!


  13. I saw an ad on Craigslist
    Free rocks over the weekend.
    With a photo of said rocks on Clinton Park!! Unsure who posted but it had a reply address!

  14. I’ve talked to a resident who lives on this street; they have a perspective that might make for a bit of balance in this piece.