Newsom kills the party

Pub date November 7, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL It was a typical Halloween night this year in New York City: two million people in Greenwich Village, 50,000 participants in a wild costume parade, national media attention … and no real problems. Since 1973, New York has managed to handle a homegrown event that exploded into a tourist attraction in an urban neighborhood. It’s a signature part of the city’s landscape, something world famous that shows the best of the city to the eyes of the world and generates a small fortune in tourist revenue.

Why can’t San Francisco, which by all rights ought to have a claim on Halloween as a national holiday, seem to get it together enough to manage its version of this event? Why was the city’s response simply to give up, to kill the party, to send out so many cops that the Castro was effectively in lockdown? Why spend millions to keep an event from happening while giving up on the small businesses that depend on that night’s revenue?

The scene on Castro Street on Oct. 31 was surreal; at least 500 law enforcement officers kept the barricaded streets blocked off. Anyone who so much as stuck a toe off the sidewalk was harshly reprimanded and pushed back. Local restaurants were shuttered — and the few that tried to stay open faced reprisals. The would-be revelers tried to be festive, but they weren’t given much support. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Bevan Dufty had effectively cancelled Halloween.

They did so with little public input, operating mostly in secrecy, without revealing any specific plans to anyone in the community. It was a startlingly un–San Franciscan way of doing business, autocratic and mean-spirited. In fact, Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard, was almost mocking of any community concern; when we asked if the mayor or any of his staff would be holding any press events to discuss Halloween plans or let the community know what was in store, he tersely responded, "Halloween has been cancelled."

Newsom referred to the evening as "an incredible success," and if the goals were to make sure that nobody had any fun, nobody spent any money, and the Castro District was largely dead, it’s hard to argue with his logic.

On the other hand, if you think it ought to be possible for San Francisco to host a big party without creating panic and fear — that Halloween ought to be something to improve on and fix, not utterly shut down and abandon — then Oct. 31 was a civic embarrassment.

In a city where thousands of homeless people still wander the streets, where the price of housing is driving families out of town, where the homicide rate is soaring, the fate of a party is hardly the top issue on anyone’s agenda. And it’s tempting to give up, focus on more important things, and let the city’s tradition of wild Halloween fun just die.

But this is part of a larger trend that’s been happening in this town, and it’s directly related to the gentrification that’s changing the face of San Francisco. We’ve called it "the death of fun" — anything that might make a little noise and bother some well-off neighbor, anything that might create a little mess, anything that’s just a little out of control … the folks in the Newsom administration would just as soon see it go away. These days permits for live music events are tougher to get. Street fairs are facing prohibitive fees and regulations. Dance clubs are being told to quiet down. And we’re getting sick of it.

Next year Halloween will fall on a Friday, and the Castro simply can’t shut down then. Even Dufty admits something different will have to be done, and there’s no shortage of ideas. A Halloween street fair — perhaps with a modest donation asked of anyone not wearing a costume — shouldn’t be impossible to manage. A parade, similar to that of the New York gala’s, could start in the Castro and wind down at Civic Center, thus eliminating the problems that have some neighbors up in arms. But any solution will require extensive community input, and the mayor and Dufty need to set up a legitimate community task force — now, not next summer — to start talking about plans.

Some people suggest that the mayor needs to create an office of special events, which isn’t a bad idea. But he needs to do something else first: say that he’s not dead set against fun.