The Imperfect Host, Part Six: What Comes After The Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl is over, and with it Super Bowl City's brief, branded invasion of San Francisco. Things will be back to normal soon enough, but that's not the end.
Photo by Tarin Towers
This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.
That's over. The Super Bowl happened, a football team beat another team and their owner took home a trophy that people lined up to get their picture taken with, in an NFL- and VISA-sponsored ticketed event at a trade show hall where you could also stand in line to reenact a Doritos commercial. People got wasted on booze and junk food, three people died, and now San Francisco will spend the next five days deconstructing Super Bowl City—the physical infrastructure, anyway. The parsing and postmortem-ing will go on long after the bigwigs leave town—those who didn't fly out right after C.J. Anderson punched in the last Denver touchdown, that is. It will continue long after the last receipts come in.
There's so much I've wanted to tell you about this Super Bowl Week: How the National Nuclear Security Administration happened to be flying low-altitude helicopters to check background radiation every day. How MUNI and SFO employees were asked to "volunteer" during work hours. How Artspan's juried local art show resulted in an assortment of reproductions on branded banners hanging on the fences surrounding Super Bowl City's port-o-potties and playground, many blocked off by generators and trash bins. How one of Super Bowl City's sponsors, Dignity Health, has refused California women tubal ligations because of religious exemptions. How every PR person I asked about Super Bowl security brought up anti-human trafficking training as their first talking point, even though the idea that Super Bowls increase trafficking has been roundly debunked. There's only so much room, and also there is just so much.
Glide Ensemble's closing notes sounded through a surprisingly populated Super Bowl City almost exactly at 3 PM, and were followed by a loudspeaker announcement that Super Bowl City was closed. (Several tourists I spoke to had come to watch a live broadcast of the big game, but providing that wasn't part of the Host Committee's plan.) The x-ray booths and bag checks ceased existing, and people streamed in with items banned for the week prior: ice cream vending carts, bicycles, panhandling signs. The first moment it could, San Francisco staged a counter-invasion of Super Bowl City. It was perhaps the most predictable moment of the last, heavily inevitable week.
San Francisco is surely much denser with beauty than people, even when the money carnival clangs into town, disgorging tourists from private jets like clown cars. But with all the beauty in San Francisco, including those ten heavy and extremely defaceable Super Bowl statues set into the ground, people came to stand in long lines to get their picture taken in front of the number 50 wherever it appeared. For at least an hour after Super Bowl City officially closed, people were still standing in orderly lines to be photographed with the official gold statues at Justin Herman Plaza.
SWAT Are You Looking At
A lot of the city laughed at all those ubiquitous 50's, but there was a power to it. Maybe it's the encrypted math joke: San Francisco 49ers, plus one. Gold rush, plus one. Or just 5-0, like the police that were everywhere, all week.
Perhaps the most remarked-upon feature of Super Bowl City, aside from its boundaries and fences and checkpoints, was all the security, police, and military personnel, and all their great big guns. I asked one volunteer—a 45-year-old East Bay native and volunteer captain who asked I not print her name, as volunteers were specifically instructed not to speak to the press—on Thursday how her week had gone, and she said "Oh, good, I've felt safe ever since I got here: Just look at all the police, especially those big boys." She gestured behind her at the SFPD officers wearing full SWAT gear and bearing machine guns on the embankment behind the CBS Sports booth. "I hear there's tons of plainclothes, too, and the training was great, really made me feel prepared to be here and feel safe." She repeated that she'd felt safe the entire time, and I had to wonder what her training prepared her for. Homeland Security had bomb-sniffing dogs, among other things.
She was also having fun, she said, and she laughed as she told me she worked in biotech, pointing at the "STEM Zone" sign marking an oddly remote football-science exhibit hall presented by Chevron. "I came because I can't afford a ticket to the game. And because I love football fans, and I like to see all the games and interactive stuff."
I asked her what the most interesting thing she'd seen so far had been. She thought for a moment and whipped out her phablet, and pulled up a picture of the beer can sculpture of a hand throwing a football that anchored a Bud Light beer tent. She later admitted that the most exciting job moment occurred on Wednesday morning, when "we had that little security thing." I hadn't heard any buzz about a security thing Wednesday. (On Tuesday, at a freeway onramp about half a mile from the main entrance to Super Bowl City, a homeless man stabbed a Highway Patrol officer after a confrontation. But she was not referring to that.)
"Oh, there was a businessman at the Hilton entrance who didn't want to go through security, and he was making a big stink. Security called me over and I called over a couple big guys in blue," she said, gesturing at her lapel like it bore a sheriff's badge, "and he calmed down pretty quick." The businessman went through security without any more fuss, she told me, and that was about the biggest problem she'd had to confront, and could mostly get back to talking to people like me. Well. Not the media. Nice people. Tourists. "You fooled me," she said. In the interest of disclosure, I should mention that I was not trying to fool anyone, but also in the interest of disclosure I will note that I was wearing a Ravens hoodie.
I talked to about a dozen people who worked within or adjacent to the perimeters of Super Bowl City. After a backup on Monday, security lines weren't as bad as had been feared—partly through better preparation and choosing alternate routes, and partly because a preponderance of office workers either took time off or worked remotely. It was rumored that SalesForce, whose building is in One Market Plaza, had told its employees to stay home to avoid delays caused by street closures, an irony not lost on people who have to change their routines for that company's annual Dreamforce conference, which closes the same area South of Market that the NFL Experience did last week.
Justine Hebron, a nonprofit communications professional who commutes from Corte Madera on the Golden Gate Ferry, estimated that her commute increased by four hours over the course of Super Bowl Week from having to shift work hours around and either take a longer walk to her office, on Montgomery near Sacramento Street, or wait to pass through the security gates. The walk to work felt tense, she told me. "Everything feels oppressive and stressed. Seeing the police in full tactical gear, body armor and machine guns is extremely upsetting and unsettling to me. I get the need for security, but what are they protecting? What looks like a Las Vegas hotel concourse at a massive Visa convention?"
"I resent having to walk past guys with rifles, standing around my building like a paramilitary occupying force," a 43-year-old administrative assistant who works at One Market Plaza told me via email. "I'm already nervous around police officers, given the climate around police shootings and how it's been uncovered how cops treat black people in general. I resent seeing snipers on the rooftops of my building from my office windows, and wondering if they're watching me back. I resent that corporations have commandeered our common spaces (private and public) as their own elite playground. This feels like the declaration of victory of an occupying enemy, rather than a celebration being shared with the citizens of the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular."
Rena Fritts, 39, a senior manager at a financial services company also in One Market, was not as bothered by the heavy law enforcement presence; she said the office was briefed in December about the additional time and procedures, which included bomb-sniffing dogs at the parking entrances. "I think the tactical teams with the big guns are striking," she said. "My five-year-old loved them and the K9 units." I asked if she had noticed any difference in the homeless population in the area; she expressed concern and said many people she usually sees are mentally ill. "There are some street musicians I'm used to seeing. There has definitely been displacement, but I'm sure they'll be back. There are always tourists in this area."
Everyone I spoke to who works in the area said they were not planning on attending Super Bowl City at all, for food or entertainment, with two possible exceptions. One was a live performance from Alicia Keys, who was such a draw the last night of Super Bowl City that all entry gates were closed for the evening by 5:19pm. The other was the Puppy Bowl Cafe, where pound puppies played for big crowds at Gott's Roadside burger restaurant in the Ferry Building.
I'm still mad I didn't get that 50 tote bag when I saw it on Super Bowl City's opening day last Saturday.
I don't need any more tote bags, strictly speaking. But the one I didn't get at the Montgomery Street BART station NFL Pro Shop was beautiful, and I thought about it all week after first seeing it on Super Bowl City's opening night. It was the same material as the lap rugs they had for sale, machine woven and colorful as a magic carpet. On Thursday, when I finally had the $20 required to buy it, the bag was sold out at all the gift shops installed in the downtown BART stations; they were sold out of it at the pro shop inside the NFL Experience at Moscone, too, and they didn't even have any left at the enormous "NFL Shop at Super Bowl Presented by VISA," across the street at Moscone West. I missed my chance.
Those who felt called upon to experience the Experience had decide between money and time. The cheapest way to go was to buy your ticket on-site to avoid getting Ticketmastered out of extra fees. But I ordered ahead, got the Flex Pass where I could go whatever day and time I felt like, and paid the $2 extra to print my own ticket—$47 total, which I only fronted because it was paid by VICE Sports. Will call is free, but then you have to stand in the will call line, which means you have to pass through the same security gate as you do to just walk up and buy one. Once they have you in the building, you might as well look at the gear.
The NFL-Visa-Host Committee triumvirate have manufactured an enormous amount of really good looking, expensive clothing for Super Bowl 50, much of it featuring that solid gold 5-0. I wonder whether the shirts, jerseys and hoodies made in Pakistan and Nicaragua and Guatemala (and the U.S.) will sell out, or whether that swag will find its way into the sale bin at Factory 2-U. You can get less-designer but still-official SB 50 T-shirts at the Target a block away, too, where I heard a couple of women arguing with the cashier about paying $.10 for a shopping bag to take their purchases out of the store. "It's the law," the cashier explained.
"Then you should have a sign up," they said, "so that us East Coasters know what we're paying for." I wonder if they will argue over every $.10 grocery bag they get offered while they're in town. The "Checkout Bag Ordinance" signs are less prominent now than they were when the law was enacted in October 2012; in the intervening years, thin plastic bags with handles have become like solid gold. If you live indoors, they're perfect for dog waste or lining your bathroom trash can. If you aren't so lucky, they've got many more uses, including keeping your wet and dry clothes separated in your backpack.
The City Target, as the store is called, is on Fourth and Mission Street halfway between the Powell Street BART and Moscone Center. It's in the Metreon, which houses a multiplex and has gone through many permutations since it opened in 1999 as home to a giant SONY store and a video game arcade that took up an entire floor. Most of what else was there is now gone and has been replaced by food courts. That's fine. Nothing lasts that long in San Francisco except the stuff that's been around forever, but lately it's hard not to notice those spots closing, too. That's the way it goes in many cities, although in many cities homes tend to be more stable than tamale parlors.
One of the organizations responsible for regulating the speed of change in San Francisco is the Planning Commission. Half its members are appointed by the mayor and half by the Board of Supervisors; accurately or not, these are seen as the pro-development half and the pro-tenant half, respectively. The Planning Commission has a voice in not only what kind of buildings get constructed in San Francisco but often what particular sites get shoveled, and in recent months they've been the focus of attention for their involvement with new and proposed laws regulating short-term rentals (Airbnb's and others) and affordable housing allotment requirements.
Developments larger than 10 units need to dedicate 12 percent of those units as below market rate, or 20 percent off site, or else pay into a fund that builds affordable housing; not a lot from that fund is getting built. Negotiations over the Affordable Housing Bonus Program, which would allow developers to build taller buildings in exchange for designating more below-market units, have been contentious, as have proposals to up the requirement of affordable housing on-site.
Everyone wants more housing; what's difficult is figuring out how to get there. What's at issue, in part, is how to regulate development so that as new units are added, and current tenants aren't displaced, as has happened when public housing projects were demolished and rebuilt throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Cheap housing stock, once taken off the market, is gone forever, as a result of condoization or illegal hotel conversion—or demolition for new affordable housing units.
One more thing to keep in mind about affordable housing: San Francisco is not an affordable city. San Francisco is expensive, and getting more so. The latest Affordable Housing Developments bulletin from the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development lists three Moderate Income Rental Units, studio apartments available in a building in the Tenderloin, for $1,695-to-$2,000 each, and the income requirements are complicated; the most eye-catching figure is that you can't make more than $102,704 if you want to live as a family of three in the 600-square-foot studio. I ran into a friend on MUNI on Thursday who said he'd gotten onto a waiting list for an affordable development near the Eastern waterfront that was still being built. "I make more than $70,000 a year, and I qualify for subsidized housing," he said. "What kind of crazy town is this?"
The reason I'm bringing up the Planning Commission is not just to explain the regulatory role they have in helping determine the number of units that get added to the housing pipeline, it's the fact that their weekly meeting closed early on Thursday, as did the rest of City Hall, so that the NFL owners could have a black-tie dinner. The projected $12,000 security bill for that dinner that the City was footing almost certainly rose as the police presence increased when protesters from the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition Members' gathered outside the event. According to Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore, four meeting items had to be continued until the next meeting.
A San Francisco already fed up with being bumped out of line by the NFL was irked about the dinner's demands, but Moore said having more items than they could get to wasn't a terribly unusual occurrence. Closing early was, however. "Building Management required a greater deal of security," she told me, adding that she had no information on demands the NFL made on them. "As civic events, we have the opera, the ballet, and the symphony, which are equally exquisite and high-profile parties, and for me it was the first time hearing such a request" to close early. There's a metaphor here, albeit one so explicit that it barely qualifies as such.
No Place, Like Homeless
When I first found out my building was for sale, which was around when the wave of gentrification that now has apartment prices at vertiginous levels arrived in my Mission District neighborhood, I could not sleep. I could not stop myself from reading local blogs and their comments sections late at night, where I would read things like "No one deserves to live in San Francisco." The two were probably related.
Some other of the charming denizens of the comment sections of all manner of San Francisco publications like to say things like "There is supposed to be turnover in housing; churn is good for the market; apartments aren't meant to be permanent homes." Buddy, I want to ask these dudes, have you ever been to New York? In San Francisco, as everywhere else, there are people who shake the law of supply and demand at you as if it's the part of the world past which only monsters lie, the only part of the map that's worth reading, and then tell you you don't understand economics. In San Francisco, as everywhere else, they'll say it to you as they turn you out of your home. I imagine they'd say it if you were standing in front of them holding all your belongings in two paper bags. Faith is a powerful thing.
The thing about tote bags is that they're good not just for shopping for groceries, or for keeping a stack of books and papers together for a project. They don't take up a lot of room, and so if you have to move things around a lot—say, from house to house, while stashing things along the way in storage lockers and garages—it helps a lot to have a good stash of tote bags on hand. It saves a lot of time. In the last nine months, I've moved more than 35 times.
My own stake in reporting this series for VICE Sports has been highly personal. I lost my rent-controlled apartment in the Mission District last May, and it's only through a combination of luck, skill, and privilege that I haven't ended up in a shelter or a tent or on the street myself. I've been housesitting and couch surfing, and I've had some pretty nice temporary digs, but nothing I can call my own. Rents have skyrocketed past my limited income and are still climbing, and when a room opens up that I might be able to afford, competition is fierce, and I haven't won one of those competitions yet. I've built up a dense network of connections over the last 20 years, so I know I'll have places to stay for the foreseeable future. But also I can't see the future.
People rightly point out that the difference between a housed person and a homeless person is often just the difference between a person with health insurance and a job and a person who loses both. I know from past experience that desperation can cause you to burn bridges you thought were indestructible.
One reason I talk about being unhoused and disabled so openly is that keeping such facts cooped up makes you want to isolate the rest of your personal life from the people in it. You forget how to ask for help. It's not that homeless people necessarily start off without family and friends they can rely on; it's not always the case that they alienate everyone with drug use or lose touch because of mental illness, although ten years ago, in a discrete episode of homelessness that put/kept me closer to the street than I am now, I myself did both. The isolation of homelessness stems from its stigma and shame. Being homeless is a burden and a constant state of risk and can cause people who still have jobs, health, and trust in the world to lose all of that in succession.
Everyone in and outside of City Hall that I spoke to for this story stressed the fact that homelessness preceded Super Bowl City and would not be solved by all the steps taken before and during the Super Bowl to house the people that live on the plazas downtown, and in the rest of San Francisco.
Opinions differ widely on whether the homeless have in fact just been shuffled around or whether more of them have been housed than displaced by Super Bowl City. The intense media scrutiny of the tent encampments near San Francisco's highway overpasses similarly reveals complex, competing narratives about the relativity of stability and vulnerability and the differences between policy and lived experience. The Navigation Center has been taking people in and housing them at the best pace it can manage, and as everyone has said, San Francisco needs to build on and expand that model, especially with the current Navigation Center still needing to find a new home itself.
What is clear is that a lot is riding on the now-forming Department to End Homelessness, both for the thousands of homeless people in San Francisco and for their neighbors, the compassionate and impatient ones alike. And what that new department is riding on, in part, is the balancing of the books from the money generated (or not) by the Super Bowl and by all its celebrations and disruptions.
Corruption and political infighting and controversies with the police; economic factors linked to gentrification and the tech and financial and real estate industries; the weather, the presidential race, the football draft—all of these create an interconnecting web of circumstance that will determine the fate and the prospects for people like me, people like the Invisible Man and Susan Honey Cunningham, and the bureaucrats in City Hall alike.
Depriving a person of sleep intentionally is a human rights violation, as outlined in the Geneva Convention. Even if you don't believe that housing is a human right; even if you don't believe that San Francisco needs to make any special effort to keep people in town once they're priced out of or evicted from their apartments; even if you're under the impression that people who are homeless are having a grand old time sleeping rough—you must believe people have the right to sleep somewhere. Don't they?
If you are in San Francisco and concerned about a homeless person, or if you want to know where there is an open shelter bed available, call 311 rather than 911.
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