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The Imperfect Super Bowl Host, Part Two: San Francisco Street Hassle

Hosting the NFL's "Super Bowl City" theme park has meant displacement, discontent, and expense for San Francisco. In a city with problems, it's a gamble.

by Tarin Towers
Feb 1 2016, 8:30pm

Photo by Tarin Towers

This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

"If you don't get back on the sidewalk, you are all under arrest," the voice said through the megaphone. The warning was repeated block after block as a protest march made its way from Union Square toward the Ferry Building and the main gate to the fenced-off wonderland of Super Bowl City. The Justice for Mario Woods Coalition protesters began gathering at 11am, just as Super Bowl City's gates opened and the throngs of tourists began...well, not pouring through, exactly, since each person had to empty their pockets, submit their backpacks and purses for checking, walk through a metal detector, and possibly submit to a wanding by a security guard if their belt or watch dinged the sensors. Anyway, they were doing their best to get into Super Bowl City, and it was happening at the pace that circumstances allowed.

Security is tight for this Super Bowl, and in San Francisco the dark couplet "Paris/Isis" is on the tip of the tongue of both the security and press establishments when discussing event preparations and the involvement of Homeland Security. Super Bowls have been a fantasy target for Middle Eastern terror attacks at least since Thomas Harris's 1975 novel Black Sunday, in which the NFL's blimp pilot, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, decides to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group to commit a suicide bombing involving launching 250,000 steel darts at the audience of a Miami/Washington Super Bowl in New Orleans.

Read More: The Imperfect Host, Part 1: Citizens Of Super Bowl City

Bruce Dern played the deranged blimp pilot in the 1977 film adaptation of Black Sunday, which actually filmed at Super Bowl X—Cowboys vs. Steelers—at the Miami Orange Bowl. Spoiler: Mossad agent Robert Shaw dies while saving the day, as he flies the weaponized blimp away over the ocean, where it blows up and sinks into the sea. Dark, but still better drama than the last Super Bowl the Broncos played in.

City Hall as Front Office

San Francisco, and City Hall in particular, might feel a bit besieged at the moment. San Francisco DA George Gascon recently brought felony bribery and money laundering charges against two of Mayor Ed Lee's former Human Rights Commission staffers, as well as against former school board president and local fixer Keith Jackson, in relation to suspect campaign contributions and "pay to play" politics; both a lumber company and an FBI informant are involved.

Jackson and his son had previously been indicted for murder for hire, one of the many alarming events revealed in the trial of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, a convicted Chinatown gangster whose criminal web ensnared even Leland Yee, former City Supervisor and State Senator. Yee is facing sentencing next month on a plea deal for charges of bribery, money laundering, and gun trafficking as a result of FBI stings targeting California politicians and fixers. The Super Bowl notwithstanding, San Francisco is not necessarily in a partying mood.

One thing you'll notice about Levi's Stadium is that it is not located in San Francisco at all. — Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Lee has been plagued by the aforementioned protesters calling for the firing or resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr following the December 2 police shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man whose death has been described as a firing squad. Five officers fired a total of 15 rounds at Woods, and the event was captured on video by three different cell phones. Lee was booed by Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition protesters at his inauguration on January 8, and again at a Martin Luther King Day event on January 18; Lee left the stage rather than finish his address.

Last Monday, Lee called for a federal investigation into the killing, and the next day the Board of Supervisors passed a unanimous resolution declaring a July 22 Day of Remembrance for Woods, despite the objections of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Supervisor David Campos told NBC Bay Area, "It's not just (because of) remembrance that we have to do something. This resolution does something very important. It's the first time the Board of Supervisors would be on record saying we are committed to police reform."

Saturday's protest march continued the call by local activists for Chief Suhr's firing. The press release and Facebook invite for the protest called the larger event "Ed Lee's Super Bowl City," and it was Ed Lee's SFPD who blocked pedestrian traffic in all directions as the march approached the Beale Street entrance. Not only were protestors not allowed to proceed along the one block of Market Street to Super Bowl City, but southbound tourists were similarly confounded in leaving the event. (In this, the SFPD surely assisted in raising awareness, as locals eagerly explained to tourists who Mario Woods was, and why Black Lives Matter was at a Super Bowl event.)

Among the list of prohibited items inside Super Bowl City, along with weapons and explosives, are unapproved signs and flags, "demonstration articles," and "sticks, rods, bars or poles of any kind." The protest played by these rules, setting aside its larger signs and splitting into at least three groups that led police and and journalists scrambling in different directions. "If they block us from coming in, we block everyone from coming in," said the protest leader.

A smaller group of about 100 Mario Woods protesters dressed in black dispersed and reconvened inside Super Bowl City, standing in silent memoriam with small signs reading "Jail Killer Cops" and "Fire Suhr," first at the CNN booth and then at the biggest of the golden Super Bowl 50 signs—right under the Ferry Building's clock tower. It's about the most photogenic spot in town.

Baghdad by the Bay

The unease in San Francisco goes beyond the sort of things that get people out into the street to protest. San Francisco's economy is thriving in every measurable way, but also, the city is in a moment of deep uncertainty. Unemployment is down to 3.3 percent, the price of San Francisco office space is running ahead of Manhattan's, and housing prices are at an all-time high for both sales and rentals. Despite this, Mayor Lee is asking city departments to cut 1.5 percent from their budget in the fiscal year starting July 1 and another 1.5 percent the following year; forecasters predict a shortfall of $100 million in the $8.9 billion annual budget and a $240 million deficit in the 2017 fiscal year.

Amid the city's own financial woes are those of some local tech darlings. People comforting each other about high rents and folding local businesses tend to invoke "another dot-com crash," like the one that de-stabilized and then re-stabilized the San Francisco economy in 2000. But despite a slowdown in startup funding and a reversal of fortune for some "unicorn" companies, a crash is far from certain. Buzzfeed News coined the acronym BETS—for Box, Etsy, Twitter and Square—as a catchall for the bellwethers of this parlous moment; the acronym refers to a one-time Next Big Thing tech company whose stock is currently tanking.

Of the BETS, Square and Twitter are headquartered in San Francisco, and Square declined to take the "Twitter Tax Break," which exempted tech companies located in the mid-Market area of San Francisco from paying the city's 1.5 percent payroll tax for six years. San Franciscans who scoffed at the Central Market/Tenderloin Payroll Tax Exclusion—and there were reasons to scoff, varying from city budget impacts to rapid gentrification of nearby neighborhoods—were told to chill in 2014 when the budget analyst said it was a net win.

In October, however, the City went without the $34 million it could have reaped from companies' stock option plans. As Twitter teeters financially, its critics don't know what to root for. It's now a huge employer and an anchor of the mid-Market area it was essentially paid to occupy, as well as essentially a public utility for San Franciscans, from Warriors fans to housing activists. It's complicated, and could hardly be otherwise.

Deja Vu All Over a Game

The criminal charges brought on January 22 at City Hall landed against a backdrop of the other big San Francisco news last week—the announcement from the budget analyst that said the city was getting ripped off on the Super Bowl, at least in comparison to the other host city. Levi's Stadium's home city of Santa Clara will be reimbursed by the NFL to the tune of $4 million for public safety and other expenses incurred by hosting the game; the projected expense is closer to $3.6 million. San Francisco, on the other hand, expects to shell out at least $4.8 million in city services, from emergency management to reconfiguring public transit downtown ($2.3 million at last count), and will not be reimbursed a dime, despite holding ten days' worth of events in the name of the game.

The Mayor's office dismissed suggestions the event won't be profitable for San Francisco. The Mayor's Spokesperson, Christine Falvey, told KGO News, "We know San Francisco, its residents, its businesses are going to benefit. And we know that we're going to generate more sales tax, more hotel tax, more business tax."

Street performers and food vendors feeling the financial crunch might be less certain of how good a deal this all is. All the revenues and tax dollars that are supposed to flow through the restaurants, bars, and hotels thronged by visitors won't make their way into the guitar cases of regular buskers and the cash boxes of people who make their living selling art and other wares, including the SF Art Market at Justin Herman Plaza. The jewelry, art, and craft vendors have been banned from their regular spots inside the event perimeter, and they'll lose more than two weeks of revenue from construction to teardown, including three Sundays, which is the biggest day for the market.

The Ferry Building Farmers Market has been canceled, and replaced by the GMC Fan Experience. — Image via By BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons

The sellers and buyers at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, a foodies' mecca held every Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday, were given assurances it would be more than worth their while to navigate the maze of closed streets with their wares during Super Bowl City. Saturday is the Market's biggest day, but on opening day for SB50, "business was really slow, even though they told us half a million people would be just across the street," said Jacob Palmer, who works at a farm stand that sells beets and other produce. The traffic that was forecast for Super Bowl Week is already affecting life and business for farmers and vendors, Palmer said, "adding hours to our already long commutes. And lots of cops and Coast Guard were walking around with machine guns, weirding people out." The general consensus about Super Bowl City from Palmer and his coworkers? "Thumbs down."

City and County Supervisors, ostensibly San Francisco's decision-making body, were left out of the logistical and financial negotiations, it seems, and Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin, whose districts will bear the brunt of the influx of humans and the disruption of traffic, are calling for full reimbursement. They're not likely to get it: echoing the agreement San Francisco made in order to host the America's Cup, City Hall promised not to ask for repayment for city services. Peskin, Kim, and Board of Supervisors member John Avalos have called for emergency legislation demanding the NFL recoup the City's costs, which may be introduced on Tuesday. With Super Bowl City already open for business, however, it's a little late for ultimatums.

"They're Going to Have to Leave"

Until recently, critics of Mayor Lee have focused on two main sticking points: The Twitter tax break and his pledge not to run for office as an incumbent. (Gavin Newsom appointed Lee Interim Mayor to fill out Newsom's term when the latter was elected Lieutenant Governor, and Lee famously said he would not use that interim appointment for personal political gain.)

None of Lee's controversies, though, have resonated quite as loudly as his foot-in-mouth moments in two interviews with local CBS reporter and Chronicle columnist Phil Matier. On KCBS radio in April, Matier asked Lee whether people would "be able to hang out like they have been doing" in the area near the Ferry Building; on any given day, you'll see tourists, skateboarders, commuters, people on breaks from work, and yes, panhandlers and various individuals whose appearance indicates they don't have anywhere else to go. Homeless people.

Lee replied, "I think for the benefit of the thousands, there won't be any room. To be quite candid with you, there won't be any room for anybody." The comment sparked a bit of outrage, as it seemed to minimize the displacement of homeless people—not only those who sleep there but those who spend time there because their shelters or board and care facilities require them to spend daylight hours elsewhere.

It was also both constructively and literally true: The event has fenced off a large area of the city. Bevan Dufty, who retired as San Francisco's "homeless czar" in November after serving for four years, is familiar with the impact large events have on the homeless population. "The reality is, if you work around homeless people a lot, you notice that when construction starts, people tend to leave anyway, but only to go as far as they need to stay away from the activity," he told VICE Sports.

Lee's second interview with Matier, in August, went even worse. On KPIX TV this time, Matier again asked Lee whether "sidewalk sleepers" would need to find a new place to spend their days and nights. "We'll give you an alternative," Lee said. "We are always going to be supportive. But you are going to have to leave the street. Not just because it is illegal, but because it is dangerous."

Hard times. — Photo by Tarin Towers

The "you're going to have to leave" bit, isolated, led the news story, and Matier & Ross' column in the Chronicle the next day pulled out that juiciest part of the quote. The column's lede said "San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has a Super Bowl message for homeless people who are camping along the Embarcadero: 'They are going to have to leave.'"

For all the proposals, announcements, appointments and programs that have come out of City Hall since August, "they're going to have to leave" has proven to have serious staying power; nothing Lee has ever said on the topic of homelessness has proved as sticky. Public opinion, at least as reflected by the Chronicle's own writers, was split: Columnist C.W. Nevius called Lee's statements "a breath of fresh air." Lee was finally "saying what people in the neighborhoods have been agonizing over for months. From the homeless campgrounds to guys peeing in the doorways of homes and shops, this isn't an inconvenience—it's out of control." Nevius mentioned urine nine times, defecation five times, and bad smells four times in his 845-word column; he only wrote "Thank God" once.

Heather Knight, City Hall reporter for the Chronicle, wrote a story later that week called "Nothing like a Super Bowl to fix S.F.'s homeless problem." She got a little more out of Ed Lee, who said his plan wasn't cleaning up one neighborhood for the benefit of tourists. "'White-washing would be moving people around one section of the city to another,'" he said, pledging that far-flung neighborhoods won't suffer the consequences of homeless people moved off the Embarcadero.

Dufty, who was Homeless Czar at the time of Matier's interview with Lee, said that the blowback for his office was enormous. "After those words were printed, I was shellacked by incredibly angry people from every corner of SF," Dufty told VICE Sports. "The notion that high rollers from Texas and Florida would come into town and find a hermetically sealed environment with an absence of homeless people was just enraging, as was the idea that this unacceptable situation was going to be addressed, but only for the purposes of the Super Bowl." The enraged people Dufty invoked ranged from outreach workers to neighborhood associations to residents who had homeless people camped in tents outside their homes, as well as city employees who were working on solutions for the homeless population at large.

"These were unrealistic, insulting things to say, and people from neighborhoods all over the city responded," he continued. "They are living with a level of street homelessness they've never seen, and is this the best we can do? We don't feel like we're getting much more than a palliative in our neighborhood and then they're doing whatever it takes to make the problem go away downtown for a party?" Dufty still sounded anguished on the phone. "That's not how we're going to approach it, and I wish the NFL had approached us differently about city services."

Many people who spoke to VICE Sports for this story were adamant that Lee's comments were taken out of context and irrelevant in light of what the Mayor's Office of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement) has accomplished (or at least attempted) in terms of both policy and services. None of this has diminished the impact of those words, though, which still ring in the air, including as the lead sentence in the press release for one of the public protests planned the week of Super Bowl City. That protest, "Tackle Homelessness," echoes language used by Super Bowl hosts in New Jersey to help their homeless population before Super Bowl XLVIII. The action, scheduled for Wednesday is spearheaded by "Broke Ass" Stuart Schuffman, one of Lee's grassroots opponents in the Mayor's race in November.

Along with protest signs, items not allowed inside Super Bowl City include paraphernalia common to campers and homeless people: tents, coolers, and backpacks larger than 18" x 18". Nathan Ballard, spokesperson for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, told VICE Sports that homeless people would be welcome inside the event. "The main point of having a free, open-to-the-public event is that it will attract people of all income levels from all over the region. That's the whole point." When asked whether a backpack that was inside 18" but full of a person's belongings would be allowed through security, Ballard said that would be determined on a case-by-case basis. But as Mayor Lee pointed out, there's only so much room inside the gates.