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Gloom, Doom and Baseball Compete in City by the Bay

October 23, 2002|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball-smitten Southlanders who arrived in drizzly San Francisco Tuesday for the third game of the World Series found themselves in a decidedly depressed town.

The dot-com bust has the city in the doldrums. And in what may be the first such campaign sponsored by a local hotel industry, 33 billboards on major streets urge action against the city's aggressive panhandlers and homeless population.

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco but, these days, a lot of people here are venting their spleens.

"We're all sick of stepping over garbage and waste, averting our eyes to people shooting up on doorsteps ... ," the influential Hotel Council of San Francisco says in its new "We Want Change" campaign. One billboard shows a well-dressed businessman atop Nob Hill holding up a cardboard sign similar to those wielded by panhandlers.

"I want to know why homelessness is still a problem after we spent $200 million last year," the handwritten placard declares. The city estimates that it spends between $100 million and $200 million a year on the estimated 8,000 to 14,000 homeless people here.

Even the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, the tax-supported booster organization, has joined in the bashing.

In an unusual step last week, John Marks, convention bureau chairman, released a batch of negative letters from tourists and tour organizers sent to the San Francisco Examiner.

"Our group members were all very uncomfortable being on the streets of San Francisco, especially in the evenings, because of your large, aggressive and uncontrolled homeless population," wrote one visitor.

To be sure, San Francisco remains passionate about its hometown baseball heroes, playing in the World Series for the first time since 1989. City buses and the famous cable cars were festooned Tuesday with Giants pennants. A sign on a building, visible from the Bay Bridge, chides the Anaheim Angels mascot: "There is no monkey in baseball."

In his state-of-the-city speech Monday, Mayor Willie Brown raised a baseball bat above his head emblazoned "Go Giants!"

But Brown also registered dismay over the rampant negativism sweeping his city. "I'm saddened by some of the great beneficiaries of our tourist trade that are negative about our city," the mayor said.

The biggest contributor to the San Francisco malaise is the depressed economy, which has suffered not only from the dot-com collapse, but also from the post-9/11 tourism decline.

"Back in 1999," recalled Wade Randlett, a longtime Democratic political activist, "this city was on autopilot. Everything was going so well that all of the discussions were about the problems of prosperity. Now the party is over and, just like the day after New Year's, you look around and everything looks like a mess."

But the timing of the San Francisco establishment's attack on its own city is tied to the Nov. 5 election. The most contentious issue on the ballot here is an initiative that would cut cash payments to the city's homeless individuals from $395 a month -- one of the highest in the country -- to $59.

Tourism industry officials and business leaders contend the relatively high payments serve as a magnet for homeless migrants. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle in an editorial backed the "Care Not Cash" ballot initiative, sponsored by Supervisor Gavin Newsom.

Another reform group, SFSOS, backed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Gap founder Don Fisher and investment banker Warren Hellman, staged its first rally on Saturday.

"In the opinion of a lot of people," Hellman told the Chronicle in an interview, "this city is just sliding."

Famous for its moody wet weather, San Francisco plodded along on baseball day Tuesday under overcast skies and constant drizzle.

But nothing seemed to rain on the enthusiasm of visiting Southern Californians, who schooled like a red tide of angelfish on Fisherman's Wharf and on the little cable cars reaching halfway to the stars.

"We got up at 6 a.m. to drive up here," said Stacy Christensen, 35, of Newport Beach, standing with her husband, 2-year-old son and two friends at Fisherman's Wharf.

Of the five, only husband John Christensen, also 35, co-owner of a Newport Beach delicatessen, had a ticket. He was at Edison Field in Anaheim when Barry Bonds hit his towering home run late in Sunday night's game.

"It went right over my head," said Christensen, gesturing above his Angels cap.

Though sympathetic to the economic conditions here ("I have some friends here who are feeling the pinch," said Christensen) the southerners' only frustrations were the limited number of parking spaces and the high price of lots, which cost $28 a day in many areas.

PacBell Park, which seats 41,503, has only 15,000 parking spaces, mostly reserved for season ticket holders.

San Francisco newspapers published articles Tuesday instructing visitors on how to use public transit, something largely missing in Southern California.

As the Christensens -- son Noah in a stroller -- walked along the dock of the bay, they fielded occasional friendly jibes from San Franciscans alerted by their bright red Angels gear.

"Show some courage!" shouted Greg Boldt, a manager for Red and White Fleet tourist boats. "Pitch to Bonds!"

But Boldt, who attended Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, said he had no real animosity toward Angels fans.

"If it were the Dodgers," Boldt said, "it would be a different story."

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