For about a month, the rocks were just a mystery. Two dozen boulders had popped up along a San Francisco sidewalk — and even officials were stumped.
“We don’t know who put them in, but it wasn’t the city,” a councilman said.
By the time the rocks were hauled away Monday, they’d spawned days of headlines and split a community.
Local news outlets began to piece the story together last week: Weary of alleged drug dealing among homeless people camping out on their block, neighbors on the street of Clinton Park had pooled several thousand dollars to physically bar the way. To some, it was a creative tactic from desperate residents. For others, it was a declaration of hostility to the homeless — a Band-Aid measure in a city where their plight has drawn national scrutiny and where shelters still can’t meet demand. The homeless count in San Francisco jumped 17 percent from 2017 to this year as rents and real estate prices continue to skyrocket and as the Trump administration considers an intervention in California.
Opponents rolled the rocks into the street overnight; city workers put them back; people rolled them out again. Protesters gathered Sunday, while residents called a meeting and said they faced harassment.
By last weekend, the boulders were exposing just how high tensions are running amid a city homelessness crisis that years of policy proposals have done little to dent. They’d become a “symbol,” said Danielle Baskin, a San Francisco artist who walks through Clinton Park on her way to work and whose Twitter account now identifies her as an “Anti-Rock Agitator.”
“They shine lights — not just to people in San Francisco but to thousands of people in the country — that the housing crisis is a serious problem, if people are fighting over rocks,” Baskin told The Washington Post.
Baskin, who joined the dispute with an attempt to sell the rocks on Craigslist, became deluged with Twitter and Facebook messages from people interested in bringing the boulders down. She’s still working her way through all the emails she has received.
“People are pretty fascinated at what’s going on in San Francisco,” she said. “This situation of extreme wealth disparity and homelessness is sort of on the rise everywhere. And it’s just the worst in San Francisco.”
Baskin’s dismay over the boulders taps into long-standing frustrations with an increasingly expensive Bay Area and tech prosperity that has left many behind. Clinton Park sits in the Mission Dolores neighborhood, home to the city’s oldest building along with a median home value and condo listings that top $1 million. Real estate company Redfin estimates houses overlooking Clinton Park at more than $1 million in worth as well.
Residents, many of whom have declined to give their names to news outlets, push back on accusations that they are overreacting to homeless campers.
“This is about people yelling and screaming at 3 in the morning and openly flashing weapons,” one fed-up woman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m not rich. I’m having a hard enough time making it myself. They even set up a shelf and were openly dealing drugs, and nobody was doing anything.”
Reports to San Francisco’s 311 service show frequent requests from Clinton Park for “encampment cleanups” and complaints about needles. And city officials say the concerns are valid.
“A neighborhood had people in tents who were literally selling drugs,” San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru told The Post. Echoing residents, he said the rocks were working — drug dealing in the area seemed to stop.
“So we fully support the neighbors in this situation,” Nuru said.
Public Works employees said last week that the boulders will remain in place, as they do not violate city codes and left a walkway.
But activists had other ideas. For them, the boulders are part of a worrying phenomenon called “hostile architecture” that makes public spaces deliberately inhospitable, often with the aim of keeping homeless people away. Critics have noted “anti-homeless” design choices around San Francisco, including spiked planter boxes and benches that fold up overnight; cities nationwide try to ward off campers with controversial tactics such as removing public seating or even blaring the song “Baby Shark” on a loop.
“Four thousand dollars to just dump their rocks on the street,” Baskin said, referencing the total raised by a now-defunct GoFundMe page documented in screen shots. “It was pretty upsetting to me and seemed very disrespectful of another human being.”
Daniel Bartosiewicz, who said he camped in Clinton Park for two months, lamented to NBC Bay Area that none of the neighbors talked to him about their concerns.
“They would have saved a lot of money and a lot of trouble if they just said something to us,” he said. “Use your compassion and love and understanding. We’re humans.”
Speaking to local media outlets, a neighbor who recalled struggles with feces smeared around houses said she’d tried to shoo some campers away.
As news of the Clinton Park rocks spread, a resistance formed. On Friday evening, police responded to a report of about 30 bicyclists rolling the boulders onto the street, spokesman Adam Lobsinger said. When officers arrived, the bikers were gone and there was no crime to investigate, he said, given that the rocks’ owners were unclear.
That was just the start of the anti-boulder campaign.
People gathered in the middle of the night to knock the rocks out of place and wear down a city eager to avoid traffic obstructions. A friend of Baskin’s took the rocks’ measurements, interested in using wood to turn them into a bench. Some people tried to cart the boulders away in a truck, Baskin said; she said she did not participate and declined to name those involved but described chipping in for the vehicle rental.
The growing attention to the boulders has reportedly alarmed residents. One video that circulated on Twitter with the caption “How the Clinton Park folks reacted to their boulders getting moved again” shows a man yelling for people to leave.
“The cops are already on their way,” he shouts. (San Francisco police said Friday’s bicyclist incident was their only record of a call involving Clinton Park boulders).
“We traded criminals for activists and the media,” one unnamed resident told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We don’t want to feel the fire anymore."
Opponents were ready to move rocks as many nights as they had to until officials gave in, Baskin said, even gathering Sunday for a small protest with signs. Then, on Monday, they got their wish.
Nuru said the request to remove the boulders came from the residents who put them up — worried now not just about the sidewalks but about “threatening” emails they had received. The residents want the source of the controversy gone while they “regroup and figure out what’s next,” he said.
That next step could be some sort of landscaping, he said. One option: heavier boulders.
“The problem is they were not big enough,” Nuru told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday.
Saying the city is working to expand both temporary and permanent solutions to homelessness, Nuru told The Post he thinks the rock-movers would do better to “channel their energies to do positive things.”
Baskin said she wishes that “we could all talk.” She’s planning to put out signs for a community meeting, although she does not know how many of the residents behind the rocks will be willing to show up and reveal their identities.
With the controversy still brewing, advocates who have spent years tackling San Francisco’s homelessness crisis are attempting to keep the focus on underlying issues rather than a media-sucking drama.
“So ask us about the boulders,” the Coalition on Homelessness dared its Twitter followers this weekend. “Ask us about the boulders, and we’ll tell you the real story."
Contacted Monday about the rock debacle, Joshua Bamberger, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco who helps lead a homelessness research initiative, said he was far more interested in big-picture problems and proven solutions to the crisis afflicting his city and so many others — solutions such as “housing, housing and housing.”
“There are so many streets in San Francisco where people are sleeping or uncomfortable sleeping,” Bamberger said, sounding exasperated. As for the boulder story: “Why is this a thing?”
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