You can’t do that in San Francisco

In San Francisco, bans are a way of life
SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 26: Henry James smokes a cigarette near the Golden Gate Bridge January 26, 2005 in San Francisco. San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted January 25 to ban smoking in all parks, public squares and many other outdoor spaces owned by the city citing health and environmental risks associated with discarded cigarette butts and secondhand smoke. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
You can't do that here
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s one of those conversations where the interviewer starts to think, Whoa, dude, too much info. Jonathon Conte is 29, an employee in San Francisco’s service industry, and an ardent defender of the foreskin. He was circumcised as a baby, as many boys are, and now years later he keenly feels the loss. “There are a lot of complicated emotions around it,” he says. “To admit this is a harmful practice, a lot of men would have to come to terms with the fact that they may be sexually compromised, and that’s not easy to accept or verbalize or even think about.” He notes in detail the protective and sexual functions of the foreskin. “We’re talking in an adult male it’s about 15 square inches of erogenous tissue,” he says, “which is a lot of skin to be removing. A lot.”

The issue of circumcision, like the part of the anatomy in question, is front and centre in San Francisco at the moment, but it’s a crowded field. Conte is a member of the Bay Area Intactivists, part of a grassroots collective seeking to outlaw in San Francisco the circumcision of males under age 18. In late April, organizers submitted more than 12,000 signatures of support to the city’s elections department. Assuming at least 7,168 of those are verified, they’ll meet the threshold to put the issue on the city ballot in November. Then the citizens will have their say. It’s a long shot, but this being San Francisco, you never know.

A ban on circumcision—those doing the deed would face a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail—would be unique in North America, though this is hardly the first time the city has been accused of overreaching its mandate to deliver such mundanities as sewers, water, roads, and the like. A daunting number of proclamations and prohibitions emanate from “Ban Francisco,” some already in force, others waiting to pounce from left field. Or right field. The government here is either the last redoubt of the flower child, or a neo-fascist cabal, depending on whose ox is being gored on any given day.

Just a taste of things banned in San Fran: plastic shopping bags; sugary soft drinks and bottled water sold on city property; sitting/lying on sidewalks; toys in non-nutritious fast food meals for children; the declawing of cats; smoking in sports stadiums and open-air restaurants or outside doors, windows and vents of buildings, echoing bans in many Canadian cities; tobacco sales in pharmacies—again, most Canadian provinces were years ahead; city staff visiting or doing business with Arizona, whose immigration law “set the clock back on a generation of civil rights gains,” notes the ordinance; the battleship Iowa (rejected as a massive floating museum because supervisors objected to the war in Iraq and the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians); cellphones sold without posted radiation emission levels; soliciting charitable donations at San Francisco’s airport; city contracts “with any person or entity” utilizing “any tropical hardwood, tropical hardwood wood product, virgin redwood or virgin redwood wood product.”

Coming soon: expanding the tobacco prohibition to include smokeless electronic cigarettes (they still deliver nicotine and encourage smoking, goes the argument), and a ban on the unsolicited distribution of Yellow Pages phone books—a proposal that has the unanimous approval of a committee of the board of supervisors, the governing council for San Francisco city and county. One controversial idea that didn’t make the cut: a city-wide ban on the sale of “companion animals”—essentially all pets but fish. It was shelved by the animal control and welfare commission. For now.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, there is no single list of civic Thou Shalt Nots for San Francisco. It’s often unclear if you’ve sinned; best to assume the worst. Ordinances are posted year by year on the board of supervisors’ website, going back to 1999. “I don’t know how much time you have,” says a woman at the clerk’s office. “You’ll see a lot of interesting ones there.”

San Francisco comes by its reputation honestly. California often leads the charge on law reform, with the city by the bay usually at the bleeding edge. One recent exception is a proposed statewide prohibition on the possession and sale of shark fins, meant to protect threatened shark populations. Hawaii and Oregon have already moved on shark fin bans, but the issue is proving an uncomfortable test of virtue for San Francisco politicians. State Sen. Leland Yee, who is running for mayor, is among many in the Chinese community who are fighting the ban. In February, Yee led a similar charge that overturned a year-old state ban on importing non-native frogs and turtles for food. In both cases he says the bans would unfairly target Asian-American culture.

The epicentre of opposition to the fin ban is in the city’s vibrant Chinatown, where shark fin soup is a cultural staple for major celebrations. It sells for as much as US$30 a bowl in Chinatown restaurants, and dried fins are locked in glass display cases in many of its herbal and food shops. Another ban opponent is current Mayor Ed Lee, who admits to indulging in the delicacy. Two other city politicians and mayoral candidates of Chinese descent, board of supervisors president David Chiu and city assessor Phil Ting, support the ban. That wins kudos from environmentalists, but risks alienating 50,000 Chinese immigrant voters and the deep pockets of the city’s Chinese business community.

To those of a libertarian bent, San Francisco is a nanny state at its worst. The city ignores its mandate to balance the budget—it is projected to run an escalating string of deficits from US$306 million this fiscal year to $642 million by 2014—while quenching its thirst for social engineering. It is fighting childhood obesity, for instance, by decreeing that your kid doesn’t get a plastic toy unless his or her fast food meal contains a minimum three-quarters of a cup of veggies and half a cup of fruit. “It’s not a ban, it’s an incentive,” said Eric Mar, sponsor of the legislation. Presumably parents can use the toy as a bribe to get the healthy bits of the meal eaten—a kind of carrot and stick approach, in which the toy is the carrot and carrots are the stick. The ban generated a flood of correspondence to the supervisors. “What ever happened to personal responsibility?” wrote “disgusted” resident Jamie Bastine. “We can’t all be victims!” Brenda Brinks sent a shouty email: “If Americans choose to be obese, THAT IS THEIR RIGHT UNDER THE CONSTITUTION—STAY OUT OF IT!”

Yet to activists like Conte, San Francisco offers a progressive climate where an issue like circumcision can get its 15 square inches of fame. He predicts other jurisdictions will follow suit, regardless of whether the ballot measure is approved in November. “I think at the very least, our being out there and gathering signatures has created an opportunity to think about this situation, to examine it and consider the effects of amputating healthy tissue of non-consenting individuals,” he said. “We want to give everybody the opportunity to keep all the body parts with which they were born.”

Certainly San Francisco prides itself on leading the charge to a better world. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is the proud author of some 80 ordinances. One of his signature initiatives is outlawing plastic bags at chain groceries and drugstores, which, he notes, “sparked similar legislation around the world, from Oakland to Canada to Paris to Beijing.” Last month, Boston followed San Francisco’s lead and banned all sugary soft drinks from vending machines on city property.

Meanwhile, the Happy Meal ban, or incentive, has inspired widespread debate and action in other jurisdictions. A California mother, backed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is suing McDonald’s to stop the chain from luring children with toys. And New York City council member Leroy Comrie, who weights in at over 300 lb., has proposed a similar bill there to prohibit restaurants from including toys with meals over 500 calories. “Could the Happy Meal become extinct?” asks Salon in a recent article. “Mayor McCheese could not be reached for comment.”

On the other hand, Arizona—perhaps smarting from San Francisco’s boycott of the state—reacted by passing legislation banning cities from banning restaurant toys. (You may wish to read that sentence again slowly.) Other restaurant incentives now protected in Arizona include trading cards, colouring books and crayons. Florida is debating a similar ban on bans.

In San Francisco, at least, political careers are made of such things. High-profile initiatives helped former Democratic mayor Gavin Newsom build the reputation that got him elected last November as state lieutenant-governor. He fought tobacco sales in drugstores. He found a ban he didn’t like in the state prohibition on gay marriages, and defied it by allowing licences for same-sex marriages. Yet, in relative terms, he was seen as a centrist, sometimes at odds with the extreme lefties on the board. That only helped his appeal in more conservative parts of the state, which is to say most everywhere outside the Bay area.

Newsom, for instance, vetoed the ban on toys in fast food meals—a symbolic gesture, given the huge majority of supervisors who backed the law. He championed the ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., arguing it was disruptive and intimidating to customers of stores and restaurants. When supervisors balked, calling it an attack on the poor, Newsom put it on last November’s ballot. Voters backed the ban.

The city’s ballot initiatives have mixed success at the polls but, like its bans, they are rarely boring. In 2008, for instance, voters were asked if they wished to mark the legacy of outgoing U.S. president George W. Bush by renaming a city sewage plant in his, um, honour. The initiative was voted down, but not before headline writers exhausted all available double entendres.

To C.W. “Chuck” Nevius, the engaging metro columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, the city and its governance is a “target-rich environment.” “We are incredibly open-minded to new ideas,” he says. “Everybody always says we just need a grown-up in city hall.” He has written in favour of the sit/lie ban—and chided the city’s health nuts for stopping a children’s day camp from serving marshmallow s’mores at its Thursday campfires. Yet, it’s all part of the chemistry that makes San Francisco work, he says. “We sometimes get carried away, but I don’t know if we’d have the rest of this great stuff if we didn’t have some of this kooky stuff, too.”

A case in point is the draconian restrictions the city imposes on renovating heritage buildings. While most cities have rules protecting historic buildings and sites, San Francisco deems that any building 50 years or older requires a review before significant alterations are allowed or its facade is changed. The result is years-long delays as applications and rejected proposals submitted by frustrated homeowners pile up in the city’s planning department. Of course, it also means the city has preserved the iconic look of its colourful and distinctive neighbourhoods.

The thing about grand ideas is they often have unintended consequences. San Francisco didn’t ban water-wasting toilets, but it offers incentives to install low-flow models. The result: a huge drop in water use—and a chronic “rotten egg” stench wafting from sewers, in part because there’s less water to push sewage to treatment plants. The cure: dumping US$14 million worth of bleach down the sewers. Supervisors were also too quick off the mark in 2006 to ban toys and child-care products made with any level of bisphenol A. They sheepishly repealed the law as unenforceable a year later when it became clear the ban outlawed many life-saving medical devices, the anti-corrosion coating in metal food and drink cans, unbreakable eyeglass lenses, and bicycle helmets.

Often, one person’s good intention is another’s tyranny. Intactivists are fending off critics from the Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish and Muslim groups who say circumcision is an article of faith protected by First Amendment rights of freedom of religion. Conte counters that U.S. law already prohibits any form of genital cutting of female minors. “We’re basically looking for the same form of protection for boys,” he said.

While the circumcision issue is rapidly gaining national attention, locally the so-called Happy Meal and sit/lie bans have generated the most heat, from the right and the left respectively.

On a recent sunny Monday afternoon, Lynn Gentry has set up his office on the sidewalk at the storied corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, the epicentre of 1960s-era sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Gentry is seated on a folding wooden chair before a portable typewriter on a battered table. This appears to be a violation of SEC 16.8 Promotion of Civil Sidewalks. In his jeans, argyle sweater and a rakish scarf, the 24-year-old looks less like a radical ban-breaker than a bearded, bespectacled grad student. Propped beside him is a sign: “PICK A SUBJECT & A PRICE. GET A POEM.” This seems a square deal. “The subject is the many things banned in San Francisco,” the interviewer tells the poet. “The price is $5.” Gentry nods, feeds a clean sheet of paper into his machine, cogitates a moment then commences to two-finger his way into “Banned in San Francisco”: “…walking this concrete jungle with nose too high in air to ever truly view the despair / Ban the toys for kids’ meals but leave diabetes / And leave the future to deal with obesity…”

A crowd is drawn by the rat-a-tat of his typewriter, and a discussion ensues. Imagine a child opening a McDonald’s meal and finding no toy, Gentry says to murmurs of agreement. “That would be a Morose Meal,” the interviewer agrees. Gentry still has a McDonald’s Hot Wheels car from his childhood. “A classic car,” he says, “better than the meal.” He’s equally outraged by the sit/lie ban. “Make the starving who sit rise,” he writes in his angry poem. So, says the interviewer, gesturing toward the chair and the sidewalk, is this legal? Gentry smiles. “Is anything legal?” he asks. “That all depends who comes by.”

There’s one last thing to do before leaving San Francisco. The fast food toy ban isn’t in force until Dec. 1, and the lure of forbidden fruit—well, plastic—is overpowering. The interviewer heads to Fisherman’s Wharf for a Happy Meal, boys’ combo. Outside, he opens the box to find not the promised Marvel action figure, but a bobble-headed duck and a pink Littlest Pet Shop pencil. Maybe there’s a ban on gender stereotyping? Still, as menaces to society go, it’s kind of cute.

He carries the still-steaming meal across Jefferson Street to the water. He walks past the guy with a grimy cardboard sign: “Spare Change 4 Alcohol Research.” He stops by a middle-aged couple huddled against the evening chill. Their skin is leathered by sun and wind. The man has an angry scrape on his nose. Their sign says: “Help. Food money etc. If not, God bless.”

Would you like a Happy Meal, the interviewer asks. They nod eagerly, digging into the food: a meagre burger, a few fries, a small bottle of milk. They’re sitting on a bench. By the sidewalk, but not on the sidewalk—obeying the rules of a civil society.