An abridged version of this article appeared in Bail Magazine.
These days, visiting San Francisco's Union Square is like stepping into a pristine, snugly upper-class utopia -a combination of Disneyland's Mainstreet, USA and the sets of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. Tourists dangling Chanel shopping bags sit outside a gazebo-style caf?, at tables with blue-and-white beach umbrellas. They sip San Pelligrino water and listen to canned classical music as it blares from the caf? speakers. Red-shirted security guards roam the concrete plaza, keeping an eye out for anyone who doesn't fit in -a homeless person, for instance, or a kid with combat boots, or someone towing a skateboard.
The refurbishing of Union Square began in 1998, as part of a grand "business improvement" scheme launched by re-development honchos in City Hall to transform downtown S.F. into a commerce and culture center, akin to New York's newly-remodeled Times Square. Dubbed a "business improvement district" (BID), the urban facelift stipulates that property-owners within a 10-block radius tax themselves to fund increased street cleaning and security, according to the length of their storefront ($60 per foot annually). As Cassie Feldman notes in her article "Notorious BID," "since the BID was initially backed by a majority of property holders and approved by the Board of Supervisors, all owners in the district are now required to pay, like it or not, and can pass that cost on to their tenants." (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 11/29/00).
As a result of these fancy plans, Union Square became a shi-shi-fied commons nestled in a commercial Mecca. Gazing across the plaza you'll see what Thrasher Magazine considers a forbidden paradise for skaters: a stretch of concrete as fetching and smoothly-paved as a backyard pool. Looking up, you see all the glittering ensigns of a retail universe -billboards for Niketown and the new Nissan Outback; the ass-side of Macy's, Saks 5th Avenue, Victoria Secret and the Cheesecake Factory; and a phalanx of palm trees which seem to have been transplanted from Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. But for an obviously burgeoning retail sector, the term "business improvement district" is a misnomer, as the new Union Square is tailored for consumer and tourist places rather than businesses -it's more a place for shoppers to stretch their legs and buy a five dollar frappe than a place for business people to read the paper and eat lunch.
"It wasn't always like this," notes one of the caf? waiters, who says he's been working in Union Square for over three years now. Before the downtownies took reign, in fact, Union Square was decidedly-more squarish -a knoll squat between Powell and Post streets, with tiers of grass and ledges for locals to sit or sleep. It was the place where, in 1998, my friend Shaheed was arrested during a stand-off between police and local youth -now the square is closed for Halloween and New Years. But rioting aside, the old space was much more conducive to hanging-out, inviting homeless people, teens with hacky-sacks, and local street performers. "They've all gone," says the waiter, who notes that security has stepped-up for indigents and vagrant-types who might irritate shoppers and tourists.
The question at stake is not so much who does the refurbished space invite, as who does it keep out. What's uncanny about the newly-developed Union Square is that San Francisco has franchised its maintenance and security to a private company -called KTB Management- which has its own rules and regulations. The minute my friend Adrian and I set foot on Union Square's concrete plaza, we were approached by a lobsterback security guard jangling seventy-two keys and a baton-sized flashlight on his belt buckle. He handed us each a business card which lists all the activities forbidden by KTB, including everything from "skating, playing frisbee, and feeding birds" to "littering or sleeping" -and general ne'er-do-welling, for that matter. Although the security guard -whose name is Mateo- says he stepped up to warn me not to ride my skateboard, we're unsure whether the real threat was a scruffy white kid toting a Mike Frazier, or her black companion -who, incidentally, was clad in more presentable business attire.
When asked why KTB's policies specifically target skaters, Mateo replied that skaters are prone to deface property -a skater could easily chip the marble off a bench at Union Square by carving in with her trucks, or scuff up the central plaza's yet-unsullied granite. Architecture PHD student and former pro-skater Ocean Howell notes that subtleties in the square's design defend it against skateboards: "the most obvious thing to note is that when they first did the benches in the new plaza, they were very skateable, something which the designers quickly realized. They then put these little stone panels on the edges of the benches -a classic example of the `poetics of security.'" To those panels, add the handrails that are strategically placed along Union Squares benches, dividing them into individual seats. This architectural nuance makes the benches impermeable -not only to skateboards, but to homeless people who wish to lie down there. As Howell notes in his essay "The Poetics of Security" (Urban Action, 2001), it's an example of the space telling you "how to behave."
By "poetics of security" Howell refers to a defensive architecture which, "in terms of discouraging skateboarders...has all the subtlety of tackling someone in the street." What struck Adrian and I, immediately, was that the design techniques of Union Square are not only defensive; they are aggressive -even combative- consistent with the handing-over of public space to private interests. Explaining the ideological blueprint for this design, Howell quotes the architectural theorists Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Tribid Banjeree, who indicate that new downtown plazas represent "introversion, fragmentation, escapism, orderliness, and rigidity," which are associated with "objectives of control, protection, social filtering, image packaging, and manipulation of user behavior." (Urban Design Downtown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 98). It's no surprise, then, that for the entire hour that we spent hanging out and talking to people, Adrian and I felt like we were being watched.
I honestly don't think that the reason skateboarders are prohibited from using Union Square is that they will chip the marble or scuff the concrete. While this kind of vandalism may be irritating to the architects, and to the city planners who bankrolled Union Square's redevelopment, a chipped bench or defaced walkway wouldn't affect most of the people who use Union Square. The real threat posed by skaters is their populist bent -the fact that, by defacing private -or "privatized"- property, they reclaim it for public use. Like graffiti artists, skaters are associated with a kind of urban guerrilla warfare that extends beyond the mere destruction of property. Basically, skate communities derive from the same pedigree as other low-life scum: homeless people, hip hop culture, and populations of color at large, for that matter, even if many skaters are white youth.
Brett Gladstone, a Manhattan native who sits on the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association's mid-Market taskforce, aptly defines the combative whiteness of business improvement districts in saying: "What I would like to see is someone in charge who believes in tough love to keep the lowlifes from affecting our major industry -tourism." (Nina Wu, "New Yorkers: `S.F. stinks'", San Francisco Examiner, 01/22/02). It's no surprise then, that recent tides of gentrification in downtown San Francisco are doing little to help the 12,000 to 14,000 homeless people who reside there -as Feldman noted in November, 2000- and the red-jacketed security "ambassadors" of KTB serve mostly to terrorize marginal sects of the community. Feldman points out that "the word `ambassador' is meant to imply good will, but one of their primary responsibilities seems to be hassling homeless people."
Nominally, the redevelopment of Union Square and surrounding areas serves to pump commercial revenues and clean up what is, logically, a public space -thereby making it more accessible to San Francisco residents and tourists. But there's a lot of irony going on here. Union Square's new architecture has an obvious sociological dimension: it serves to shut out marginal populations and tell users how to behave. What's really at stake is the re-configuration of public space to satisfy private interests -which coincides with a conservative turn in SF city politics.
Skaters, who -in the eyes of KTB management- are now the unrelated spiritual brethren of bird-feeders, homeless folk, and litterbugs, can undermine the downtown regime merely by asserting a presence in Union Square. Which isn't to say that urban youth will start a class revolution merely by kickflipping on a concrete plaza. Still, in an instance where skateboards become obvious symbols of marginality, -and a challenge not only to private property, but privatization in general- the old motto "skate and destroy, skate and create," has a larger political resonance.