Editor's Note: This post is part of a series about neighborhood efforts to reclaim Bay to Breakers as a foot race and party that San Franciscans can support and celebrate for all the edgy, quirky, and fabulous things it has represented for most of its 99 year history.
B2B at 100: News with Commentary
For a great many residents in the North Panhandle, especially those who live near Fell Street, Bay to Breakers is no longer a whimsical, outrageous, and fun annual event. For the last four years the party following the foot race has attracted crowds of unruly, drunken revelers. They disrupt the neighborhood, threaten residents, and disrespect property. Their numbers are too great for the limited event management mounted each year. NOPA neighbors -- along with many residents in Alamo Square, the Divisadero Corridor, Hayes Valley, and the Lower Haight -- feel the city has essentially acquiesced to the sorry state of affairs that resembles mayhem to those who lived with it up close. All these sentiments and charges poured out during a NOPA community meeting and with comments registered in an online opinion survey.
At the May 20th meeting of the North Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA), more than 50 concerned and angry neighbors listened to B2B organizers claim that "the event won't survive" without more community support. "The race portion is fabulous," the organizers said. "For us the race is over in two hours, but the second half keeps getting worse." They blamed rowdy party-goers, "They abuse the privilege of the event." They said ING, the insurance giant who served as B2B's primary sponsor, paid out more than $300,000 to city departments for traffic and crowd control, services, and clean-up. Even with that outlay this year's race devolved into the most disruptive and damaging of any in the last several years. Everyone at the meeting appeared to agree.
Community members complained that they had to deal with an out-of-control crowd treating the neighborhood as one big drunken party with excessive drinking the norm. One Broderick Street resident said he had to construct a barrier in front of his garage and home to deter the crowds from urinating and defecating on his property. This year he left the city during B2B to avoid likely confrontations with trouble-makers. Another resident on the same block said she was afraid to leave her home as crowds became even more rowdy. Neighbors charged that there was little "active policing" by SFPD officers in the area. "They stood there and watched, but they didn't do anything with all the mayhem in front of them," one resident said. Another claimed people who lived on the nearby blocks had to endure the brunt of the bad behavior while one corner store close to the Panhandle reaped the benefits with customers buying more than 35o cases of beer. The difficulties were not confined to Fell Street or even to Hayes; a few neighbors said they dealt with harassment along Fulton Street three blocks away. One neighbor said he was considering taking legal action against the city over the havoc from the party. No one at the NOPNA meeting objected to the race itself, the occasional nudity -- "I've seen naked people before," one older woman commented -- the floats, people gathering on their blocks in itself, or drinking alcohol in moderation.
NOPNA also sought feedback about B2B experiences from residents in an online survey; 59 neighbors responded. The survey collected the opinions of a self-selected sample, and neither the survey nor the meeting represented all neighbors. And indeed seven individuals expressed satisfaction with the day and were happy to have the B2B course through the neighborhood. One respondent said "it was the price to pay for living in such a great city." Another thought the race was "too clean" and "too sanitized" and that there should be fewer regulations. All the others reported dismay or outrage over the behavior on the streets after the racers passed through. The public urination and defecation was a flashpoint for residents' anger, but several also mentioned the combativeness and sense of entitlement among the party crowd. More than a few wrote about having to spend the day fending off drunken men and women from their porches and property. One concluded, "Generally felt like the aftermath of a battle. Overall appalling."
"The event has become something that threatens the health and safety of the neighborhood and its residents," Jarie Bolander, NOPNA president, explained at the start of the May 20 meeting. "It's been going on for four years, and it keeps getting worse." He later told BIKE NOPA that he feels a responsibility to address the problem. "I live with these people, and I'm concerned with their safety. How happy would people in the Marina be if this party happened on their blocks?"
Bolander is working with other neighborhood associations representing Alamo Square, Hayes Valley, the Haight, and Divisadero merchants to present a call to action to the city. They will demand the city develop far more extensive plans for crowd control, alcohol abatement, clean-up, and taking public health hazards seriously. (See today's accompanying article on BIKE NOPA with Bolander as a guest contributor).
San Franciscans who live several blocks away from the B2B party scene might shrug off the difficulties as the nature of big celebrations in a tolerant city. Many will suggest the solution lies simply in renting more porta-potties and stepping up police enforcement. They might support some restrictions on alcohol consumption. For them the once-a-year event will likely fade into this year's contribution to civic lore. But their recommendations fall short when tens of thousands of inebriated people too drunk to bother with civil behavior or porta-potties disrupt neighborhoods.
Bay to Breakers may fade altogether, just before reaching its centennial celebration. Unless the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, the SFPD, and department heads join with concerned citizens to reclaim the city's iconic event and make the tough decisions about regulating the party and outlawing the excessive drinking. Without such comprehensive planning and restrictions, Bay to Breakers seems likely to hit the wall after 99 years.