activism / reading / solidarities / urban

Sixth Street Park, San Francisco, 1980

“I continued to feel bad about the situation there. The dirt, the lice bothered me. And the lives that seemed to be passing without consequence. I kept wishing they could live more secure, fulfilling lives.

But I had to examine my discomfort in light of my culture and my values. Was it fair to assume that my kind of life was the one the men on Sixth Street would want to choose? Or that they would be able to choose if they wanted to? Probably there were certain aspects of my life that they’d like to adopt, and others that would seem totally inappropriate to them. It wasn’t for me to decide how they should live.

But to be able to work effectively on Sixth Street, I had to come to some understanding of why those people were there, doing what they were doing. Blaming either the street people or the society for their problems didn’t help me. It only left me feeling bad about their situation, without having any ideas about what might improve it. I continued to ponder: Why are they there? How have any of us ended up where we are? …. Could they have chosen otherwise, given the doors that had been closed on them by racism, poverty and their consequent feelings of worthlessness?

When you’re afraid, people sense it. Imagine how it makes them feel. If you walk into the park and I see that you’re afraid of me, then who am I? Someone to be afraid of. You’ve confirmed my self-image; therefore, give me your wallet.

We must be very clear about this transaction. Each player in it is displaying only one aspect of himself [sic]. The postures we take toward each other do not only speak about us as individuals; they also express the interaction between us.

Our failure to articulate clear and realistic goals for the park was a major mistake. We should have set as a goal a small reduction in crime in the area, rather than creating the impression that we would eliminate crime. We should have publicly acknowledged that alcoholics on Sixth Street would continue to die. And we should have used the early newspaper articles to demonstrate how difficult and often miserable life on the streets is, rather than allowing a romantic “Aren’t street people wonderful?” attitude to prevail.

As I look back on the work we did at Sixth Street Park, I think about the street people who at first seemed to me so different from people I knew. They are alcoholics in a society filled with alcoholics, many of whom work in the high-rise office buildings not far from Sixth Street. They are people prone to violence living in a violent society, a society that does violence to them daily. Yet they seem untouchable.”

Fran Peavey, ‘A sense of place: Sixth Street Park’, Heart Politics, 1986 pp. 41-61.

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