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The Command Economy of San Francisco

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of controversy about two developments in San Francisco. One, the planned Continental Hotel 5th and Howard, has spurred accusations and counter-accusations of gentrification in the 6th Street area, and the role of community organizations who have signed off on it. Just a hop, skip and a jump away, at 4th and Freelon, a well-connected developer got a special zoning permit in order to build luxury condominiums.

In both cases, the developers are well on the road to having it their way. Community agencies have been split, and often at each other’s throats, on both projects. In both cases, it is fair to say that it is unclear on whether or not the surrounding communities will benefit. We’ve been around these blocks often enough to know how promises of affordable housing and hiring from the local community can disappear — thanks to the highly-paid Houdinis who help their patrons bust through the “shackles” that separate them from super-profits.

The point is not to point fingers. The point is that these two developments illustrate that we live in a command economy of sorts. Not of the socialist sort, but the command economy of cash. Those with the cash “command” then have heaven and earth moved for them by City Hall to build whatever they want, whenever they want.

Occasionally, community members organize, and manage to prevent a bad action, or make something that benefits the neighborhood happen. When the balance sheet is rendered, however, most planning decisions reinforce the notion of a gated city, a city of exclusion.

There are alternatives, other paths to walk. It is possible to develop areas for the economic and social benefit of the majority — revitalization from below. This is the radical notion that changes in a neighborhood can uplift the existing residents and create a more civil society. Far be it to look for changes that eradicate poverty instead of eliminating poor people.

This is what other communities have done. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston, the Sawmill Developments in Albuquerque have developed models for just this. Through cooperative ownership, the right balance of light industry and services and most importantly community control based in principles of equity, these places have been brought back from the dead.

Keep in mind that neither Boston nor Albuquerque have reputations for being particularly “progressive,” in any sense of the word. These are areas where people organized and policy makers eventually had to get out of the way.


Both the Continental Hotel and 4th and Freelon developments are enormously complicated issues. Friends of the Coalition on Homelessness have lined up on conflicting sides. We’re not questioning their ethics. We do ask this question, however: Who will sound the command to save proven, and important lifelines for low-income people, such as Central City Hospitality House’s Self-Help Center?

When politicians, who will never experience homelessness start advancing plans for the homeless problem, it is unfortunate. When the Self-Help Center is threatened with extinction after eighteen years thanks to City Budget cuts, you just have to ask, what part of first step out of homelessness don’t you understand?

The Self-Help Center provides a place for people to get off the streets. If needed they can access to-notch job placement services, harmreduction counseling for those struggling with addictions, support for transgendered folks, but most importantly a little piece of the dignity that is so hard to find when one hits the streets.

This is the dignity that the public servants and the elected officials can’t legislate, or put into policy. It is unlikely that they even recognize dignity has a valuable thing, just as valuable as the other services. This kind of dignity is created when community members look out for each other. But it can be destroyed by the callous decisions made at City Hall: the command center of the Command Economy Cash.

As we go to print, we are days away from a mobilization and demonstration to save the Self Help Center. Being on the last day of the month, and the last day of business for the Self-Help Center, it will be political brinksmanship to the end. We hope to report to you, dear readers, next month, that a very different command went out that day.</p


You need inspiration to fight the power. Here’s some good stuff to fan the flames of resistance this summer.

  • The Quails “Atmosphere” CD: There hasn’t been such an inspiring, to the barricades album since The Clash’s Sandinista. Songs of love and rage in San Francisco, absolutely beautiful.
  • Persopholis by Marjorie Sartap: A graphic novel of growing up hip in fundamentalist Iran.
  • PARECON: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert: What kind of world do we really want to live in? Albert has some great ideas around participatory economics, a world worth living in.
  • Full Spectrum Dominance by Rahul Mahajan. Just in case you were unclear about the U.S. government’s intentions for the Middle East, and other places.
  • A Pledge of Resistance by Saul Williams: CDI was about ready to give up on this guy, but this is great, coherent too.

Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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