On a recent Wednesday evening there were unusual sightings on Haight Street: empty parking spaces, at least a dozen.
The sidewalks of the stretch of shops and nightlife between Ashbury and Cole Streets were also (sorry Jerry Garcia) ungratefully dead.
The number of visitors to the neighborhood has declined in recent months, according to a new survey. Some merchants report that business is down.
Many say the slump is an effect of the city’s sit/lie ordinance, the new law that was meant to improve the neighborhood’s fortunes.
The antivagrancy measure, which passed with 53 percent of the vote in November, has yet to be enforced in a significant way. The police began issuing citations only last month.
But the Haight has already felt the impact. Many believe that months of relentless, negative news coverage that painted the neighborhood as a war zone where gangs of young street thugs preyed on innocent pedestrians was a public relations debacle.
“The publicity definitely hurt us,” said Jimmy Siegel, owner of Distractions, a Victorian steampunk clothing and head shop, which has operated on Haight Street for 35 years. “My business went down $100,000 last year.”
Mr. Siegel said longtime customers from Bay Area suburbs “have been reading horrible things in the media” and staying away out of fear.
The new ordinance, a device for thwarting vagrancy and street crime that bans sitting or lying on sidewalks, applies citywide. But the grass-roots effort for it began in the Haight, which made the neighborhood the primary focus of news coverage.
“We became the poster child,” said Elisabeth Rix, a partner in several local businesses, including the Red Vic Movie House. “I had phone calls from friends who asked if it was safe to come to the Haight.”
Ms. Rix agreed that there had been issues with intimidating teenage vagrants, but said, “I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s been portrayed at all.”
Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association and a main proponent of sit/lie, disagreed with the notion that news media coverage surrounding the ordinance had caused damage. Any declines in business, he said, “were for other reasons,” including the recession.
Mr. Loewenberg said he had no regrets for pushing sit/lie, believing instead that it will eventually make the street safer and more welcoming.
“No one thought it was a light switch and with a flick things would instantly change,” he said. “It’s going to take time.”
But the depiction of the Haight as dangerous has taken hold, especially online.
On the social network Yelp, the majority of reviews (13 of 17) of Haight-Ashbury posted since March 2010 mention young street “punks.” In the preceding 12 months, only 1 of 14 reviews mentioned the issue.
On the Web site Virtual Tourist, a posting in January said a woman had been “sexually assaulted” on Haight Street “by a young junkie, with several friends. He put his hand right up my skirt.” When the group confronted the man, she wrote, “in two seconds, there were like fifteen screaming junkies with dogs surrounding us.”
They are accounts unlikely to attract tourists. In fact, 25 percent of visitors surveyed in a yearlong 2010 study released last week by the San Francisco Travel Association cited homelessness/panhandling as the top complaint.
The study also showed that while tourism was up 3 percent citywide from 2009, the percentage of visitors that went to the Haight in 2010 dropped 19 percent from the first quarter to the fourth — the same time period as the sit/lie news coverage.
Calvin Welch, a board member of Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, a neighborhood group, said it had been an ill-fated decision by sit/lie proponents to associate the measure so intimately with the Haight. “It was commercial suicide,” Mr. Welch said, adding, “It was eerily out of whack with reality.”
Mr. Welch, who has been in the neighborhood for four decades, said the Haight was actually better off now, having emerged from desperate times of drug dealing and violence in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Many other longtime residents agree that over all the neighborhood is on an upswing.
Nearly 70 businesses have joined a new group to get that message out. The Haight Ashbury Merchants Association, formed in January, has vowed to stay clear of politics and instead promote the streets’ attractions.
David McLean, a restaurateur and the group’s board president, said the effort would counter the bad news coverage surrounding sit/lie. “If I check all these news stories with my day-to-day reality,” he said, “they don’t add up.”
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