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Anti-homeless boulder mystery solved

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The neighbors—not the city—are behind sidewalk obstructions

Large boulders lined up along a sidewalk. Homeless people can be seen in the background. Photos by Brock Keeling

Earlier this month, dozens of large, obstructive boulders appeared on a sidewalk on Clinton Park, a short street connecting Dolores and Valencia near Market Street, directly across from a Whole Foods.

Ostensibly decorative rocks are a common anti-homeless urban design measure, meant to inhibit sleeping and camping on sidewalks.

But no city agency copped to installing the large rocks. Department of Public Works (DPW) spokesperson Rachel Gordon said, “We really don’t know how the boulders got here” and speculated that they might qualify as illegal dumping.

It turns out the culprits are Clinton Park residents themselves: An unidentified area resident told KTVU that a coalition of neighbors “chipped in a few hundred dollars” to procure the urban obstructions and then have them installed in an effort to minimize space and discourage sleeping on the sidewalk.

How the boulders got into place remains unclear; each one weighs several hundred pounds.

Gordon later told the San Francisco Chronicle that the boulders are positioned in such a way as to not violate any city codes or obstruct the prescribed sidewalk uses.

Cities often uses obstructive boulders as a type of hostile architecture to prevent anyone from lingering in a particular byway.

Two large brown boulders side-by-side on a sidewalk.

In 2017, the Department of Public Works installed large rocks under an overpasses near the “hairball” bike path in Potrero Hill to drive out encampments.

This is the first reported instance of private citizens taking the initiative on such a set-up.

In recent years, urban design critics have taken exception to such measures, arguing that, among of issues, they prove ineffective and make cities less pleasant for everyone.

In 2017, SPUR’s Allison Arieff specifically singled out San Francisco’s Civic Center, noting that the city removed benches in hopes of driving out homeless people but ended up just creating a less comfortable public space where few except the homeless want to congregate.

“Decades after the full-scale seating removal in Civic Center Plaza, there is still nary a bench. Unfortunately, you cannot say the same for the number of unhoused who congregate there,” she said.