Not in My Downtown
by Jan Baughman

The scene is Palo Alto, California; home of the best and the brightest, the wealthy and the intellectual (liberal, conservative), neighbor to Stanford University, haven of Silicon Valley. Here one finds just about anything one desires. European markets, eclectic restaurants, theatres featuring foreign films and classic American titles, bookstores and cafes overflowing with the curious and the yuppie. Half-a-million-dollar homes and equally exorbitant rent (if you can find a vacancy). Near to San Francisco, but without the fog.

Yet Palo Alto has a problem. Its attractiveness has attracted the wrong sort of people, and they are loitering the streets. They even sit on the sidewalk, and soon, if some have their way, it may be illegal to do so.

One woman writes to the Palo Alto Weekly: "...I walk downtown for almost all of my shopping and services and was tired and upset by being approached on a constant basis by these people who, as far as I'm concerned, don't have any business being in my face when I want to go downtown and do whatever I need to do."

Another says: "I avoid downtown Palo Alto because of the bums, and have been doing that for about five years... If I had a business on University Avenue (the main street of this little heaven), I'd be furious that the city hasn't done anything to chase them off."

Chase them off. Like stray dogs or raccoons; subhuman pests interfering with our comfort. Human reminders of our excesses making us uneasy when we avert our eyes and pass by on the way to our important destination. Provoking guilt -- or do we divert the guilt when we turn our backs to the disparity in which we live? How do we deal with the contradictions? Chase them off.

To where? Where do "the bums" deserve to live? In the uninhabited Arctic? The desert? Bosnia? In poor communities without the political clout of the well-to-do shoppers? In cities where hand-outs are few and far between? Do they deserve to live at all? And who decides?

Hopefully, rationality and humanitarianism will prevail, though I am pessimistic that the "inconvenienced" will ever see that the "bums" did not choose their lifestyle merely for the sake of annoying them. And I am frightened of what must be happening in less "enlightened" neighborhoods.

Published August 02, 1996
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