King of the Hill

King of the Hill

Telegraph Hill Dwellers try to take territory from neighboring political groups

By Amanda Witherell

On the evening of April 11, there’s a bottleneck at the door of the Tel-Hi Community Center as members of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers try to get in out of the rain. President Brad Willmore has a dozen rebel Russian Hill Neighbors cordoned off in the back of the vestibule with the wet umbrellas.

The Dwellers will be discussing “expanding boundaries” tonight, a plan that someone leaked to a faction from the neighboring hill. After an impromptu huddle of the board for a quick lesson in open democracy, the Neighbors are invited into a room that is filled with more than 50 members of the oldest, most powerful neighborhood organization in the city. The proposed boundaries expand the The Dwellers’ territory into three other neighborhood organizations, nearly doubling its domain, coasting across the “flatlands” of the North Beach Neighbors, annexing some Barbary Coast Association territory, and climbing almost to the top of Russian Hill.

Board members in creased slacks and polished shoes — representing the more youthful, working class contingent of the neighborhood – take over the front of the room beside a large map. Local lawyer Joe Alioto Jr, who’s about to become an uncle and rushed here from the delivery room where his sister, Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, is in labor, explains that as the bylaws stand, this would allow the 50 members who currently live outside the boundaries a chance to vote and serve on the board.

Alioto says the new line was chosen to more accurately reflect the natural valley of the area, and he mentions this has been discussed at the board level for at least 10 years. “No, it hasn’t,” pipes up another local lawyer, reclined back in his folding chair like a comfortable defendant. It breaks the spell of dutiful attention, and 30-year member Janet Crane asks other veteran members in their khakis and sneakers, “Who is for this? Who actually thinks this is a really good idea?” No hands go up.

Alioto retreats to a chair and Willmore takes center stage and tries to regain some control: “We intended this to be a constructive and informational meeting.”

Crane ignores him.

“Now, who thinks this is a bad idea? Come on, put your hands up.” Around the room they rise like salutes. That would seem to settle it, but this is a democracy, so for the next two hours the soapbox shuffled around the room and past presidents, long-standing board members, and residents with 30-year-plus memberships voice a laundry list of concerns, including that it would be doubling the territory to increase the voting membership by 5 percent.

“What is this, the Bush White House?” asks Nan Roth with an arched eyebrow. Another member complains that the Dwellers already have to answer to charges of being arrogant and elitist. It isn’t just the two peaks at issue. North Beach Neighbors member and former District 3 supervisorial candidate Sal Busalacchi suggests they take over the ports, where there’s no one but salmon to oppose them, and ends his speech with, “If you include North Beach, you’ll get people like me who’ll want to join, and I don’t think you’ll like the way I vote.” A woman from Barbary Coast, the most infant of neighborhood organizations, thanks the group for the meeting, states she’s opposed, and to further reinforce the lack of compatibility adds, “We are coastal people, and you are hill dwellers.” David Chan, also of North Beach Neighbors, makes a crucial political suggestion: “You guys got it all wrong. Why not take over all of District Three and be done with it?” One person who lives outside the sphere of influence spoke in favor of the proposal, and all of the young board members took turns proffering apologies for their lack of foresight and research before presenting the idea as a fait accompli.

Alioto asks the group, “Now what? What’s next? Vote it down and start over?” “Start over?” someone exclaims with exasperation. People rise from their seats and prepare to leave. Outside, standing under an umbrella, with Coit Tower glowing like an ethereal Emerald City behind them, two former board presidents chuckle together.

“It was actually kind of cute, ” one says of the neophyte administration and its misdirection. Board members had hoped the new boundary would more accurately reflect reality, citing numerous projects The Dwellers are involved with beyond The Hill, such as the Piers 27-31 project (in which Mills Corporation was recently forced out of town by project opponents), the “Triangle” at 701 Lombard St., and the North Point Public Housing. So what should we make of this territorial dispute? Are the Telegraph Hill Dwellers stepping too far outside their territory when they take on issues that affect the whole city? What is the role of neighborhood groups? Is it about political influence and access? And if so, is bigger better, or are locally based groups more democratic? These were just some of the questions underlying this debate and others like them that regularly take place in San Francisco. And what are the answers? Well, perhaps the answers are less important to the cause of democracy than the simple fact that questions like these are being raised.

Originally published April 16, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian