Sunday, February 11, 2001
Downtown Denizens Try Liberal Town's Patience
By BETTINA BOXALL, Times Staff Writer
ARCATA, Calif.--This is a town where the 1960s never really ended, where
environmentalism and social tolerance are civic creeds--and where it is now
illegal to sit on a downtown sidewalk or linger there with your dog.
Liberal Arcata--or at least some of it--has just about run out of
patience with the homeless and youthful wanderers who congregate at the
downtown plaza like shaggy pilgrims at a shrine.
The City Council has adopted ordinances one might expect to find in a
gated community, not in the free-spirited home of Humboldt State University.
Smoking, dogs and skateboarding have been banned on the grassy central
plaza for several years. As of last week, sitting and lying on sidewalks and
curbs or hanging out with a dog in the downtown district are also municipal
The new regulations have prompted outcries that city leaders are
trampling on individual rights and betraying the town's progressive spirit.
There has also been some discomfort on the council, which unanimously passed
the dog ordinance but split 3-2 on the sidewalk-sitting ban.
"When they say, 'No sitting, no lying,' they're targeting a group of
people," complained Roni Baram, who teaches part-time in the local school
system. "Arcata is just a friendly city to hang out in. I don't think it
should be restricted to rich people."
There have been rowdy City Council meetings--including one in which a
councilman removed his shoe and banged it on the table after a speaker made
a reference to Adolf Hitler. There was a small sit-in. There was a street
theater performance featuring an actor bounding around like a dog.
Opponents also launched a petition drive to put the new town laws to a
public vote. But the petitioners gathered only about half the signatures
they needed by their 30-day deadline.
Mayor Connie Stewart says the residents she's spoken to have been
"surprisingly supportive" of the new restrictions.
"Everybody has a story" about bad experiences near the plaza, she
added. "It's not part of a liberal philosophy to let one group take over a
She points out that Arcata is not the only liberal coastal town to
crack down on street life.
Seattle and Berkeley both passed bans against lying and sitting on
sidewalks. Both were legally challenged. The Berkeley ordinance was
repealed; the Seattle law was upheld on appeal, said Alan Schlosser,
managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern
The Arcata plaza for decades has been a stop for young people wandering
up and down the West Coast, a small-town version of Haight-Ashbury.
During the summer, the sidewalks ringing the square can be clogged with
the homeless and the aimless. They beg. They hang out. They do drugs. Many
Some of the street people turn belligerent and rude when their requests
for money are ignored. They yell and curse. They throw things.
"In the last two years [aggressive behavior] has escalated to the point
where even the tolerant have a hard time with the fact they can't walk down
the street without being accosted in some way," said Arcata Chamber of
Commerce director Jody Hansen.
Geoffrey Robinson, one of the petition backers, agreed that "it's kind
of a mess downtown." But the answer, he argued, is not a vague ordinance
that inevitably will be selectively enforced.
"We need to come up with something so everyone will feel comfortable
downtown. We're not there yet," said Robinson, who goes by the nickname
"Lizard," works as a plumber and is studying alternative energy engineering
at Humboldt State.
He and others are planning a community meeting later this month to
discuss the issue.
Some Dog Owners Tread Carefully
In the meantime, some local dog owners are careful not to tarry too
long with their pets. The dog ban allows only police dogs, guide dogs for
the blind and "dogs on leashes who are passing through" to enter the
Simone Watts, a graduate student who lives near downtown with her
pointer Winter, said she understands the canine problem but feels like a
criminal when she walks her dog off the leash at night. "I'm constantly
looking over my shoulder to see if there's a police car," she said.
Yael and Joseph Burkes, who were recently strolling along the edge of
the plaza with their Shih Tzu, were less concerned about the dog ordinance.
"I don't think it's so bad. It addresses a very complicated issue,"
said Joseph Burkes, who with his wife owns a house in Arcata and lives in
West Los Angeles.
Yael Burkes said the downtown scene can be intimidating. "They want
food. They want money," she said. "During the summer, people are sitting all
along the fence with dogs and sleeping bags."
On a cold February day there were only a handful of determined souls
hanging out on the plaza.
One of them was Derek Engelhardt, a 20-year-old from nearby Eureka who
had tied his hair into a dozen tiny spikes.
The new ordinances, he suggested, would not accomplish much. "I know
they're not going to work," he said. "People have been chilling here for
years, and they're not going anywhere."
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