The Boulders of Clinton Park: Sisyphus Retold

By Mirjam Washuus

In September, housed residents of Clinton Park sparked disorder in the community by attempting to rid their street of drug dealers and homeless people living in encampments. They decided to do so by crowdfunding the installation of boulders onto the sidewalk.

Clearly, someone among the residents have read Albert Camus’ philosophical essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Here, Camus contemplates the purpose of living in a universe devoid of order and meaning, invoking the tale of Sisyphus, who after defying his gods is condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down and roll it back uphill. Eternally.

The lesson? It is the journey of the task that satisfies the executor: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

So, clearly, one or more Clinton Park residents read Camus and came up with the following takeaways: (1) homelessness is the mountain to overcome, and (2) the journey to reach the summit consists of eternally pushing boulders up that mountain.

Clearly, after about 300 calls to 311, over 200 street cleaning requests, the housed residents of Clinton Park realized that not enough is being done to help the nearly 20.000 homeless people in San Francisco. And so, they gathered finances — almost $4,000 from a since-closed GoFundMe campaign — took the law in their own hands.  Copying tactics that The City used in other neighborhoods, they placed about 25 boulders along the sidewalk of the neighboring pet store to stave off encampments of rough sleepers and drug dealing.

This decision brought a moment of peace to Clinton Park until homeless advocates and activists noticed the anti-homeless architecture. A Twitter post and a number of news articles, including one from the hyperlocal site Hoodline where the story broke, sparked awareness of the hitherto unknown side street off Market and Dolores streets, and soon the boulders were being rolled onto the street for the Department of Public Works to replace. Repeatedly.

Place a boulder, watch it roll onto the street, call DPW, replace the boulder, watch it roll again … you get the gist.

One thing is for sure: It will neither solve homelessness nor the problems linked to it.

Several news outlets have spoken to Clinton Park residents, who seem to agree that boulders are not ideal to deal with the problems linked to homelessness in San Francisco. However, they fear possible retaliation, and their pleas to the City for safety have so far gone unanswered. One anonymous resident told the SF Chronicle that “these rocks are not about being against the homeless — it’s about stopping criminal behavior,” and added, “It’s such a shame that humanity is bottom-barrel about this without asking questions. I wish they actually understood what we were doing.”

Clinton Park wasn’t the first time anti-homeless design was used in San Francisco, said Sam Lew, policy coordinator of the Coalition on Homelessness — the organization that publishes Street Sheet. She told Hoodline that the placement of boulders is the opposite of addressing the situation in a humane way. She suggested using the money spent on boulders to “invest in real solutions like housing, mental health services and shelter.”

Interestingly, it seems that the boulder-leading residents themselves have refrained from understanding the complex world playing out on the other side of their street. Daniel Bartosiewicz, who have been camping on Clinton Park, told NBC Bay Area that “[the residents] would have saved a lot of money and a lot of trouble if they just said something to us,” he said. “Use your compassion and love and understanding. We’re humans.”

Public Works director Mohammed Nuru’s response to the boulders’ placement and removal was: “We will support whatever the residents want to do,” as they felt targeted by boulder opponents. But apparently no one from Nuru’s department approached the unhoused residents for their input.

And so, the lesson learned from the myth of the Clinton Park boulders is that when San Franciscans with money in their hands and roofs over their heads need to ensure safety by taking the law into their own hands, the City’s official response is to play along. But when unhoused, poor and struggling San Franciscans engage in similar tactics, they are deprived of their belongings and replaced with large, heavy boulders — by the Department of Public Works.

Here we have a new twist on the Camus quote:  If it is the journey of the task that satisfies the executor, then “one must imagine the City of San Francisco happy.