Bench Politics

This is mostly just a collection of anecdotes. I actually am not very good about reading other people’s blogs, or essays, or books about politics, and most of my political views stem from my experiences. One day I may come back and polish this more into a proper essay, but for now I’ll talk about how I’ve been thinking about benches lately.

Public benches give people permission to sit in public; sometimes that permission is quite conditional.

The life and death of a free public bench#

A bench was built, using the plans I believe from the Public Bench Project, and placed in a public location. It was removed because people in the area threatened to have the the bench thrown away by the city, due to fears that a public bench would bring crime. It was moved to a new location, where someone promptly destroyed it. Last I heard it is being repaired and will return somewhere.

This is not my bench, I did not make it, so I’ll be vague, but it got me thinking about how political a bench is.

For their protection, I will not list the location of any benches. To find them, you will have to walk around the city. Here is one bench, that is owned and protected by a specific person:

a bench painted with flying ice cream cones. There is text saying “Public Bench Project”

“Can the parklet be closed at night?”#

I went to a meeting about building a fully public parklet, and some of the people who were for it basically said they only want it if it can be closed at night.

They like a public parklet, but they’re afraid that the “wrong” people will use the benches. I’m sure we all know about hostile architecture. We’ve seen benches disappear from public spaces, and when they appear, be replaced by benches that are hard to use, or literally unusable.

I’d long thought that one of the major problems with roads for cars is that they control where people go to a rather extraordinary degree. It’s hard to have a modern society without dangerous equipment that the general public has to be excluded from for their safety, like power plants or construction sites or steel mills, but the scale of controlling who can use public space that cars necessitate is a whole other thing. Roads for cars create an inpenetrable grid of space that you can only enter under very specific conditions, under pain of injury or death. Take away the cars and that loosens a lot - I bike on Market Street and pedestrians now feel very comfortable jaywalking, even though Market street remains chaotic and full of vehicles.

I think it was at that moment that I realized that for some people, this is not a problem with cars, but a benefit. They were ok with removing the cars, as long as they could still control how the space was used.

Benches are critical infrastructure#

Sometimes, especially during the pandemic, if I wanted to get somewhere I’d walk. I walked from the Mission to the Richmond a few times. You need a few things for this - water, a place to sit, maybe bathrooms.

I like to walk, and when I can, I will walk long distances. Now and then, I’ll have some sort of injury that makes it harder for me to walk, and the chance to sit down and take a break is the only way for me to be able to walk places.

Back when I was on Twitter, my most popular ever posts were about how we need more places in public to sit.

Gimme Shelter, a campaign by SDA, pressures the city to address how removing seating (and bus shelters) excludes seniors and people with disabilities from using public transit.


Even I feel uncomfortable in a POPOs. I’ve been in a decent number of POPOs downtown, before the pandemic. We’d try and find nice ones to eat lunch in, but it always felt kind of like we weren’t supposed to.

A sign reminds you that you are allowed to be here conditionally. Do you need to be wearing business casual? Or a Patagonia vest? Are there cameras watching you? Or the front lobby staff? Permission can be rescinded for any reason. There are a lot of rules, many of them merely social, merely a vague feeling that you are transgressing when you are the only one in a massive corporate lobby eating your lunch, or when you have to ask to go up an elevator.

There are often a lot of benches there, but not many people sitting here. Everyone is on their best behaviour. Everyone is being watched.

Unauthorized street improvements#

Page Street is a great community because it’s an important throughfare, but also because people bend the rules a bit.

A 311 complaint about the page slow street sign. There is a photo of a handmade sign among other official flex posts on page street. Text says “Large unauthorized installment of private sign onto Page Street signifies the failure of public officials to comply with the law. All of which opens the door to all kinds of trespasses, abuse, misuse and vandalism. What value is there in dysfunctional, untrained and unaccountable government officials”

The words are ridiculous, but the underlying fear is revealing. There are hundreds of these, each ranting about how allowing anything in public without prior approvial will lead to the downfall of society.

It is true though, that one unauthorized sign leads to the nearby school making their own as a fun art project, and they multiply. Children start drawing on the sidewalk on chalk, people start writing fun facts about thei neighbourhood trees. Maybe someone puts on a not quite authorized block party, puts up a Christmas tree, brings out the hot chocolate.

People might start thinking the space is for them, rather than something they need permission to use. The fear that you aren’t supposed to do things in public without paying someone for the privilege starts to dissipate, once other people are not punished for it.

Piano benches in the park#

I could write a lot about this, actually, I might more some time, but in brief:

On JFK, two pianos went up. Old pianos, not in great shape, I think being retired from Flower Piano. They were left for anyone to use, but someone needed to close them at night, and cover them up, so that the cold and the dew would destroy them a little less quickly.

I was one of many volunteers, and met many of the people who would play there. You had people who were there almost every day, first thing in the morning, before you’d properly opened them up, and people who had lived in SF all their life but never set foot in the park till that day. People who would shyly come to play late at night because they didn’t have access to a piano any more, people who came for the audience on a Sunday afternoon, people who did not actually have any idea how to play the piano and came with a bottle of whiskey and their laughing friends on a Friday night.

The piano benches invited anyone to come and sit down and play, and in the forest at night, well, there are always people around on JFK, but nobody is really watching. No security cameras, and instead of stern people in suits behind desks you have the coyotes and the owls.

The pianos are dying, they will probably not last as long as they would have in some downtown office, but in their short lives they will probably have been played more.

They say that nobody goes downtown any more, and it’s not quite true, but people certainly go to Golden Gate Park.

© 2024