Los Angeles Times

By Maria L. La Ganga
March 7, 2009

Reporting from San Francisco — It’s too soon to tell if the party people have won.

But after weeks of civic soul searching from City Hall to cyberspace, it’s beginning to look as if Baghdad by the Bay will survive the latest threat to its reputation as the capital of free expression.

For a while, though, it was touch and go here in the city that brought you the Summer of Love, Burning Man and the Folsom Street Fair (the self-proclaimed “granddaddy of all leather events”).

The organizers of Bay to Breakers — the raciest footrace in America — set off the hand-wringing when they announced last month that nudity, alcohol and floats would be banned from the infamous annual competition, which has transformed over the last 97 years into a Pilsener-fueled party on Pumas.

In any other city in America, it probably wouldn’t be necessary to tell participants in a 12-kilometer race that they are not allowed to strip to their running shoes and push a keg in a shopping cart while sipping a tall cold one.

But San Franciscans have spent the last 160 years taking their fun very seriously, and people here in “The City That Knows How” know a threat to their image when they see one.

The response was swift and voluminous. Online communities sprang up overnight in defense of the race and now boast more than 22,000 members. Local newspaper columnists got into the act.

There have been news conferences, closed-door meetings and a Board of Supervisors resolution that was sent to committee Tuesday. The measure urges organizers to come up with a plan to protect neighborhoods from trash and rowdy behavior while “preserving the unique spirit of the race.”

“B2B is part of the anarchy of our beloved town,” declared Moaya on a Facebook group called Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers. “The problem is with the Taliban like ‘residents’ who move into bohemain enclaves to be part of the ‘charm’ and then get all indignant when the boho is on their stoop.”

“San Francisco is turning soooooooo PRISSY,” rued Mary, in another posting. “Come on you big babies. . . .”

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who sponsored Tuesday’s resolution, views the effort to rein in the race as part of “a trend now of trying to suburbanize many of our signature events.”

In a city that calls itself “The City,” those are fighting words.

To race organizer AEG Worldwide, a sports-and-entertainment company based in Los Angeles, the changes are a necessary effort to civilize a race that spokesman Sam Singer said has been tarnished by “knuckleheads and drunken louts who misbehave and endanger themselves or other race participants.”

In an “open letter” to the “Bay to Breakers Community,” race general manager Angela Fang reminded San Francisco that the event is “a 12K Race, not a civic parade.”

The problem, though, is that it’s really both.

Racing enthusiasts argue that Bay to Breakers is the country’s biggest and oldest continually run footrace. Revelers note that it has become one of the city’s biggest spectacles, an integral part of the civic DNA.

No one here wants it to go the way of Halloween in the Castro District and New Year’s Eve in Union Square. Both distinctive celebrations were discontinued after they outgrew their neighborhoods and were marred by violence.

The phenomenon that became Bay to Breakers started in 1912, when the first Cross City Race (the name was changed in 1964) was held on New Year’s morning to help boost morale in an earthquake-shattered region struggling to rebuild. The winner was a part-time newspaper copy boy who sped past 120 competitors.

The first costumed runner (Captain Kidd, who finished dead last) showed up in 1940. Runners started killing time with a pre-race tortilla toss (just what it sounds like) in the early 1990s.

Elvis impersonators regularly compete, along with men in nuns’ habits, human condoms, the pope, Jesus Christ (with cross), the infamous O.J. Simpson slow chase, SpongeBob SquarePants and the occasional running nose.

Runners roll tiki bars — alcohol included — along the route, which is punctuated by live bands. Spectators hang out the windows of Victorian houses, clutching Bloody Marys and throwing water balloons.

And then there are the floats. In 2006, one group spent four months and $10,000 constructing a giant red-and-white toadstool with five beer kegs and a DJ inside. It was surrounded by nearly 300 people dressed as Smurfs.

In 1986, 110,000 people ran, but by 2008, the number had dropped to about 60,000, nearly half of whom didn’t bother to pay the registration fee, which is now $44.

They weren’t the only ones to ignore a plea from Mayor Gavin Newsom, who urged last year’s participants to register and clean up after themselves. Partyers left behind 35 tons of trash.

And neighbors complained loudly about public urination, defecation, drunkenness and vomiting, particularly around the Panhandle, a grassy swath that abuts Golden Gate Park.

All of that led AEG to issue its Feb. 11 ban on alcohol, floats and naked runners.

The result: A movement was launched.

As www.savebay2breakers.org put it: “The heart and soul of San Francisco is under attack.”

Race supporters blamed AEG for the problems, charging that it cuts corners to make a buck; they believe that 600 portable toilets for 65,000 or so participants is seriously insufficient.

“They have made this about indecent public behavior,” said Ed Sharpless, head of Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers. “Why haven’t organizers been required to provide more resources, particularly on the Porta Potty thing?”

Singer derided Sharpless’ view as “an insane conspiracy theory” floated by a carpetbagger who admits he has never paid to run the race he’s championing. This year, however, Sharpless has paid the fee and donated $200 to race-sponsored charities. He also notes that he lives in San Francisco while Singer is an Oakland resident.

Last week, after a meeting with AEG representatives and Sharpless, city officials announced “revised polices” that sound stern but that race supporters have decided to interpret as otherwise.

Kegs and bottles are specifically banned. And, the mayor’s office announced, “anyone publiclydrinking alcohol or displaying public drunkenness . . . will be subject to the laws of California.”

But in a post on his website, Sharpless described the meeting this way: “There was acknowledgment that drinking was part of the tradition of Bay to Breakers and it would likely continue this year and in the future. Obviously,no one can say this publicly, but we all ‘get it.’ ”

Floats are back, but their operators have to register and must start the race at the beginning, behind the runners. They also can’t have motors or alcohol.

As for nudity? It’s not mentioned at all.

“The devil is in the details,” Sharpless noted, and race enthusiasts won’t be sure until May 17 just how strictly the new policies will be enforced and whether there will be a chilling effect on the race.

As Rick wrote on Facebook: “Still not going under protest. B2B is a bust this year.”