San Jose Mercury News

By Mary Anne Ostrom
San Jose Mercury News, March 11, 2009

While the rest of us wallow in our economic woes, San Franciscans are engaged in a battle for the city’s free-spirited soul.

Should beer and, heavens, bare buttocks be banned in the Bay to Breakers annual footrace? What to do about Web-fueled mass pillow and faux-pie fights?

With Bloody Marys already banned from outdoor 1906 earthquake anniversary celebrations, Halloween exorcised from the Castro and the Exotic Erotic Ball shoved to the Cow Palace, one has to wonder: What has gotten into Baghdad-by-the-Bay in recent years?

The debate over whether to legislate silliness (and occasional stupidity) has escalated several decibel levels in recent weeks with San Francisco’s equivalent of the shot-heard-’round-the-world: the race organizer’s proposal to ban floats and alcohol from the annual romp, which once billed itself as “the world’s wackiest foot race.”

More than 22,000 race supporters joined a Facebook group designed to save “the heart and soul of San Francisco” from attack. After all, San Francisco is a place where excess isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged. And no one counters the counterculture without a fight.

For years, runners have jogged alongside rolling tiki bars, Elvis impersonators gyrated uphill in white jumpsuits, and racers even donned fish costumes and ran the course in reverse to demonstrate “salmon swimming upstream.” But with complaints about “drunken louts and knuckleheads” growing, some neighbors and runners called for sobriety.

Ongoing negotiations suggest that floats and responsible drinking will be tolerated, but the mere attempt at regulations may just take the keg. (The bare facts have been misconstrued, race managers say; nudity was never part of the intended ban, though such rumors abound.)

“This is a serious footrace and it’s serious fun,” said Sam Singer, spokesman for the race organizer. “People should act responsibly.”

Too much fun?

In this era of tight city street-cleaning budgets and complaining neighbors, a strong whiff of suburban angst is mixing with the heady air of anything goes. (Something else might be in the air, but in recent years medicinal marijuana dispensaries also have been subjected to tougher regulations.)

“How long before we start wearing burqas?” quipped San Francisco culture-war veteran Lee Houskeeper, who sides with the keep-it-zany contingent. “I arrived here for the Summer of Love,” Houskeeper recalled. “The reason I came was my fascination by the naked hippie chicks.”

Some of the changes to over-the-top celebrations have been embraced, such as the bona fide concerns over violence in the Castro and new calls for stricter nightclub closing policies.

But on the Web, indignation over B2B, as Bay to Breakers is known, is as palatable as the stench of beer and urine on the day of the race, which in recent years has been dubbed “Booze to Breakers.”

Negotiations are still going on, but for now floats will be allowed if they follow strict rules: Float handlers have to register and begin at the starting line (no joining after the 11 percent grade Hayes Street hill) and the contraptions have to be “corralled” at the race’s end.

Race restrictions

The official race Web site now warns that organizers, with the help of police, will “proactively remove kegs and glass bottles.” Race organizer AEG Worldwide also requests that people actually register for the 7.46-mile race. Only about half did last year.

While the intricacies of policing this year’s Bay to Breakers — the 98th edition will be run May 17 — are still being worked out, San Francisco City Hall is fretting over a 21st-century excuse to carry on: flash mobs.

On Valentine’s Day, 2,000 people indulged in a six-hour pillow fight, organized (if you can call it that) by sending text messages encouraging thousands to show up at Justin Herman Plaza with a pillow. Last week, another “mob” held a “pie” fight — shaving cream slapped on a paper plate — at a cable car turnaround. The cleanup cost tens of thousands of dollars to private businesses and the city.

But San Franciscans vexed about losing their fun side can take solace that the Bay to Breakers brouhaha mobilized thousands of people to rally to save the city from Puritan influences. Ed Sharpless, a San Francisco entrepreneur who helped galvanize the Facebook activism, vows he’s going to keep the movement going, and heck, he’s even going to pay his $44 and actually register for the race this year. Flush from his success, he plans to “help this movement save things that are important to San Francisco.”

He’s not ready to reveal what those things and activities might be.

Suffice it to say, he noted, “If you can’t do it in San Francisco, you can’t do it anywhere.”