A few years ago I was at the Union Street Fair and, exhausted from watching shirtless bros with frosted tips elbow their ways though the crowded street, I decided to take off early. Beginning to make my way home, I saw a group of guys, all of whom were two or three sheets to the wind, walking the same way as me along the other side of the street. As the group passed by an empty cop car, one gentleman split off from the pack, hopped up on the car’s rear bumper, bounced it up and down and then jumped off laughing. As he walked away, hi-fiving his buddies, two cops stepped out from inside the “empty” cop car, glanced at each other in that particular knowing mixture of shocked bemusement and utter disgust only veteran police officers can accurately convey, threw him to the ground, cuffed him and tossed him into the backseat of their squad car. Not only was this one of the funniest things I’d ever seen, but it, and dozens of other incidents very similar to it, are likely the impetus for the institution of a ban on alcohol sales at this year’s upcoming Union Street Fair.
The ban is, organizers say, a one-year experiment designed to tame the increasingly raucous event held annually in the Marina on the first weekend of June. In recent years, the festival has acquired more and more of a party atmosphere–something the organizers say they are looking to discourage. In recent years, alcohol consumption was confined to a handful of fenced-in beer gardens, which will be eliminated at this year’s fair. Also scraped are the live performances by rock and roll bands because organizers feared that the playing of the devil’s music was riling up the crowd.
The fair is attempting to return to its sedate roots as a place for arts and crafts vendors to hock their wares–essentially a glorified, large-scale farmer’s market. Union Street Association Vice President Larry Murray tells the Ex, “It’ll have more of an instructive environment. We still have vendors and artists selling art work, but we won’t have the wilder element; that’s gone.”
Whether simply eliminating the beer gardens will be enough to tame the party remains to be seen. A lot of the revelry that eventually spills out in the street begins at at one of the many house parties lining the blocks surrounding Union Street or in one of the panoply of crowded neighborhood bars guaranteed to be overflowing during the fair.
That said, completely eliminating drunkenness may not be the true goal of the ban. Fair organizers say they are cracking down on alcohol largely in response to pressure from SFPD and if they can remove themselves from culpability for any booze-fueled shenanigans by eliminating the beer gardens, they can effectively claim innocence no matter what happens.
“We want to show everybody it’s not really the fair that’s the problem. It’s the house parties,” said Union Street Association President Eleanor Carpenter.
The Union Street Fair isn’t the only public event city officials have worked to put a damper on in recent years. Bay to Breakers attempted to ban alcohol this year and, while organizers tried to scare away revelers with police officers stationed along the route dumping open containers and threats of forcible detainment at “sobriety tents” the race was reportedly only slightly less tipsy than in previous years.
Similarly, the Haight Street Fair has struggled to clamp down on the event’s widespread public drunkenness. The San Francisco institution may not even get to celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer amid concerns by surrounding neighborhood and merchant associations.
This all goes without mentioning the feather in the cap of the forces in San Francisco fighting the War on Fun, the untimely death of Halloween in the Castro.
San Francisco is a town known for its love of large-scale, public bacchanalia and, as more and more of these annual events get shut down or tamed to the point of toothlessness in the name of safety or propriety, people will funnel their partying energy into the few remaining outlets left. One could even argue that the recent ratcheting of Bay to Breakers’s insanity up to 11 is a direct result of the closure of Castro’s annual Halloween party.
Turning the Union Street Fair into something that wouldn’t look out of place in Tiburon may not even be possible but, if its organizers are ultimately successful, it’s doubtless that the legions of hungry, young party animals will quickly find some other event where they can drunkenly jump on the backs of questionably vacant police cars.