By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As San Francisco embarks on elaborate festivities for Super Bowl 50 this week, some in the city aren't in a mood to celebrate.
Activists on a range of economic and social issues see the opening of Super Bowl City, a multi-stage event space on the city's scenic Embarcadero, as a symbol of how San Francisco has lost its way. Known since the 1960s for its left-wing politics and bohemian bent, the city today, they say, is in danger of becoming just another playground for the rich.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling for the Housing Rights Committee, said he hates seeing San Francisco, which is already facing a $100 million budget shortfall, spending an estimated $5 million in taxpayer dollars to host events leading up to next Sunday's Super Bowl.
"The administration doesn't care about the poor and working class people and is only concerned about giving the rich somewhere to have a party," Avicolli Mecca said, noting that San Francisco rents have become unaffordable for many middle class people and that homelessness is rampant.
A spokesman for Mayor Edwin Lee did not return calls seeking comment, but his office has said the city will more than make up for its expenditures through hotel and other taxes. While the bowl will be played in Santa Clara in nearby Silicon Valley, the city will accommodate many visitors and most pre-game events.
Bob Linscheid, president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that affluence and poverty exist uncomfortably side-by-side in San Francisco, but said any blame cast on the Super Bowl is misplaced.
San Francisco is hosting the "most philanthropic Super Bowl in the game's history," he said, predicting that the city would more than recover its costs through spending by visitors at local businesses.
"This Super Bowl is a direct reflection on San Francisco's desire to give something back. We're a city with a heart," he said.
The charity arm of the non-profit Super Bowl 50 Host Committee has pledged to donate $13 million to local charities benefiting Bay Area children and young adults living in low-income communities.
Conflict over the Super Bowl is rooted in dramatic changes in San Francisco's demographics, partly driven by the super-charged growth of prosperous technology companies in Silicon Valley, including Google, Apple and Facebook. Highly paid workers willing to pay top dollar for housing have flocked to the city of about 840,000 in recent years, driving the median rent for a two bedroom apartment to more than $4,600, according to Zumper, an online apartment rental company.
The philanthropy promised by Super Bowl planners hasn't convinced activists that the event is a good fit with San Francisco. They have planned a range of demonstrations, including a march that took place Saturday to protest the killing by police of a young, black stabbing suspect and an upcoming rally by Bloodstained Men & Their Friends, an anti-circumcision group.
A protest on behalf of the homeless is planned for Wednesday near Super Bowl City. The area is ordinarily populated by many homeless San Franciscans, but in recent days they have been far less visible on streets near the Embarcadero.
In August, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Mayor Lee as saying that homeless people would need to get off the streets prior to the Super Bowl. "They are going to have to leave," the paper reported him saying. The city counted nearly 6,700 homeless people last year.
'SOME PIECE OF GARBAGE'
John Reddeer Pearce, 56, sat in the rain Friday morning across the street from Super Bowl City with a cardboard sign asking for money. He and a friend said they have felt pressure to move from the area since Super Bowl City construction began last week, and that police and others have told them about a new shelter where they could go.
In recent weeks the city has overseen the addition of 500 extra beds for the homeless and opened a 150-bed temporary shelter facility several miles from Super Bowl City, something officials have said is in response to heavy rains from this year's El Nino weather system.
Pearce was recently asked to leave the Embarcadero area for an hour while dignitaries were being shown around the site. He and his friend don't plan to move and are looking forward to the free public events.
"What kinds of feelings do we have when someone asks you to leave, when we're told ... that you're just some piece of garbage sitting around," he said. "Most of us are veterans. We're the reason why you're free."
Street vendors, too, complain about having been evicted from their usual territory along Justin Herman Plaza where Super Bowl City now sits. Usually, the area is populated by more than 100 street vendors selling handcrafted jewelry, knitted caps and custom printed t-shirts, a small number of whom have been selected to sell inside Super Bowl City.
Without the outdoor marketplace, said Rebecca Wolford, a vendor who has sold her jewelry here for two decades, visitors won't be "getting the real, nitty-gritty San Francisco, the bohemian type of experience that makes San Francisco unique and creative."
(Additional reporting by Deborah Todd; Editing by Sue Horton and Mary Milliken)