Noe Valley Voice February 1999

Merchants Sit Down with Lick Kids

By Suzanne Herel

Noe Valley merchants and students and staff from James Lick Middle School shared pizza and their thoughts on improving communications at a Jan. 13 meeting, the first in a series designed to bring the two groups closer together.

Relations between the school and 24th Street merchants became strained in October, following a shoplifting attempt by a James Lick student at Just for Fun that angered owner David Eiland so much he temporarily barred students from his store. Now, a sign on the door requests that during school hours students from any school be accompanied by an adult.

Eiland -- who provided the pizza for the meeting -- was out of the state recently and could not be reached for comment.

But Michael Eddings, principal of James Lick, said, "Things are going well. The incident has pretty much blown over. At the time [of the shoplifting], there was a lot of emotion involved."

While merchants had been upset by some kids' rowdiness and seeming lack of respect for shops on 24th Street, the sixth- through eighth-graders at James Lick complained that they were continually being followed and watched when they were in neighborhood stores.

The students, many of whom are bused to the Noe Street school from other parts of the city, were also sensitive to the race issue: 43 percent of Lick's 500 students are classified as Latino, and 30 percent as African-American. Some felt they'd become easy targets in this mostly white neighborhood.

The coverage in the Voice of the ban on students at Just for Fun (November and December 1998 issues) angered a number of shop owners and members of the school community, prompting a barrage of letters to the editor.

"We do not want to see a repeat of those letters," said Bob Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "The hatred and vitriolic comments coming through in those letters -- we don't want to repeat those things."

Though the situation will take time to heal, Eddings said the first meeting of the two groups went a long way toward creating a positive atmosphere. "Dialogue is important," he said. "Both sides are starting to see what the real events are, and we're beginning to put faces to names."

He added that the school is trying to do its part by having its security officer walk around 24th Street after school to make sure the kids keep moving.

Sandra Sohcot, of Sohcot Consulting, spearheaded the effort to form a committee within the Merchants to address the friction between the two groups. "I like to see that all the entities in the community feel connected," she said. Part of the purpose of the meeting, she said, was to represent the merchants to the kids as people -- as parents and neighbors, not just as store owners.

She stressed that students who frequent Noe Valley stores are not all from James Lick and that the committee hopes to take its outreach to other area schools as well.

In addition to Eddings, Eiland, and Sohcot, attending the meeting were eight students, a school counselor, two members of the Noe Valley Ministry, lawyer Dennis Weaver, a representative of Supervisor Mark Leno, and Diane Barrett of Indigo V flower shop. Eiland was the only merchant at the meeting whose store has a substantial student clientele.

Roddick said he hopes more shops catering to kids will attend in the future, schedules permitting. "The owners of the types of stores we're talking about need to be there to run them," he explained. "When merchants give up their time, they lose more than an hourly wage."

Barrett said the meeting wouldn't have been necessary without the Voice coverage. "It would have blown over if the paper had not written that horrible article," she said. "We had to do something."

However, Weaver, who helped coach baseball this year at James Lick, where his son is enrolled, said he thought the meeting was an important first step. "People were a little cautious," he said. "But that proves that we needed the meeting."

At the meeting, the students voiced concern about being treated equally and shown respect. They also encouraged the merchants to get involved in school activities by being tutors, attending events, and donating money and supplies.

Some students remarked that they felt it was best to keep a low profile in the stores, but in the end they agreed that they would start introducing themselves to store owners and preparing a list of projects that could involve both groups.

For their part, the merchants promised to work on showing more respect for and trust in their student customers.

Alexander Gardener, owner of Video Wave on Castro Street, said showing respect for his student customers -- many of whom stop by for candy and popcorn -- has paid off for him.

"If you treat the kids with respect and dignity, you usually get it back," he said. Over the past decade, he's donated money and supplies to the school and participated in James Lick's Students in Stores program, in which the students get a taste of a real job in neighborhood stores. He also allows teachers to rent videos for their classes for free.

"This has been a battle in Noe Valley from the beginning," he said, referring to the strife between certain shops and students. "Some merchants want the money but not the kids."

"Every community neighborhood keeps wanting to squeeze the kids out," he said. "We feel the children are being scapegoated -- shoplifting has been a major problem with adults, so to point the finger at the children is wrong."

The next meeting--which is open to the public -- will be held Feb. 10 at 11:15 a.m. at James Lick School, 1220 Noe St.