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SF Gets Its First Scandal of 2014: Hedgegate

Scott Lucas | January 17, 2014 | Story

The Chronicle probably didn't intend to create the biggest scandal of 2014. But Hedgegate is here, and it's real.

If you haven't been following this story, you've been missing the greatest passive-aggressive display of class envy masquerading as landscape design criticism (or landscape design criticism masquerading as class envy—we're not sure). To summarize: Back in December, the Chron's architecture critic, John King, opined of an enormous hedge that bestselling novelist Danielle Steel had grown in front of her pied a terre, the Spreckels Mansion, that "the beguiling architecture [is] thwarted by a comically off-putting hedge. Friendly streets are a fine goal—all too often, a utopian ideal." (Was it a years-delayed attempt to get back at Spreckles for shooting Chronicle co-founder Michael H. de Young way back in 1884? We can only guess.)

The matter would have rested there, had society observer Catherine Bigelow not asked Steel to comment on King's swipe. The author's response, seemingly ripped right from Peter Shih or Greg Gopman: "Sometimes I think San Francisco hates successful people."

Things, as they say, progressed from there. Last week, columnist C.W. Nevius took the baton, writing, "It isn’t that San Francisco hates successful people. It’s snobs we don’t like." (To which we have to say, damn Chuck, nice burn.) Steel herself then took the bait in an epic piece printed in today's Chronicle: "I've read the articles about my hedge with a sense of the ridiculous (who cares about my hedge? Who else's hedge are they measuring? Nothing better to do?). Reading Messrs. John King and C.W. Nevius, with the power and dignity of the Chronicle behind them, I am struck by how angry, bitter and petty the public voice of the city has become. (This is not journalism at its finest, to say the least.)"

She went on to write about her charitable contributions to the city (which are significant, to be fair), concluding with the following: "I am deeply saddened to see how unreasonable, unkind, sharp of tongue and hard of heart the city's public voice has become. It is like losing a once-beloved friend you no longer recognize. [...] I hope the local press will look more kindly on the city's residents and benefactors in future. It is that warmth and openness that drew so many people here. I don't want to see that disappear."

This afternoon, Nevius sounded a conciliatory note. Though he stood by the snob charge, he called Steel's three page typewritten (!) letter "a fan note" and offered a sit down to sort through all the bruised feelings.

So to recap: an honest to goodness exchange of letters between newspaper scribes and a society fixture on the subject of palace-grade landscaping. We feel like we're stuck in a 19th century Russian novel here. Or better yet, the plot of a sequel to Sean Wilsey's Oh the Glory of it All.

So with whom should our sympathies lie? We've got to side with Steel on this one. We can't think of a better way for a famous novelist who just wants to collect awards from the French government and write books about her dog to protect her privacy than to move into a 55-room mansion and then grow a Godzilla-sized hedge in front of it. She just shouldn't be shocked if the Google bus protestors decide to occupy the shrubbery.

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