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From the Editor: What Toddlers and Nudists Know

Jon Steinberg | October 26, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life

One of the perks of this job is that I’m allowed to crash photo shoots. Sometimes, if I’ve greased the right palms, I can even bring along my wife and kids. Last month the magazine was shooting families for this issue’s holiday gift guide, so I figured, why not get the girls all dolled up and sneak them into the frame as well? Et voilĂ : an early peak at the Steinberg-Collentine 2012 holiday greeting card, above. Merry Chrismukkah!

Naturally, my daughters, Charlie (the airborne one) and Kira, were more than happy to don fancy dresses and play model with Mom and Dad. But if they’d had their druthers, they would have run (or, in Kira’s case, crawled) around the photo studio stark-naked. The joy of clotheslessness is innate in all people under five years old.

Actually, let me amend that: In San Francisco, enjoying one’s birthday suit isn’t just for small children. There are an awful lot of adults—or rather, an awful lot of dudes, mostly milling around the intersection of Market and Castro streets—who are happiest while exposing their privates in public. But as you’ve no doubt heard, the city’s Board of Supervisors, at the prodding of District 8 supe Scott Wiener, may soon change that. If all goes as planned, the board will vote this month on whether to force the city’s naked guys to move their junk indoors. (Nudity would still be allowed on beaches and private property and at events like Bay to Breakers and the Pride Parade. And, good news for immodest toddlers: Children under five would be exempt.)

I’m of two minds about this proposal. On the one hand, I don’t particularly like being penis-bombed on the street. And I’m not sure I want adult nudity completely normalized for my kids. (My wife, who grew up near the Castro and for whom naked people are as ordinary as stoplights, disagrees.) On the other hand, I actually like living in a city where such flagrant freakiness is tolerated. At a time when San Francisco is becoming increasingly homogenized— richer, whiter, straighter, techier, and just a tad less open-minded—I’m mostly OK with these outlying displays of berserkitude.

The problem, as many have noticed, is that we’re not talking about one or two free-to-be fellas strolling up 17th Street. The Castro’s Jane Warner Plaza has become, in Wiener’s words, “an ad hoc nudist colony seven days a week.” “The numbers are too large,” he told me when I called him up the other day. “They’ve started to define and dominate this important public space.” A couple of bare butts are acceptable, in other words, but a daily johnson convention is a bridge too far.

Wiener wishes it weren’t so. (Actually, he wishes he weren’t spending any time on this at all: “This is not the issue I ever intended or, frankly, wanted to work on,” he says. “But when a problem arises in your district, you have to deal with it.”) If he could simply shoo the nudists out of the plaza, he’d be OK with that. But unfortunately, the lawmaker sees no way to ban congregations of nudes without violating individuals’ right to assembly. Consequently, we’re likely stuck with a more sweeping law that bans all non-festival/beach/ bedroom-related nakedness whether it’s found in the Castro, the Mission, or anywhere else.

And so the era of radical everyday exhibitionism is just about over in this town. Some will say good riddance to all that unsolicited flesh. But a part of me (perhaps my inner naked four-year-old) is going to miss it.

This column originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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