Last week, I wrote about the clear plastic domes ensconcing diners at the upscale restaurant Hashiri in San Francisco. The restaurant’s manager Kenichiro Matsuura described the domes as protective: within the bubbles, diners were sheltered from the weather, from COVID-19 exposure (the Department of Public Health disagreed), and from “disturbances” in the public plaza, he said. The “disturbances” he references are other people in the public plaza – and especially the unhoused community; by erecting these domes, Hashiri sought to separate their diners from the public street and those who occupy it. These domes are yet another tool of design to move unhoused folks out of sight and out of mind.
This clear plastic dome offers wealthy diners more shelter, more protection, more peace-of-mind than the unhoused residents of Mint Plaza may ever secure. The clear plastic ‘tents’ at Hashiri’s $200 per person outdoor dining have received extensive media coverage and praise, while the thousands of tents that provide precarious shelter to unhoused residents are considered a scourge, and are violently removed by SFPD or the Department of Public Works.
Matsuura was startlingly honest in interviews with reporters and with me, detailing specifically the goal to keep unhoused neighbors from view. Matsuura explained, “we had to seclude our guests away from the ongoing activities here in the Mint Plaza,” which he described as “not the most safest neighborhood.” He told me that unhoused folks and people struggling with addiction “cough and sneeze, drop feces on the plaza, take food – they reach in and take food from the plates. They take a piss right in front of our guests. The igloos are protection from COVID and from the dangers the city has to offer.”
In this depiction of Mint Plaza, Hashiri’s customers are the ones in danger, and the unhoused folks in the plaza are dangerous. But in reality, San Franciscans who are homeless or struggling with substance use are precisely the people who need the most protection – who are most at risk of experiencing violence (often at the hands of the state). Who most desperately needs protection from the “dangers the city has to offer?” Certainly not wealthy restaurant-goers.
San Francisco’s government has comprehensively failed in meeting the needs of its unhoused constituents, and tents fill sidewalks and open space throughout the city. The structural injustices that make homelessness possible, and the city policies that keep unhoused folks unhoused, are arguably the most significant issue in San Francisco today. This issue, made visible by the presence of unhoused folks, makes wealthy San Franciscans uncomfortable, and discomfort is bad for business, as Hashiri discovered when it unsuccessfully attempted to serve diners in Mint Plaza without the domes.
What does it take to assuage this discomfort? Apparently, nothing more than a thin layer of clear plastic, just barely keeping the rest of Mint Plaza out of sight. Gross inequality is so pervasive, so normalized in this city, that all it takes is a clear plastic dome to set diners at ease, to forget the tremendous struggles of their unhoused neighbors and to enjoy a luxury meal. These domes are clear plastic blinders — and they only succeed in eclipsing struggling neighbors from view through the wearer’s willful ignorance.
Photographs by Alex Rogala