When Greg Brundage bought his condo on Lombard Street in the mid-’90s, he felt like he was getting a home above the Spanish Steps of Rome, with views of white sailboats slipping across San Francisco Bay. Now, he says, a place that once saw “a few cars on the weekends” feels more like Disneyland. Tourist season brings an unending parade of cars, buses, strollers and selfie sticks. And the people themselves have started changing diapers in his carport and climbing onto his roof to stage photo shoots. “As the crowds have increased, the attitudes and the behavior has worsened,” says Brundage, a retired investment banker who now heads the neighborhood association. “It’s just chaos.” Recently, some residents have even suggested in earnest that San Francisco straighten out America’s “crookedest” street, which is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Since the dawn of modern tourism, governments have struggled to balance the interests of people who live in or near interesting places and the desires of those willing to pay money to visit–and buoy the local economy. But unlike, say, the Malibu beachfront or canal-lined Venice, Lombard Street is compact and completely residential; the single block is home to 71 houses and condos, many valued at over $1 million. It’s novel, but “this is not an amusement park,” says Mark Farrell, a city supervisor. “This is a neighborhood where real people live.”
Those people have spent years demanding that the city do something to manage the masses. And on Aug. 29, Lombard Hill welcomed its first batch of “ambassadors” tasked with patrolling the street during peak tourist times–weekends from May through September–as they already do at sites like Fisherman’s Wharf. The program is funded by the city, thanks in part to lobbying from Farrell and Brundage, and organized by the city-services firm Block by Block. Its current phase will last through 2016, as San Francisco continues to draw more visitors than ever. (There were a record-high 18 million last year.)
Locals and law-enforcement officials are hoping the ambassadors, with their uniforms and earpieces, will discourage tourists from littering and relieving themselves on residents’ walkways, as some have done in the past. They’re also meant to ward off criminals, who have been targeting parked rental cars and their tourist drivers; one visitor from Thailand was shot near Lombard and robbed of his camera.
But the ambassadors are also assisting–and even taking photos of–the tourists, who injected $10 billion into the local economy last year. This is a far cry from a 2014 crowd-control experiment by the city: banning private vehicles on Lombard Street during certain hours. That attempt, designed to cut congestion that blocks residents from getting to their driveways, was criticized as antitourist and ultimately created unsustainable foot traffic. (The city might also consider a toll.)
For Anthony DeLizza, a five-year Lombard resident, the right reforms should benefit everyone–including the selfie-stick-wielding tourists, who are especially in danger if there’s heavy traffic. “It’s just a matter of time,” he says, “before the whole thing breaks.”
This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.
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