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It was the summer of 2010 when Manny Yekutiel first came to San Francisco to do a college job for a same-sex marriage. He spent those few months traversing The City on public transportation to various street corners where he was stationed, armed with a clipboard and a zippy t-shirt, and asking passers-by to support Equality California, a statewide nonprofit that fights for LGBTQ + rights.
Yekutiel says that he fell in love with San Francisco this summer and, after doing a few stints in political campaigns and internships for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, returned to the misty city he has lived in for eight years.
Today, Yekutiel Mannys heads part coffeeshop, part civic meeting rooms at the Mission and sits on the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, a position for which he was nominated by Mayor London Breed in October 2020.
We discussed how small businesses and public transportation intersect and why he believes shared spaces advance the goals of the SFMTA. (Yekutiel speaks for himself, not on behalf of the board or the agency).
Q: Why did you choose to start Manny’s?
A: I was pretty lost before Manny’s. The idea came slowly, there wasn’t a single moment with a lightbulb. I’ve seen millions of people after Donald Trump was elected and I thought where else these people will go after these marches are over. The truth is, San Francisco has had places like Manny’s for a long time. It’s not a new idea, but many of the places that used to serve this purpose – a politically active common room with food and drink – have disappeared for various reasons. I realized it might be time to bring one of these places back.
I didn’t think it was possible until it happened. I was in my late twenties and there wasn’t a big section for it because there were coffee shops, political rooms, and lecture theaters, but there wasn’t a place where anything was possible, and I kind of had to make it up as I moved on.
Q: How has the pandemic affected Manny?
A: People should understand that almost no one goes into small businesses to make money. My father opened a restaurant when he first emigrated to Canada, and my mother’s family owned a grocery store in Brooklyn. So I know that. People start a small business because of their passion for what that company does and a desire to be independent and self-sufficient, but also in the community.
Who am I saying this to? Because yes, I think the most immediate impact of the pandemic was financial. Manny’s revenue declined 80 percent in certain parts of our revenue streams. It was the same for many small businesses, and it was catastrophic from an economic, professional, and personal perspective for everyone involved in small businesses.
The second piece that isn’t talked about that much is the emotional damage of not being able to do the things that you have built your space for. For Manny’s, I built it as a meeting place for all things politics, but right when we needed to gather the most, I couldn’t get people together.
Q: Why did you choose Manny’s mission?
A: One of the main reasons I chose the mission was because of the importance of being close to public transportation to get access to the kind of social justice program I would be doing in space. I knew that if I built a physical space to gather the community around politics that was not near local public transport, I was immediately building financial and class barriers to people.
I take this responsibility very seriously and, especially at a young age, I feel very privileged and honored to be able to help my colleagues, who are small businesses in many communities.
Q: What is your experience on the SFMTA board so far?
A: I am very impressed with my fellow board members. Our board is well managed, everyone is brilliant, everyone takes it very seriously and you can tell.
It is very difficult to be a part of because all of your time can only be spent on a selection of sensitive topics. The tricky part is how to summarize your time as a board member and prioritize what to work on outside of meetings and where to focus.
The problem I found isn’t in the complexity of the subjects, but in the difficulty of moving the needle. How do you bring people together? How do you manage to get things done? Our constituency is complex. We run an agency, so we need to consider how to play with other departments, transit drivers and just the public who may not even use transit but are also affected by the transit decisions.
Q: What do you think should the relationship between small business and SFMTA be?
A: Historically, there has been a lot of tension. Many, but not all, of our SFMTA projects have disrupted street life, which is essential to the work of stationary small businesses. There will always be some inherent tension when the goals of a particular body do not always but sometimes interfere with the work of another community. I am glad that there is now someone on the board who has a foothold in both communities because the translation did not always go very well.
I think it will be better. The pandemic has translated into a reality the delicate balance of our small businesses on our streets and the importance of the entire urban family responsible for allocating the budget realizing that we need to invest in small businesses if we want to Stay here.
Q: You are listed as a loyal supporter of Shared Spaces. Can you explain why you think this is important from your role as an SFMTA board member?
A: It is in our MTA’s best interest to put on my SFMTA hat and support the health of our business corridors. Shared Spaces supports our economy, our lower-income workforce, our liveliness in the neighborhood and our Transit First Policy.
Second, shared spaces are about job creation. I know this sounds like a line, but I can tell you firsthand that it is true. At Manny’s, I hired someone else because we needed extra hands. If this program is implemented in a way that is affordable, accessible, and easy to use, more jobs will be created.
I have found the SFMTA to be extremely flexible when it comes to handling people’s common spaces with capital projects and frankly I have to say that they are inside and see how they move projects and the time of the staff spend trying to figure out how to do it It’s very impressive to make adjustments to projects so parklets don’t get torn down or destroyed.
It’s not perfect. We cannot have a common space everywhere. We have to make sure that people are safe. There is a little dancing here. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think the availability of space to build the platform is an equity issue. To be honest, this is about the luck of the draw. I don’t think anyone went into their business and thought about turning a parking lot into a deck.
However, the cost is certainly a matter of equity. I think Shared Spaces fees should be paid monthly. There’s a cash flow problem. It’s important to remember that these spaces are costly to build and maintain upfront, and small businesses and their owners make much less money than you think.
Q: How would you counter the criticism that until the SFMTA can fund Muni, it should not divert resources to a program like Shared Spaces?
The service issue is more complicated than just money. This is important and a limiting factor, but so is human capital and staffing levels. Hiring, promotions and training are not done at the push of a button.
We have a budget deficit that needs to be filled. Any cut in expected earnings will be difficult and you will need to find a way to correct that cut. While it is worrying that expected revenues could potentially be reduced by $ 10 million, I believe what would be much worse may be missing out on the economic, emotional and labor ramifications of this program, which is affordable and accessible .
I think the timing is just right to run this program, whether or not it impacts the SFMTA’s budget, because it advances the agency’s goals. This is not converting public space into private space, but rather using that private space to welcome the public much more openly in general than with parking lots, and this is only a tiny fraction of the parking spaces in San Francisco.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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