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This soundtrack keeps the peace in downtown SF. Fights break out when it stops

A fight breaks out in U.N. Plaza on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 4:45 p.m. | David Sjostedt/The Standard

The scene in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza on Tuesday afternoon was far from silent as sirens blared, fights broke out and the sidewalks were filled with people.

But still, many complained about a sound missing from the cacophony of the city’s open-air drug market.  

The “Civic Center Soundtrack,” a playlist of hits that includes Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas, had been blaring from U.N. Plaza speakers until a mechanical lapse brought an end to the tunes over the weekend.

And many people who hang out in the plaza were unhappy with the loss of their beloved new soundtrack—installed as part of an improvement that began in December.

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“Something felt off the last day or two,” said Mike C., who lives on the city’s streets and said he comes to U.N. Plaza to escape police scrutiny. “The music was the only relief you’d get sometimes.” 

The speakers, which the Department of Emergency Management and the Civic Center Community Benefit District installed on top of a wall plastered with a picture of redwood trees, were intended to “reinforce the area as an arts & cultural district,” according to the emergency management department. 

The Department of Emergency Management and the Civic Center Community Benefit District installed speakers on top of a wall plastered with a picture of redwood trees in U.N. Plaza. | David Sjostedt/The Standard

And many people who were using drugs and selling items in the plaza on Tuesday said that the music had brought a calming effect to the area, which infamously struggles with crime and drug use.

At around 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday, The Standard witnessed a fight that broke out between two people, one armed with a knife. Minutes later, another fight broke out, and a man was thrown to the ground and attacked by two others. 

“That’s how it is without the music,” said Ramone Yvona, an unhoused man who frequents the plaza. “It soothed your mind and helped you cope. I don’t even have a cell phone so I can’t listen to music.” 

Another homeless man named Brett Bacon compared the Civic Center Soundtrack to the radio on a prison bus, calling it a sliver of joy in an otherwise grim situation. Bacon said that the only time he’d hear music while in prison was on the bus on the way to court.

“You’d have a lot of felons bumping their heads to Britney Spears or whatever’s on the radio,” Bacon said. “The music helped you a lot.” 

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The speakers are located on top of where the city’s first safe consumption site, the Tenderloin Center, once stood. The center closed in December amid criticisms over a lack of connections to long-term behavioral health care. Though the Tenderloin Center didn’t live up to the expectations of some, the facility did offer medical care, showers and food while reversing over 300 overdoses during its tenure.

Some residents who live and work in the area said that the Civic Center Soundtrack is an inadequate replacement for the center. 

A woman who works nearby and asked not to be named described the music and the facade of redwood trees as an empty gesture. 

“Okay, so you tore down this place that was providing people with actual services, and in my opinion, you made it feel very fake and artificial,” she said. “I found it a very interesting choice to have it plastered with trees and have music playing.” 

A sign stating "The TLC will close on Dec 4" in multiple languages, attached to a fence, with an urban background.
The Tenderloin Center, in the United Nations Plaza, closed on Dec. 4, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Tracy Everwine of the Civic Center Community Benefit District promised the music will be back on soon. 

“We are still tweaking the mechanics of the pilot system,” said Everwine. “The positive energy and feedback from initial testing has far exceeded expectations.”

Everwine said a new system is being installed that will feature customized playlists, created and timed to highlight the season, as well as events and programs at area arts and cultural venues such as the Orpheum Theatre, the Strand, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

“Being able to welcome early morning commuters with music has been wonderful, and the ability to easily activate the space for pedestrians after dark is invaluable,” said Everwine.

Gary McCoy, vice president of policy and public affairs for HealthRight360, found an irony in the city’s decision to install speakers because the Tenderloin Center had been the subject of noise complaints from neighbors.

“Hey, music is great. But music isn’t going to heal serious chronic abscesses and other health conditions,” said McCoy. “Music isn’t going to reverse overdoses.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at