"There's been a lot of divisive rhetoric over the last year or so that's made people fearful, and to feel unwelcome," said John Bertsch, owner of the Meshuggah Shack coffee outlet in Mission Hills, before embarking with newly seated city councilmember Chris Ward throughout the neighborhood on a flyer-distribution campaign.
The flyers, which proclaim "Hate Has No Business Here," along with "All Are Welcome" in many different languages, are the brainchild of the Main Street Alliance, which recently formed a San Diego chapter.
"These posters were originally published after the Orlando nightclub shooting," Bertsch continued. "The message is one of inclusion for people who feel like they're outsiders or who are marginalized. We want them here in our communities, and we welcome their business."
Bertsch and Alliance project director Karim Bouris say the recent presidential campaign, which featured rhetoric from president-elect Donald Trump calling at various points for mass deportations, erection of a wall along the southern border, and a ban on Muslims entering the country, has caused a sense of alienation among many local residents.
A recent FBI report shows that religion-based hate crimes in particular are on the rise, up 40 percent in San Diego, according to the most up-to-date records comparing 2014 and 2015. While the figure is still low at 14 reported incidents throughout the county, Bertsch and other business owners in City Heights and along Adams Avenue who participated in distributing flyers say now is the time to foster a sense of inclusiveness.
"The day after the election, I put up these banners and used the hashtag #allrwelcome, which I thought was unique to me," Bertsch said, pointing to large, hand-painted signs hanging from the roof of his coffee shop (similar banners hang from an East Village location). "A day later I got an email from Karim [Bouris, project director for the Main Street Alliance] who said, 'Hey, we're using a similar hashtag.' When I read about the Alliance...I found it was a group that I felt an affinity for.
"I came out as a gay man in 1982 when I was 18 years old, and I'm used to feeling marginalized, like I'm on the outside looking in. So I'm sensitive to other people who feel the same way, and even though I don't have darker skin, I don't look like a refugee, I know what it feels like. So I'm very much interested in reaching these people and communicating the message, 'I want you here.'"
During the canvassing, Bertsch and Ward were met with largely positive reactions, as other business owners and managers along Goldfinch Street agreed to hang the signs. Many stopped to pose for photos with the pair as they walked the neighborhood.