A Public Space Renaissance in San Francisco
One of the ongoing dilemmas for landscape architects, city planners, and yes, even transit geeks, is the chicken-and-egg question regarding public space. If you build it, will they come? Is there a “public” demanding wider sidewalks, public squares and plazas, pocket parks, and depaving, and who, exactly, are they?
Starting several decades ago, San Franciscans began to reassert a public life, famously highlighted by the early San Francisco Mime Troupe getting arrested in 1965 for performing free in public parks (initially permitted, the Parks Commission revoked the Mime Troupe’s permit when they disapproved of the play’s content). The Mime Troupe’s legal battles led the city to recognize a new notion of public commons with respect to its parks. This logic was extended further by the Diggers, an anarchic group that emerged from the Mime Troupe to make theater out of everyday life. They began by distributing free food in the Panhandle, and within a few months, a whole culture of “free” was proliferating a year or more before the “Summer of Love” put the Haight-Ashbury on the national map. Free stores, free concerts, free dope, free food, and for some, free love, pushed past the boundaries of the capitalist society.
People poured into San Francisco and especially the Haight in the late 1960s, milling about on the sidewalks, spilling into Haight Street, and even provoking police attacks to re-open the streets filled with people. The Golden Gate Park Be-in in 1967 was but one of dozens of events in those years in which tens of thousands of people filled parks and plazas, to celebrate the new culture with music and dance, or to protest the Vietnam War.
After the demise of this flowering era, public space fell into disuse. Big social events petered out, or were commodified in the form of pay-to-enter rock concerts. Missing the spirit and life of those times, some folks began organizing neighborhood street fairs. In 1978, the first Haight Street Fair was held, and over the years, the concept took hold and spread to many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. One might quibble that these public fairs are basically “alternative malls” with free music, but they’re free, and they’re open, and they’re heavily attended.
Flash forward thirty years, and a new public space renaissance seems to be taking hold hereabouts. To be sure, it hasn’t emerged out of thin air. Food Not Bombs took up the free use of public space in the late 1980s, serving free food in the Civic Center, in Golden Gate Park, and elsewhere, enduring hundreds of arrests for not having a non-existent permit! In the past 17 years Critical Mass has been an important cultural reclaiming of city thoroughfares for political and social reasons outside the instrumental logic of political demands, or economic products/services for sale.
In the past two weeks the Bay Area has had two new food fairs bring thousands of people to public locations. In the Mission La Cocina staged a “Streetfood Festival” on August 22nd., jamming a one-block stretch of Folsom all day long as people came to eat and drink and talk to their friends and neighbors.
A more surprising and less mediated public space has erupted on the slopes of Dolores Park in the past year or two. I lived at Dolores and 19th in 2001-02, and as recently as that it was quite uncommon to see many people sitting on the slope facing Dolores Street between the tennis courts and 19th Street (homeless folks tended to sleep under the trees during the mornings). Nowadays, you can find a huge social scene on that same parkland every nice day. Hundreds of people have made this their defacto bar or café, a place to meet new and old friends, and to just enjoy a public space that has no further purpose than its own enjoyment.