StreetUtopia  is a new community organizing effort centered in North Beach. Launched by Hank Hyena and Phil Millenbah at an inaugural event in early January, they drew upwards of 150 people to an empty historic storefront at 1 Columbus Avenue, where they showed Streetfilms, had a small art exhibit, and conducted a survey of the folks who turned out. Hank Hyena explained his motivation in terms of European cities which are often greener, more bike-friendly, and with more pedestrian-centers than US cities. Along with several other parents of children at Yick Wo Public School, including co-instigator Phil Millenbah, a San Leandro city planner, they staged an inspiring evening of art, film, and conversation.
The questionnaire they handed out at the event started with a brief paragraph, assuming that we are on the cusp of a carbon-constrained transition to a future with far less cars:
The “modern” era brought television, automobiles and other technological changes. As part of this cultural transformation to the modern era and to support automobile use, society built millions of miles of paved roadway as both streets in urban areas and as highways connecting urban areas. The “postmodern” world is carbon constrained and the focus of transport is bus or rail and the old the roadway infrastructure is not needed in the same capacity. What should be done with the old infrastructure?
Then it asked a series of questions about whether or not Columbus Avenue should be closed to cars, if there should be “flex-streets,” if Washington Square should have a fountain, and what kinds of mixed-uses North Beach streets should have if cars weren’t the only priority?
Subsequently, I interviewed both Phil and Hank about StreetUtopia and their organizing, which you can read after the jump:
Phil: Our idea was to create a place that was fun to share ideas of our visions of the city. Land use has gotten so contentious in San Francisco that we wanted to do something that was free of all of that. Instead of promulgating our opinions about how closing a street increases local business activity, we showed films from around the world where business owners told their stories of what great results came from closing a street.
There are two of us but there are others around who we talked with over time and the idea developed through these talks with others in the North Beach Community. Something we are also working on is quantifying the personal and cultural infrastructure of the community [with a] GIS database and series of maps for all of North Beach. We are going to go from building to building and note what happens at each place. We are also working with a senior group and mapping all of the seniors in North Beach. There is word that the COIT 39 bus is going away—a bus used by many seniors. We hope that our map would help us bring in a jitney service if needed and then we could route the service based on our mapping. This is all community internal stuff. We aren’t looking for press or anything, we just want to help the community. There is really an unintentional retirement community developing in North Beach—lots of people growing old in place—and they need special services, like having a place to meet and be social.
We found lots of people needing places to meet. Café Culture is nice but many people would just like to sit down and enjoy the day and not have to buy anything. We need a street farmers’ market or at least some more food sold on the streets. We would like to see more streets converted to pedestrian uses and we would like to see our local business people do well—and our residents have a great place to live.
Hank, explaining some of the more than 100 responses to their questionnaire:
They did not want many things that I wanted, for example, they don't want a fountain in Washington Square. (I want one because kids like them, they are pretty, and in an Italian tradition) but the residents here really don't care for fountains. They see the water use as wasteful, plus it just attracts pigeons. The people surveyed were not interested in closing the main, touristy part of Columbus because they thought that would be detrimental to the tourist industry. However, they were interested in closing off lower Columbus, from Washington Street up to perhaps Broadway, making that section pedestrian-only. I am not sure why people suggested that—perhaps because it is a rather dead part of town and they thought pedestrian-only would liven it up. But they are amenable to making upper Grant auto-free. The main thing the survey revealed is that North Beach residents want more public space, park space, open space, places to mingle and gather. There is interest in the "Poet's Plaza" space, closing off Vallejo to traffic, but there is impatience that it is taking so long. North Beach residents want things like more parks, community centers, and general open areas to gather and mingle, and this makes sense, because North Beach is very crowded with very little public space.
Phil: People seemed to like our “Flex-space” idea a lot. Flex space to us is space that is used at different times for different things. 25 percent of San Francisco is streets. People seem very open to closing some for human activities or what I call Postmodern street activities. I sold my car 3 years ago and am a full time pedestrian and transit user. I look at cars really differently now. I keep wondering who abandoned this big piece of metal on the street. Cars seem too wasteful and expensive and people keep putting a large share of their income into them. It is really self-indulgent that people expect to have a public place to move their big piece of metal around. We need that space for living life!
CC: By using the name StreetUtopia you probably inspire a lot of people to think more 'out-of-the-box' than they might otherwise. How has using the word/idea utopia helped or hindered you in your first public forays?
Hank: Phil and I are a good team, he is a city planner and he knows the nuts and bolts of enacting change, getting permits, paying fees, etc. I am a futurist writer (for H+Magazine ) and I promote notions like In-Vitro Meat, Nude Swimming for Longevity, and Robot Servants and SexBots. Utopia will be achieved one-step-at-a-time, and Phil is good at seeing the first step, while I am perhaps more interested in the year 2050. We are a mixture of pragmatism and imagination.
Phil: We want a happy place and some of these ideas are really axiomatic—they have been tried around the world and they work. I don’t see why there is this culture of unhappiness where so many people fight tried ideas for better spaces. Meanwhile our neighborhood is clogged with cars.
CC: You showed Streetfilms at your event, and had proposals floating to close all or parts of Grant Avenue to car traffic. What kind of responses did you get?
Hank: StreetFilms  are great - the public really enjoyed the films! I think a lot of people were as shocked as I was to find out that cities like Bogota have more progressive urban planning than San Francisco. Personally, I am interested in Grant because it is the oldest street in San Francisco; it has immense historical value and I believe we should honor and support the street, and work to revitalize it.
CC: How do bicycle boulevards and wider sidewalks fit in to StreetUtopia thinking? Are you inspired by Copenhagen or Barcelona or Paris or ...?
Phil: Barcelona inspired me. They have streets that are closed by the police in early evening with these nice, well-designed gates. Those streets are immediately full of people walking together and talking. Many mothers and children walking hand-in-hand, talking. Now that’s a good life! … I wish people would try more things. I remember Spiro Agnew said “I don’t believe in change for change’s sake.” I can’t make sense of that sentence, but I think that he is saying that he is afraid of new things, and many people are. I wish that we experimented more with our communities and if something didn’t work, fine, we do something else. But it almost seems like the outcome of an experience, such as the Mayor’s closing the Embarcadero a couple of times last year, needed to be determined before the approval was granted. I also think people need to focus more on design issues and not on just whether to approve or deny something.
Hank: I was very inspired by the "bike lifts' in Norway that took cyclists up hills, because many people often say that San Francisco can't be a bicyclist's town due to the hills. Copenhagen is also very inspiring because they have inexpensive bikes that you can rent on the street and San Francisco should duplicate that. Honestly, I see North Beach as having more potential for pedestrians: it is very small and crowded and scenic. There is a LOT of support for widening sidewalks because they are so crowded, almost impossible. I generally walk in the street, because there are so many dining tables and chairs on the sidewalks. North Beach also has many lovely interesting little alleys that should be developed for walkers, closed to traffic and beautified.