The Tenderloin Finally Gets a Taste of Car-Free Sunday Streets

A rare sight in the Tenderloin: children playing ball in the streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Mary San George was sitting outside her neighborhood flower store yesterday, facing the historic residential high-rise building on O’Farrell Street where she has lived for 27 years, and marveling at something she very rarely gets to experience in her Tenderloin neighborhood: a street full of people instead of cars.

“People use this street like a raceway,” said the 75-year-old San George, who was anxious to point out the everyday dangers of a neighborhood where streets prioritize auto throughput. “We have signs in different areas that say this is a drug-free zone, but I think we should have a no-speed zone, and make it very expensive for drivers.”

For its 25th event, Sunday Streets, now a San Francisco institution, brought car-free zones filled with healthy activities to the Tenderloin, one of the densest neighborhoods on the West Coast, where most residents don’t own automobiles. Last year’s Tenderloin event was rained out, but this year, under beautiful blue skies, between 5,000 and 7,000 people turned out to play in the streets.

While the event didn’t attract the huge crowds that the Mission’s Sunday Streets draws — there was a little music festival competing — it was nevertheless an exciting day, and an important moment for the Tenderloin and the livable streets movement.

Mom and daughter enjoy a bike ride on a car-free Golden Gate Avenue.

“It feels good. It’s great,” said Joel, a nearly 30-year Tenderloin resident who was sitting next to San George, listening to the Hyde Street Band belt out “Whole Lotta Love.” “At 4:30 it turns into a highway, and there are people literally flying through here.”

“What is this?” a sprightly man in a shiny suit and fedora asked me, as I was pedaling slowly down Jones Street, which was free of cars and buzzing with people activity.

“Sunday Streets,” I responded. “They close the streets to cars and open them up to people.”

“Really? How cool!”

I got that question many times as I explored the route in the early part of the day. The event seemed to grow on the neighborhood because more residents spilled into the streets as the day wore on. It was the first time in many years (and some I spoke to couldn’t remember it ever happening), that Tenderloin residents got a taste of what it’s like to have calm, quiet streets instead of high-capacity one-way arterials that are typically noisy, congested and threatening to the health and safety of the people who live there.

Rapping in the streets, in front of the YMCA, which was handing out fruit-kebabs and fresh watermelon.

A dancer shows the crowd how it's done during B-Boys Break Dance Lessons in Civic Center Plaza.

More than a dozen blocks of O’Farrell, Jones and Ellis Streets were closed to cars, along with a stretch of Golden Gate Avenue and two blocks of Polk Street. The car-free zone looped through the heart of the Tenderloin and Civic Center area, offering live music, kid zones, Tai Chi, break dance lessons, roller disco and many more activities.

On any given weekday, many of these streets see large volumes of traffic that carry drivers to the Bay Bridge and Financial District. Sadly, the Tenderloin has one of the city’s highest rates of pedestrian fatalities and injuries. Giving the neighborhood a one-day dose of car-free streets helped residents imagine what it could look and sound like without roaring automobile traffic.

“Between 70 percent and 90 percent of the people who live in the Civic Center and Tenderloin neighborhoods do not own cars, yet this neighborhood is the one that’s the most heavily impacted by personal vehicles,” said Sunday Streets coordinator Susan King of the non-profit Livable City. “We have large volumes of traffic moving through on wide streets without that neighborhood getting any of the benefit of those visitors, they’re just passing through as quickly as possible.”

The utopia that Mona Caron envisioned in her now-famous “Windows into the Tenderloin” mural on the corner of Golden Gate and Jones might seem years away, but it’s part of a community discussion that has been going on for a while now. Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the neighborhood, has made pedestrian safety her top priority.

Taking a stroll on Ellis Street east of Hyde Photo: geekstinkbreath

The Tenderloin has had a difficult time shaking off its bad rep, but what many drivers who pass through may not realize from behind their windshields is that the neighborhood’s population is one of the city’s most diverse, and includes many seniors and working-class families and children, some of whom could be seen playing ball in the streets yesterday.

“We have to understand who lives in the community, who is building the community and who really wants to contribute back to the community. That’s the only way to really get involved in changing or rearranging what’s part of the system right now,” said Joenell Molina of the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, which set up a table for Sunday Streets next to the YMCA on Golden Gate Avenue.

“It’s a fascinating neighborhood,” said King. “This is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods for families. Children live here, families live here.”

Similar to how Sunday Streets evolved in the Mission, King said it will probably take a few Sunday Streets before the Tenderloin events realize their full potential, but she called yesterday’s event a success, and looks forward to bringing it back next year.

“We know where we need to tighten up and improve,” said King. “It’s a priority that we will get back to these neighborhoods next year.”

For more photos of Sunday Streets, check our Flickr pool, and more offerings from geekstinkbreath.

What a great day to be in drag on a bike.

Cruising down Ellis Street on his electric bike.

Learning how to ride a bike on Golden Gate Avenue in front of the Federal Building.