First Walking Sunday Streets a Hit in Chinatown and North Beach

Thousands of people enjoyed a car-free Grant Avenue through Chinatown, North Beach and Telegraph Hill yesterday. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

San Francisco’s Grant Avenue, the city’s oldest street, was opened to pedestrians only yesterday in a milestone Sunday Streets event that drew thousands of people to the historic neighborhoods of Chinatown and North Beach on a sunny, 74-degree day. The city’s first walking Sunday Streets on a thoroughfare that seems like one of the most ideal streets to pedestrianize was clearly a hit.

“It’s a fantastic event. The weather is gorgeous and it’s nice to have Chinatown and North Beach connected in this way,” said Tom Radulovich of the non-profit Livable City, which sponsors Sunday Streets.

Unlike fairs in Chinatown and North Beach that typically line the street with outside vendors, the car-free event that spanned more than 20 blocks was organized to give neighborhood residents, locals and merchants a taste of what Grant Avenue can look and feel like without cars on a typical Sunday.

“I like having no cars,” said Lisa Mai, a North Beach resident who took a break from jump roping with other teens from the YMCA, a Chinatown fixture since 1911. “When you’re in a car it’s like you’re really rushing, but when you’re walking, when you walk along Grant, you see all these people coming out to enjoy it.”

From the Chinatown Gateway to Coit Tower, people filled the narrow street on foot, and shopped, sipped tea, snapped photos, hula-hooped, painted, enjoyed live music and other activities without the anxiety of automobiles.

The few people on bicycles were mostly children whose parents walked alongside. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition set up its Freedom from Training Wheels workshop on Grant near Vallejo Street.

“In Chinatown, there’s a lot of elderly people, and the street is so narrow. We just didn’t really feel like it was going to be safe to have bicyclists and walkers. So, it’s a walking street,” said Sunday Streets coordinator Susan King of Livable City. “It’s a first for Sunday Streets, and it’s fun to do something new.”

Many of the children spotted playing in the street live in North Beach, and Chinatown, the city’s densest neighborhood, where a majority of residents do not own cars, but are forced to contend with some of the city’s worst traffic. Along the route, there were plenty of children from other San Francisco and Bay Area neighborhoods, along with families of tourists.

And now, it’s time to overwhelm you with some adorable moments.

The sun really can wear you out. Yesterday's high was 74 degrees.

Chinatown merchants seemed very pleased, said Vivian Chang, a senior planner for the Chinatown Community Development Center, which helped organize the event and do outreach. CCDC plans to conduct an official survey of merchants to get feedback.

“They were basically saying this kind of event, especially during business hours on a Sunday, is pretty good,” Chang told Streetsblog. “They liked it, even though the original perception among merchants is cars equal more business.”

While Chang feels it’s probably too early for most merchants to get behind a permanent pedestrianization of Grant Avenue, yesterday’s Sunday Streets helped them realize the possibilities.

“I definitely noticed businesses getting more foot traffic, due to the lack of street vendors,” said Chang. “I think if they put it on a couple more times, people’s perceptions will start changing.”

Shell Thomas, the president of the North Beach Merchants Association, is also planning to survey merchants, but those he spoke to were happy. The fact that it was a walking Sunday Streets helped boost business on a skinny street lined with shops and restaurants.

“People on bikes cruise by. People who are walking stop, they linger, they see what’s going on in the stores, so hopefully it was a great experience (for merchants),” he said. “The first year is the toughest. Next year, I’d like to see five times as many activities and five times as many people.”

Ultimately, he continued, “it’s not about the turnout, or merchants. We shut down Grant Avenue for about 25 blocks. That’s a big deal. It’s really to get a feel to see what we can do, to experiment with a pedestrian street, which they do in Colombia, and other places in South America. We don’t do that here. We think we’re really forward, but we’re actually not that forward.”

Radulovich said there’s not necessarily opposition to a permanent pedestrianization of Grant Avenue, “it’s just really inertia. There’s the question of where do you do it and how, and that’s why I’m excited about this. Just getting over that hump of doing a car-free day on Grant Avenue has been momentous, but it’s done, and hopefully we’ll do it more regularly.”

PCOs with stop signs halted traffic for the large crowds walking across Columbus and Broadway, two arterial streets that divide Grant Avenue.

Enjoying a stroll on car-free, music filled Grant Avenue in North Beach.

"A Fair to Remember" in Kerouac Alley.

This gathering of musicians, under the "A Better Chinatown Tomorrow" tent, plays regularly at the corner of Columbus/Broadway/Grant, and captured a big audience for Sunday Streets.

A band performs outside Carmel Blue on Grant between Green and Union.

Some downhill fun on Grant between Filbert and Greenwich.

On Grant looking south from Gerke Street near Greenwich.

Walking up Grant at Filbert.

Some jugglers take to the street on Grant near Filbert.

And we leave you with this shot. So cute.

Also, check out these great photos from geekstinkbreath’s Flickr page.