A Public Space Renaissance in San Francisco
9:50 AM PDT on September 2, 2009
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.
Recently, after years of waiting for it, the City has finally sanctioned Sunday Streets closures, leading to an outpouring of enthusiasm from neighbors and merchants alike for the friendly social spaces it opened up. In the two Mission District street closures, relatively little commerce was present, but a bit of the Burning Man gift economy crept in here and there, as I was offered free water, pot, and snacks at different locations along the way.
In the past years, food has moved to center stage as an organizing purpose of public space. The Heart of the City Farmer’s Market goes back to the early 1980s (and the Alemany Farmer’s Market to WWII), but its ongoing success has helped new Farmer’s Markets spring up, from the Ferry Building to Noe Valley. A year ago the national Slow Food movement took over the Civic Center with a temporary Victory Garden, leading to Slow Food Nation, a 3-day food extravaganza over Labor Day weekend. Thousands of people gathered in and around the garden among the booths of local farmers and producers, sampling wares, and enjoying the new food culture in public.
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.
Then this past weekend, the Eat Real Festival took place at Jack London Square in Oakland, drawing thousands more. Again, these food festivals do double duty as political events heralding the arrival of a new culture of relocalized fresh food, organic and healthy, but also as public gatherings for the convivial enjoyment of food and drink and human interaction.
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.
With this growing culture that embraces and uses public space, we can only hope and expect that the available spaces in this city will continue to expand. In the desultory suburban-ish Mission Bay area, there’s already a creekside promenade on both sides of Mission Creek, and the bayshore is slated to be an open parkland adjacent to the new city-within-the-city. There’s even a new Panhandle under construction from the Bay to the center of the UCSF campus. So while I disdain the current ambience of that part of town, I can imagine it getting taken over at some point by a rather different public than it has been designed for… more to come!
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