A Public Space Renaissance in San Francisco

dolores_park_slope_cu_0757.jpgCrowds gather on eastern slope of Dolores Park near 18th.

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.

timothy_leary_at_Be_in_1967.jpgGolden Gate Park Be-in, 1967.

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.

Ggpk_ggpk_dancing_at_1971_demo.jpg1971 demonstration in Golden Gate Park turns bacchanalian…

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.

haight_ashbury_street_fair_1979.jpgHaight Ashbury Street Fair, 1979, photo by Robert Pruzane

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.

aug09_cm_at_ballpark_1477.jpgWhoops! Critical Mass on bikes meets Critical Mass on foot at gates of Giants-Rockies game, Aug. 28, 2009.

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.

sunday_st_24th_st_east_9855.jpg24th Street jammed with Sunday Streets enjoyment.

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.

slow_food_nation_victory_garden_aug_30_08_3729.jpgSlow Food Nation crowds enjoy Victory Garden in front of City Hall, August 30, 2008.

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.

streetfood_public_space_1380.jpgStreetfood Festival on Folsom Street, August 22, 2009.

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.

sunny_crowd_in_oakland_1528.jpgEat Real Festival, Oakland.
meat_contest_w_crowd_from_behind_1556.jpgAt Eat Real, a highlight was the Butchering contest, seen here from behind.
knives_and_saw_flying_1537.jpgIn 30 minutes two teams totally dismembered and prepared a quarter cow each. Amazing entertainment! Old-style butchery, a disappearing skill?

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.

dolores_park_slope_w_highschool_0764.jpgThe slope is the place to be… not Golden Gate Park’s "Hippie Hill" but Dolores Park’s "Hipster Hill" (or is that Fixie Hill?).
dolores_park_cu_slope_july_26_09_0766.jpgSunny days guarantee a crowded Hipster Hill…
dolores_beach_0744.jpgDolores Beach has been a long-time fave of the gay community, near the 20th Street edge of Dolores Park.

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!

  • Pat

    If the SFPD and city government have their way then all of this will disappear very quickly. SFPD has begun patrolling Dolores Park and cracking down on people sitting there enjoying themselves. While people should certainly pick up their trash, a police presence in a park during midday that is ticketing for people reclining and having a cocktail is absurd.

    Also, staging non-corporate events in the city is becoming more and more of an impossibility with the steep permit fees required by the city and the psuedo-racketeering requirement of a paid police officer for every 50 individuals. People hating on Bay to Breakers this year and the fact that Sunday Streets is held in ridiculous, inconvenient out of the way places like Embarcadero, industrial Bayview and Ocean Beach rather than more in Mission, Lower Haight and North Beach just show how hostile this city is becoming to festival atmospheres. I definitely enjoy myself and pick up after myself at Dolores but spontaneous gatherings like that are beginning to be shut down in favor of more sterile, white bread events like Outside Lands and industrial park Sunday Streets where people in yellow jackets with bike mirrors ride around.

  • the greasybear

    Great essay and pics connecting our burgeoning public culture with those preceding us. Another example not mentioned in the essay–Deep Trouble’s monthly outdoor “Flash Dances” that bring people out by the hundreds to boogie down in roving, impromptu street discos.

    Therea are a lot of us who enjoy living outdoors with others who value fresh air, exercise, and old-fashioned face-to-face socializing. I love Streetsblog and the Internet as much as anyone else, but when I’ve got my bicycle and my friends–as long as the weather is reasonably good–I don’t need anything else to have fun.

    This is the “living” we promote with livable streets, unplugged from the virtual reality of the internet and unshackled from the false prophet of shopping-mall capitalism.

  • Nick

    When large groups of people start hanging out in parks and drinking in other neighborhoods, the police usually show up because they fear criminal activity is not far behind.

    I don’t see that happening here. Maybe they’ll classify some unpermitted Stop sign running as a type of gang activity. Perhaps an injunction will follow.

    Seriously, wasn’t Dolores Park the traditional ending point and after party of most CM rides? Looks like they’re just doing it during the day.

  • excuse me but what the FUCK is “out of the way” about Ocean Beach? Just because they had 2 sunday streets somewhere some people deem uncool (who are uncool themselves) is good thing – there’s plenty of great stuff going on the west side , none of which was noted here. what a surprise.

    try taking off the hipster blinders once in a while people and you’ll realize that hipper than thou bullshit achieves nothing. And the Mission is not the center of the universe.

  • Susan King

    Chris, GREAT article, thanks for the background on the evolution of car-free spaces in SF. On the comments, I do agree that it is expensive to host events in SF for a myriad of reasons, and I hope our City leaders can help develop ways to make grassroots events more financially feasible.

    I appreciate the mention of Sunday Streets in the comments, but take exception to the notion that they are deliberately held in remote places and are ‘white bread’. In fact, Sunday Streets events thus far have attracted very diverse crowds with participants from all walks of life and social, ethnic backgrounds in attendance. We have held these events in different neighborhoods for a reason, and each one attracts residents who you may not see hanging in Dolores Park or rolling along with Critical Mass. I think this part of Sunday Streets unique appeal. The Embarcadero (ground zero for Critical Mass every month, fyi) and Ocean Beach are only remote if you don’t live or work near there, but plenty of folks do.

  • patrick

    Chill out Greg, calling something out of the way isn’t an insult.

  • ZA

    Great observer as always Chris.

    But let’s not flash forward 30 years, let’s set out to remember what happened with the last great wave(s) of public life in our fair city by the Bay, to make sure we can sustain and grow this to more parts of the city. We may need counter-intuitive solutions moving forward, and we can at least get a hold of the problems our forebears grappled with before. Ideally, we could get to the point that even if the masses return to the fulltime money game, the necessity of a living public space will remain unquestioned, and obligatory.

  • mcas

    Great article– and I think it gives light to my recent favorite mantra about public space– it’s WHY we live in a city. It’s why we pay higher rent than the suburbs… we want to be in a community and associate with our neighbors. To me, the fact that San Francisco is 20% of Open Space (surprisingly high) at an average cost of $200 per resident (surprisingly low)– the question is: how can we continue to expand and improve open space for all of us? Would increased parking fees in parks help underwrite the cost of admission fees to museums/events in public space? Could it be used to continue to improve parks and in what way? No more tennis courts, please (we have 270)! And how much is subsidizing the Golf Courses, which are so woefully underutilized by San Franciscans?

    Knowing that you pay only $200 for your parks on an average year– how much use do you get out of them? Would you be willing to pay more? How much more? For what?

  • SFResident

    I’m still a bit confused as to how the ferry building can be considered “out of the way.” Isn’t it the single spot in the city most easily accessible by public transit? I should also point out that the “ocean beach” Sunday Streets practically stretched to the lower height – I made it out to Oak and Baker before having to merge with traffic.

    And I say, let’s have more Sunday Streets in the “out of the way” neighborhoods. Let’s close off Monterey from Circular to Junepero Serra! Let’s have a Sunday Streets on Ocean from Sunset to 280. Hell, let’s close down Sunset some weekend. How about a Portola hill-climb or a Lake Merced loop!

  • Pat

    I was mostly annoyed with the Bayview Sunday Streets that literally was in the middle of nowhere except for about 3 blocks of it. The point of Sunday Streets is not to be a bike ride, it is a celebration of the idea that city streets can be a host for communities rather than just for travel. The fact that places like the Mission, Haight Street, North Beach, or Church and Market have much higher density and use make them better candidates for having an event more like 24th Street and less like the 5 people in 3 blocks I saw in one section of the Bayview Sunday Streets. They are also much more visible to people that did not know about them, which is important in spreading the whole spirit of alternative use. Ocean Beach is a destination you have to get to by crossing a large low-density, car-dependent area whereas the other places mentioned are places that people already are.

    As for the Dolores Park crackdowns:

  • mcas

    @Pat: I think your comments are akin to the colonist’s ‘Empty Continent’ Theory… dangerous territory and a harsh accusation, but I politely would encourage you to put your perspectives in check. Lots of people live near the ‘middle of nowhere’ you describe– many of them the same race as the character of ‘Invisible Man’…

  • ZA

    My nominations for more Sunday Streets and block party events:
    – Holly Park, McLaren Park, perhaps the length of Geneva Ave for Excelsior, perhaps the length of Vicente for the Sunset itself, and something in the Tenderloin, centered on the “Tenderloin National Park” therein.

  • CBrinkman

    Great article Chris – I love the background and photos. I think we are seeing a resurgence of interest in public gathering and public space. Just the difference in the reception of the idea of Sunday Streets in different neighborhoods shows that. Our city is 7×7, no area needs to feel very far away from anywhere if we just give people a fun safe way to get there, and an opportunity to explore a neighborhood we might rarely go to. The comments do point out a continuing goal of Sunday Streets..link link link.

    I do always have to giggle when people complain so adamantly about free events or free on-line social networking sites. Darn this product I don’t pay for not being exactly what I think it should be! Come Out and Play on Sunday Sept 6th, and let your Supervisor know where you want a Sunday Streets.

  • Pat

    Sunday Streets is an unquestionably good thing, I am just annoyed that it could be better. High density areas with storefronts along the route prove to be more lively and reach more people than low-density areas with mostly affluent single-family homes or industrial areas (for any event).

  • mcas

    @Pat: Then make it better rather than complaining in blog comments: http://www.sundaystreetssf.com/volunteer

  • soylatte

    Pat’s comments are pretty startling… “In the middle of nowhere” WTF? Check yourself, bro…

  • CityGal

    Great post! I feel the momentum that you are describing. But as someone who had the chance to work on a new public space in Mission Bay, I need to take issue with your statement that you “can imagine it getting taken over at some point by a rather different public than it has been designed for.” Those public spaces are being designed for everyone – people who live throughout the southeast section of the city and beyond. If you talk to some of the people using the promenade around Mission Creek, you’ll hear that a lot of them are coming from SOMA, where they suffer from a real lack of public space. The panhandle park is intended to connect Showplace Square and Lower Potrero to the waterfront, where there will (eventually) be a large waterfront park. I think the public spaces in Mission Bay are (and will be – the vast majority is still to come) one of the best things about the neighborhood.

  • CBrinkman

    Pat – we think that every part of our city, and every citizen, deserves the opportunity to experience temporary (or permanent) car free space. Did you attend the westside route last month? So many families; that is a medium density area but a family heavy one. I suspect that for many of those families it was their first Sunday Streets, it’s tough to get an entire family and bikes to the Mission from the Sunset without driving. Both routes were great, but they are different types of streets and neighborhoods.

    Come out on Sunday and see what a low to medium density area is like with car free streets. Car free space shouldn’t just be for some neighborhoods, but for every neighborhood that welcomes it. The Westside welcomed us with much enthusiasm. And yes, please do volunteer! It makes the event even more fun.

  • Pat

    I have volunteered at more than half this year… and the mindset “make it better instead of complaining in comments” is completely unproductive. I am trying to make a comment on improvement of location that would be beneficial to Sunday Streets and to the safety of neighborhoods with high pedestrian and bicycle traffic. No one goes to Illinois and 23rd street to hang out when Sunday Streets is not around, that had the feel of the city pushing the event aside to where it will not anger drivers. The 24th street one in Mission was an amazing success. I am suggesting more 24th street-esque dense neighborhoods ones and fewer Central Waterfront industrial district ones. I swear you people are actively looking for something to be offended about.

  • CBrinkman

    Pat – thank you very much for volunteering, we really do appreciate it. And thank you for being passionate about Sunday Streets, hopefully in the future we will have enough events to satisfy every neighborhood request! We’re off to a great start.

  • mike

    Cool article. We need to push back on the SFPD to not price-out or over regulate our fairs and parks. A fair I know had 0 problems for a number of years and the SFPD decided one year that it needed to double the usual number of officers – at overtime rates, of course. Our SFPD is actually full of great, reasonable officers, but this unwritten practice of extortion needs to stop.


Sunday Streets to Great Streets: Enrique Penalosa

"Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia and internationally-renowned innovator in the fields of transportation, housing and land use for large cities, will speak at a public forum this Tuesday, July 7th, 5:30pm-7:30pm at the Koret Auditorium, Main Public Library (100 Larkin St.) in San Francisco. The event is free and valet bicycle parking […]

An Evening With Gil Peñalosa

From Greenbelt Alliance: Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to hear Gil Peñalosa, the former commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation for the City of Bogotá, Colombia. Peñalosa initiated car-free Sundays where over 1.3 million people come out weekly to walk, run, skate and bike along 121 kilometers of Bogotá’s city roads. Join us on Monday, June 4 for “An […]

Streets Alive: San Mateo County

"On Sunday, April 11th, cities across San Mateo County will host Streets Alive, transforming public streets into car-free outdoor spaces for people to walk, bike, run, roll, play, and enjoy being active and healthy. From 10:00 am – 2:00 pm, cities across the county will close streets to auto traffic and highlight public places such […]