Murals in Balmy Alley (Courtesy Nicolas Vollmer/Wiki Commons)

Exploring the transformation of Cesar Chavez Street

Cesar Chavez Street, on the southern edge of the Mission, was once a treeless freeway feeder funneling six lanes of fast, loud traffic through several residential neighborhoods. Families crossing to local elementary schools, daycare centers and health facilities braved a street clearly not intended for pedestrians. In fact, residents found vehicles crashed into their homes with alarming frequency.

Today, Cesar Chavez is a transformed corridor. Car crashes into homes are almost unheard of, and improved crosswalks have made the street both welcoming and safe. As a roadway that paved over Precita Creek at the turn of the last century, this street used to flood in rainy winters. Last year, however, thanks to rain gardens and plantings along the sidewalks and medians, Cesar Chavez diverted more than 1.5 million gallons of water (21 inches of rain).

On June 25, join Walk San Francisco for its monthly members walk led by CC Puede’s Fran Taylor and guest speaker Bonnie Ora Sherk of A Living Library, for an exploration of place-making activism and local hydrology.

Learn how, in 2005, local neighbors of all stripes formed CC Puede, a grassroots community-based organization, to press city officials to take advantage of a major sewer replacement and streetscape project to reimagine this expressway, known until 1995 as Army Street.

Originally a typical two-lane San Francisco street with its own streetcar line, Army Street had been widened to six lanes by 1950, creating a scarring division between the neighborhoods of the Mission and Bernal Heights, and Potrero Hill and the Bayview. The plan at the time was to turn Army into an east-west arterial road to connect to the proposed expanded freeway system and what was being called the “Southern Crossing” — a second Bay Bridge — spanning from the City eastward to Alameda.

Nearly a decade after CC Puede began its campaign in 2005, community members have successfully reclaimed Cesar Chavez as a safe, shared space for people walking, biking, and taking transit. The redone street has won numerous accolades, including being selected ‘Transportation Project of 2014” by The Institute of Transportation Engineers, voted “Best Street Transformation” by Streetsblog SF, and awarded “Best Pedestrian/Bicycle Project” of the year (bicycle ridership has increased by 400 percent since the project’s completion) by the California Transportation Foundation, ahead of 98 other nominations from around the state.

As you wind your way along the redesigned corridor, you can compare the “after” in real-time with “before” images from an extensive handout. Speakers will also demystify the remnants of the creek system that still lurk below Cesar Chavez and the nearby U.S. 101 freeway maze. Hear firsthand from longtime residents and workers, who will give their perspective on how the changed thoroughfare feels for those who use it every day.

The mostly flat, two-mile walk will start at St. Luke’s Hospital and make its way along Cesar Chavez past Bryant and on to the infamous freeway exchange known as the “hairball,” with a stairway climb there for a view from Bernal Heights. The walk will end at Balmy Alley where you can take in a myriad of styles and subjects at one of the many mural installations in the Mission, this one inspired by mid-1980s artist protests of Central American human rights and political abuses of the era and since updated with commentary on current gentrification issues.

Cesar Chavez: From Traffic Sewer to a Safer, Greener Neighbor
When: Saturday, June 25, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: St. Luke’s Hospital, 3555 Cesar Chavez St.
Info: Walk space limited; $10 suggested donation; RSVPs required

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