Manny of the Mission wants to light up San Francisco’s streets

Plan would target 12 commercial corridors, modeled on Valencia’s cafe lighting look

Have you strolled down Valencia Street at night? It’s emerged as San Francisco’s premier boulevard, with charming restaurants and boutiques attracting post-pandemic crowds. The addition of 8,000 cafe lights last year, strung above the sidewalks from 14th to 24th streets, provided a dash of European flavor. La Dolce Vita meets Mission Dolores.

The effort to light up Valencia was the brainchild of Manny Yekutiel, owner of Manny’s cafe on the corner of 16th Street. He figured shedding a little light on the corridor would help small businesses lure back customers. And he was right. Now he plans to bring the idea to the rest of The City, launching an ambitious project in concert with the Chamber of Commerce to string lights down 12 of San Francisco’s top commercial corridors.

Best of all? It’s all paid for by a couple of our homegrown tech titans.

“Something as simple as lighting up our streets with beautiful lights can have a real impact on the strength and vitality of our commercial corridors — something we need right now more than ever,” said Yekutiel, who serves as a board member with the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency. “I’m proud to be able to help make this happen for the good of The City.”

The idea came to him a few months back and he talked to one of his friends, Mark Pincus of Zynga fame. The gaming titan circled back on it and recently stroked a check for $250,000 to get things off the ground. Another local techie chipped in another $250,000 anonymously. Voilà. Manny had the money to flip the switch on this thing. (If you want to chip in for the ongoing fundraising efforts, you can send an email to manny@welcometomannys.com.)

Here are the corridors that will get lit: Clement Street, Union Street, North Beach, Chinatown, Taraval Street, Haight Street, Larkin Street, Lakeside Village, The Castro, Mission Street (Inner Mission), Leland Street and Mission Street (Excelsior). Yekutiel estimates it will take 30,000 cafe lights to cover 72 city blocks.

In case you’re wondering, the mayor’s on board, too.

“This is a great example of how instrumental philanthropy is to San Francisco’s recovery,” said Mayor London Breed. “The public sector can’t do this alone, and I’m so appreciative that Manny is continuing to put his energy into supporting our neighborhood corridors, our small businesses and our city. San Francisco is filled with so many creative and generous people, and we can really shine when they step up with great ideas and the resources to turn these ideas into action.”

People have fun with sparklers on Valencia Street during a cafe lighting ceremony. (Devlin Shand)

People have fun with sparklers on Valencia Street during a cafe lighting ceremony. (Devlin Shand)

As for the chamber, its members see it as an avenue to boost business. “It’s an opportunity to shine light on the neighborhood commercial districts,” said Chamber president and CEO Rodney Fong. “The arts, the food scene, the culture of San Francisco.”

Fittingly, the announcement comes on Small Business Week in The City, an annual series of events that try to help shopkeepers keep shop. So that’s nice.

But what I really find interesting here are the donations from a couple of our big-tech leaders. We’ve seen plenty of philanthropy from the likes of Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg in this town. But it’s great to see someone like Pincus jump in at a grassroots level to help The City bounce back from the pandemic.

I rang him up to hear his thoughts on the state of San Francisco and the opportunities for private philanthropists.

“Manny’s done some things that are really hyper-local at the community level that could fan out and impact the culture of The City, just as we think about how it can be reinvented,” he told me. “I thought his lights project on Valencia was a great example. It’s so visible and positive. I like that it could bring community together. It felt like the right moment to turn on the lights. It reminds us we’re all here. It reminds everyone there are all these interesting, creative people in this city. Let’s get out and see old friends, and make new friends.”

That’s the spirit. Let’s celebrate the streets that stitch our neighborhoods together.

“Things have been so charged. Politically charged. Culturally charged. We need things to quiet down and calm down. To get to a place where you’re just another San Franciscan trying to help,” said Pincus. “That’s what felt good about this. There’s no political agenda around it.”

Which is strange for some of us to comprehend. San Franciscans like to fight about where we can roller skate. Not Pincus. He has survived numerous boom and bust cycles before recently selling his gaming company for over $12.7 billion. (He owned about 5% of the company.) He thinks we need to focus on what makes San Francisco great, and revel in its beauty.

“I don’t have a problem with people leaving San Francisco. I don’t judge them for it. I think we gotta play our game. Make this a great place to be. You’re not going to shame people into staying. We have to glow. It’s more about finding our light. I’m into a more positive rebuilding of our community. Getting back to thinking about what makes it a great city. Something like what Manny wants to do, that’s on the path. That feels like the right path for The City.”

Which brings us back to Manny. He’s become a force in this town, working the political arena and hosting important salons at his cafe. This is what San Francisco needs. Community building from the private sector, working hand in hand with City Hall.

“San Francisco has a lot of deep issues that require complex solutions,” said Yekutiel. “We need more solutions like this. Solutions that have a low cost, but have an outsized affect. Simple, beautiful lighting has an outsized impact on our communities. It’s good for small business. It brings customers back. It’s good for facilitating joy. Which is something we need now, more than ever. Cities should inspire and light people up.”

Preach it, Manny.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com. Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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