Should there be fewer cars in the Tenderloin’s future?

The pandemic has opened San Franciscans’ eyes to new uses of urban streets

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The people took back Turk Street for several hours last Saturday. At Play Streets Tenderloin, music bumped, kids scooted and adults chatted around tables and tents. The one block between Leavenworth and Jones streets felt like an oasis in a neighborhood many San Franciscans speed through on their way to somewhere else.

“I don’t want the cars here,” Dyah, an 8-year-old neighborhood resident, told me. “Every time they come, we have to stop playing and go to the sidewalk.”

“Cars take a lot of gas and create a lot of pollution,” Adam, a neighborhood sixth grader, added. “I’ve also seen them hit animals.”

The need to make space during the COVID-19 pandemic has created a reality that would have seemed crazy in 2019 — miles of streets populated by people instead of cars. Now we know what we’ve been sacrificing to the almighty private automobile. Reclaiming this valuable land has helped the local economy, provided space for play and exercise, improved safety, brought communities together, reduced air pollution and made some room for coyotes and other wildlife that call San Francisco home.

But not all neighborhoods have access to these benefits. Although Play Streets Tenderloin only started in mid-September, for example, it’s scheduled to end in two weeks. This means that access to open and community space in this heavily populated residential neighborhood will once again be limited.

The City must stop making excuses, and extend the benefits of car-free streets in the Tenderloin. San Francisco leaders espouse environmental justice, equality and inclusion on the national stage. These critical values must be upheld at home, locally, too.

“These kids in the Tenderloin are the exact targets of Trump — immigrants, refugees, minorities,” Scott Bravmann, a parent of a Tenderloin Community School graduate and a committed friend of the school, told me. “Right here is where we could do the most.”

Bravmann has advocated for extending Play Streets and expanding Slow Streets in the Tenderloin. He envisions closing additional blocks on Ellis Street (300 to 500 blocks) to create a community hub where residents can come together, exercise and access various services.

While Bravmann’s vision may seem ambitious, community groups and city officials have successfully worked together to limit cars in the dense neighborhood. The block in front of St. Anthony’s and at 300 Ellis St. closed to improve access to social services and a food pantry. Recently, officials also closed one lane on Jones Street from O’Farrell to Golden Gate and allowed outdoor dining on Larkin Street.

Given the neighborhood’s high density, commercial uses and the need to ensure access for emergency vehicles, accomplishing these limited closures was no small task. But the increased access has had a big impact.

“Suddenly, there’s a re-imagination of what is possible in the Tenderloin,” Hunter Franks, the Tenderloin Community Benefit District’s Director of Inviting Space, told me. “It’s a small shift in the narrative around it’s not safe to come outside during the pandemic, which is particularly strong in the Tenderloin.”

The City must do more to extend and expand these benefits. Restaurants and businesses in the Tenderloin deserve the same chances to thrive as in other neighborhoods. Residents deserve the same safe streets and clean air other San Franciscans breathe. And kids deserve the same opportunity to play outside and enjoy a sense of community.

“Play Streets is where I see people outside of the Zoom box,” Dr. Kara Wright, a pediatrician with the Family Advocate Project at the Tenderloin Community School, told me. “There’s a real benefit in terms of creating a safety network to support kids and families.”

The pandemic has opened San Franciscans’ eyes to new uses of our urban streets. But city officials cannot fall back on old approaches that segregate benefits by zip code. San Francisco needs to do more, not less, to respond to the challenges facing the Tenderloin.

“The challenges are absolutely surmountable and we have demonstrated that on Turk, Jones and Larkin streets,” Supervisor Matt Haney told me. “We’re tired of people saying things can’t happen here when we know that they can.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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