Cadelia Swain, 8, does her homework on a bench at Buchanan Street Mall in the Western Addition on Tuesday. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Cadelia Swain, 8, does her homework on a bench at Buchanan Street Mall in the Western Addition on Tuesday. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Renaissance underway at once-decrepit Buchanan Street Mall

Board of Supervisors President London Breed remembers Buchanan Street Mall, a stretch of green spaces and courts in the Western Addition, like a beloved family member.

Laughter and play from children and people of all ages were the norm at the mall. “There were parks,” she said. “As a kid you’d walk down the corridor, play at each park and walk back. People were always outside, everywhere.”

Breed’s grandmother would be there. The teens she grew up with in the neighborhood would be there. It was a community hub for numerous housing developments — an economically poor neighborhood, to be sure, but a happy one.

Over the years, however, what were described as “turf conflicts, decades of mistrust” and other divisions turned Buchanan Street Mall into a ghost town, according to public documents.

“Folks were gettin’ shot and killed,” Breed said. “It went from being this great place to hang out for everybody, people of all ages, to being a war zone.”

Now the mall is undergoing a renaissance.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission today will consider voting to approve a $75,000 grant to continue the revitalization of the Buchanan Street Mall.

The mall stretches from Grove to Turk, on Buchanan. While not for shopping, the mall refers to an older definition of the word: “a usually public area often set with shade trees and designed as a promenade or as a pedestrian walk,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

But what is a small space, and a small amount of money, would be a shot in the arm to help the Trust for Public Land and a number of other groups sustain work to rebuild a vital community. The trust is a national nonprofit that rebuilds parks.

The trust would supplement that $75,000 by donating time and additional fundraising, the group wrote in its grant application to Rec and Park.

Randolph Lee, a resident, spoke at a Rec and Park Commission meeting in July 2015 to argue for funding to revitalize the area.

“I just want to see our community really grow, take back the essence of what we lost,” he said. “I was once a person that saw good times and was creating bad times up in there.”

“Now,” he said, “it’s time to fix it.”

Through a previous grant, the trust partnered with the Exploratorium as well as production company Citizen Film and local group Green Streets to build new seated areas to revitalize the mall.

The idea, Breed said, was to just get neighbors to stop and talk to each other.

Those seated areas show the spark of Exploratorium creativity, mixed with neighborhood knowhow: sloping arches extend from the top of the benches, colorful gates adorn entrances to the mall, and community gardens in planter boxes dot the mall.

Those new structures rose up last November, but this newest round of funding could push the project forward into its next phase.

The structures also contain tributes to the community, including callbacks to a favorite corner store in the neighborhood that’s now long gone, Virgo’s.

Sophie Constantinou is a co-founder of Citizen Film, a local documentary production group that has pushed to revitalize the Buchanan Street Mall, which she said came from meetings from many neighbors.

One group of seniors from neighborhood properties and another comprised of neighborhood youth showed each other their visions for the mall, and worked together to shape their ideas for the space, she said.

“We started talking about what could happen through art, through community activation, to make a place safer,” Constantinou said.

With the new $75,000 grant, the land trust will continue the outreach process, bringing in neighbors to help form Buchanan Street Mall’s future. What that will look like, Constantinou said, is open — no firm decisions have yet been made.

Those ideas could include more seating, more vegetable gardens, more “storygraph” structures which teach history, or other structures not yet imagined.

The end is a ways off, Constantinou said, adding, “It may take years to see these visions. It’ll take millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Breed said slowing down traffic to meet safety concerns was part of that future. The important thing is, she said, to make sure that the neighborhood becomes a place where a community can thrive.

“You don’t appreciate it when you’re a kid,” she said, “but you do when you’re a grownup and the things you remember aren’t there anymore. These memories flash in my head of what used to be.”

That philosophy of “looking back” can be seen in a painting of a Sankofa bird, detailed on the side of both new entrances to the Buchanan Street Mall.

According to the School of African American studies at University of Illinois, the bird is derived from a saying, “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

The neighbors of the Western Addition are looking back, then, to move forward, together. Buchanan Street MallLondon BreedPlanningpublic housingSan FranciscoWestern Addition

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