“If any single person in post WWII America could be said to have saved what is best about cities, it is Jane Jacobs.”—Randy Shaw, 2006
Urban planning theorist and activist Jane Jacobs was no fan of San Francisco’s Civic Center. “This particular center,” she wrote, “placed near the downtown and intended to pull the downtown toward it, has of course repelled vitality and gathered around itself the blight that typically surrounds these dead and artificial places.” For progressive North America, a damnation from Jane Jacobs is a heavy thing indeed.
Jacobs’ 1961 masterwork, *The Death and Life of Great American Cities*, has for half a century been a touchstone of progressive thought about how cities work and how they should be designed. The book argues that the beautificatory and “rational” urban planning movements of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were movements that actually undermined healthy urban spaces: The clustering of monuments, the division of neighborhoods by highways, the privileging of the personal automobile over public transportation, the segregation of districts by use and by socioeconomic class, the promotion of residence in suburbs, all led to less human, less safe, less livable cities. Instead, Jacobs advocated mixed use neighborhoods with small blocks, and concentrated populations living in buildings of varying ages—all still major values for people who love cities for their human vitality and human interactions.
It is not surprising, then, that a putative progressive focused on “renewing” and “revivifying” the Tenderloin—one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—would take note of Jacob’s criticism of Civic Center Plaza.
Randy Shaw, the Executive Director the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a resident of the Berkeley Hills, has made changing the nature of the Tenderloin one of his dearest goals for the past several years. His promotion of a new name for the neighborhood that no one uses (the “Uptown Tenderloin”—along with the embarrassing fake slang “Upper Ten”) and his ongoing creation of a neighborhood historical museum have, until very recently, been the most notable aspects of his one-man campaign of neighborhood transformation.
But his recent efforts have been less risible, and far more detrimental to the residents of Shaw’s pet project. When the Board of Supervisors buckled to corporate pressure and created a mid-Market tax giveaway zone for bigger businesses (though not for small, family businesses), Shaw—despite significant neighborhood opposition and without support from any neighborhood or tenant group (in fact, his own organization’s tenant organizing project formally took a stand *not* endorsing Shaw’s position), pushed to have the Tenderloin included in the tax break zone, and succeeded. The most likely result of this legislation will be increased commercial rents, resulting in small businesses’ and service providers’ being pushed out of the neighborhood, while tenants face increasing pressure from the immigration of more and more suburbanites into the neighborhood. While we cannot know what future legislation or quirks of history will change this prospect, it is quite possible that this legislation—which Shaw promoted as a means to increase investment in the neighborhood (but investment *for* whom, into *what*?)—will be the single biggest factor in the Tenderloin’s gentrification.
But though Shaw supports a Reaganite trickle-down taxation policy, the man seems himself as a progressive, thanks largely to his distant but laudable history of eviction prevention and tenant defense. But now that Shaw has, through the favor of the Newsom administration, become one of the neighborhood’s biggest landlords, he seems disinclined to continue that history, though he won’t stop bragging about it. Thus, it is not surprising that in his consideration of Civic Center Plaza, he would begin with Jacobs’ damnation. It is equally unsurprising that he would all but completely misinterpret her critique, and read it in a manner that would promote not Jane Jacobs’ vision of the diverse, integrated, organic city of modernity, but rather the segregated, corporate city of Rudy Giuliani’s New York. This month, he wrote of his proposals for Civic Center Plaza in his vanity blog, BeyondChron.
To Shaw, Civic Center Plaza is a “dead spot” that is not living up to its urban potential. If used correctly, the Plaza could aid in the economic redevelopment of mid-Market and the Tenderloin by drawing visitors, and then trickling those visitors’ economic consumption out into the surrounding neighborhoods. The way to achieve this is by somehow making Civic Center Plaza more like New York City’s privatized Bryant Park.
Bryant Parkification is to be achieved by bringing in “a high quality, destination food truck”; converting one third to one half of the Plaza into recreational use in the form of a wintertime skating rink, yoga classes, and small-scale music events; and—most importantly—the creation of a public or private security force to enforce “park rules.”
Before we deal with reality, let’s talk about where Shaw is *not* coming from.
The Plaza Beautiful
Shaw quotes scraps of Jacobs, but he’s coming from nothing like her viewpoint. For Jacobs, the problem with the Civic Center (not, mind you, just the Plaza) is the problem of a whole movement: the City Beautiful movement. The notion—a fin de siècle precursor of such misguided modern dogma as the Broken Windows Theory—was that the creation of beautiful cities, largely through the creation of grand monuments, would lead to a more harmonious social order.
In San Francisco’s case, the rebuilt Civic Center was the only constructed piece of a 1905 plan by City Beautiful architect Daniel Burnham. Burnham, who had worked extensively in Pittsburgh and Chicago, had been brought in by Mayor James Phelan (who later ran successfully for the Senate on a “Keep California White” platform) to design a San Francisco that could become “the capital of an empire.” Burnham’s plan originally encompassed the entire city. Alas for virtue and empire, the remainder of the plan was eclipsed in 1906 by the immediate needs of tens of thousands of newly homeless San Franciscans who rebuilt their earthquake-razed homes with no concern for the infrastructural grounding of civic morality or a harmonious social order.
Jacobs’ contention is that Civic Center is one big useless clump of monuments. Things have not changed in the ensuing half century since the publication of her critique: Symphony Hall, the Opera, Herbst Theater, the PUC building, City Hall, the Superior Court, the State Supreme Court, the Burton Federal Building, Civic Center Plaza, Bill Graham Auditorium, the Main Library, the Asian Art Museum, UN Plaza, and whatever that strange UN building is, are all clustered into one tiny area, along with statues of Ashurbanipal cuddling a lion, Simón Bolívar riding his anatomically correct steed Palomo (felicitously—at least poetically so—smeared with guano de paloma), and a racist, dominionist deity of California, presiding over a suffering caricature of a Native American man who is submitting to white colonialists and the Christian faith. No matter how much one loves the Civic Center, it’s hard not to admit: It is indeed a clustercoitus of grandeur.
For Jacobs, a better use of these buildings and monuments would have been to integrate them with offices and shops in a way that made these monumental buildings more relevant and immediate for the public, and also served the economic needs of the commercial establishments. Her primary argument has to do with mixed use districts—districts such as the Tenderloin, where residences, shops, and other workplaces are integrated, often in the same building, and almost always on the same block.
What Parks Don’t Do
So much for the Civic Center as a whole: The *Plaza* itself must be understood in the context of how Jacobs understood parks:
“Too much is expected of city parks. Far from transforming any essential quality in their surroundings, far from automatically uplifting their neighborhoods, neighborhood parks are directly and drastically affected by the way the neighborhood acts upon them.” For Jacobs, it is impossible for a park to do what Shaw wants of Civic Center Plaza: It cannot change the neighborhood through increased use. Rather, it will have increased or decreased use depending on the diversity of use of the surrounding neighborhood. If there are both residences and businesses, ensuring use throughout daytime hours, and if there are not too many parks in the vicinity, a park will prosper. But a park cannot make surrounding neighborhoods prosper.
There are factors that can make parks more successful—a variety of visual experience for example—but they are secondary. Golden Gate Park provides a good proving ground for this. The Eastern half of the Park is perpetually busy because it is situated between the mixed business/residential areas of the Haight, the Inner Sunset, and the Inner Richmond. The Western half of the Park, however, is dramatically underused, because it is situated between the Outer Sunset and the Outer Richmond. These Western neighborhoods are all but exclusively residential, which means that relatively few people are around during the day. Thus, relatively few people have reason to be near the Park. Both the East and the West have interesting structures, have variety of visual experience, and have plenty of space. But one half is used, while the other remains nearly empty.
While Jacobs clearly did not approve of Civic Center’s design overall, the Plaza *right now* is close enough to the 24-hour vibrancy of the Tenderloin that it serves the purposes Jacobs wished for parks generally. This might be a good time to leave the world of theory, return to reality, and try to drag Mr. Shaw back with us.
Let us consider how people in the Tenderloin regularly use Civic Center Plaza. For example, right now, we regularly have five food trucks in Civic Center Plaza during lunchtime. Shaw would like to see *one* “high quality, destination food truck…” (On a side note, doesn’t the notion of *destination* run counter to the purpose of food trucks?)
Right now, children play in the Plaza’s two playgrounds all day, and fill half the Plaza during midday recess. Young people play Frisbee and adults throw footballs or play catch with their dogs all over the Plaza at all times of day. Shaw, on the other hand, would like children to play, and would like a third to a half of the Plaza to be used for recreational purposes.
Right now, musicians play trumpet, saxophone, and guitar during the daytime, busking for tips and sometimes serenading diners at the two Plaza cafés and the five food trucks. Shaw wants small informal musical performances.
Right now, Chinese senior citizens use the Plaza for Fǎlún Gōng meditation and taìjí in the mornings. Shaw wants yoga.
And this yoga thing maybe gets to the crux of it: Yoga is wonderful as exercise and meditation, but let’s face it: Its primary appeal is *not* to the average resident of Tenderloin or SoMa residential hotels. But this doesn’t matter for Shaw’s vision for the economic development of these depressed neighborhoods: The development is not *by* us. It’s not *for* us. It’s not *about* us: It is, in Shaw’s own words, for the attraction of outside investment. But it is impossible to draw a causal connection between Shaw’s fantasy investment and the betterment of the everyday lives of people who live in the Tenderloin or SoMa now. In fact, the reverse is true.
The food trucks are great, and from a municipal economic perspective, we have no reason to favor one locally owned, local-employing dining establishment over another. However, if our purpose is to draw business to mid-Market and the Tenderloin, it’s worth noting that City and State employees who eat at the Curry Up Now food truck (which is one hell of a good eatery) are *not* dining at core neighborhood dining establishments such as Golden House, Golden Kim Tar, Taquería el Castillito, Wrap Delight, Burmese Kitchen, or Saigon Sandwich on the edge of the Tenderloin, nor are they eating at Gyro King, or Sam’s Diner, or Munch Haven in mid-Market. As with Shaw’s wish for yoga in lieu of residents’ uses of Civic Center Plaza, this redirection of customers *away* from local small businesses emphasizes that this kind of development is not for the people who already live here. It is—like the similar anti-small business Tenderloin tax giveaway that Shaw pushed through the Board of Supervisors last month—not for the purposes of residents, but for the repurposing of the neighborhood.
Fashion Week for the Tenderloin?
All the measures proposed by Shaw are Bizarro World parallels of actual Tenderloin uses of Civic Center Plaza… with one exception. The aspect of Shaw’s proposals which makes it like his ideal park—New York City’s Bryant Park—is the presence of an additional security force to “enforce the rules” of the park.
Somehow, this security force would both be a portion of a solution to the problem of homeless people “undermining” Civic Center Plaza, and yet would neither harass nor even interfere with homeless people! The mechanisms of this boggle the mind, and conflict starkly with the reality of private security at every other privatized once-public space in the country. Similar security officers at Union Square constantly harass homeless people in ways that violate poor San Franciscans’ civil rights.
But given that the would-be reformer’s prototype was Bryant Park, we decided to contact our allies at Picture the Homeless in New York to see if things were somehow different there.
San Franciscans who have not spent much time in Manhattan may not have a very solid picture of Bryant Park. If you’re a viewer of Project Runway, Bryant Park is the site of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, at which the program’s contestants show their final collections. Bryant Park closes down to the public for the full week, becoming the exclusive domain of the invitation-only glitterati. Homeless people are apparently not among the invitation-only set.
According to our friends at Picture the Homeless, Bryant Park is a “glittering wonderland” from which homeless people are all but completely excluded. “We don’t conduct outreach there because there’s no point. Everyone has either been driven out by private security, or they’re trying so hard to blend in that they don’t want to talk to anyone else they think might be homeless.”
Such parks attack the fundamental civil rights of homeless people and other politically undesirable populations. But you don’t have to be an ethically decent humanist for this to matter to you: We cannot undermine the rights of a minority without hurting society as a whole. An exclusionary park undermines one of the fundamental roles of a *civic* center: Situated directly across from City Hall, Civic Center Plaza is an ideal location for the exercise of First Amendment rights. In a park that is designed to push certain kinds of people out, the core role of such a place in our democracy ceases to be possible.
Another Tenderloin—For Us—Is Possible
Civic Center Plaza could be a little prettier. It would be nice to have the reflecting pool back. It would be nice to have some benches. The Plaza could stand, right now, to be visually more interesting. But as far as use goes, Civic Center Plaza is vigorously used in diverse ways by residents of the Tenderloin and daytime workers at City and State buildings. It is, despite being the center of a poorly planned “City Beautiful” orgy of rotundas, Ionic columns, and weird statuary, a very healthy park, thanks to its proximity to the Tenderloin and Archstone Fox Plaza.
But Shaw’s underlying goal—a renewal of the Tenderloin—is, despite its violently misguided direction, rooted in some valid concerns.
The Tenderloin is vibrant and diverse. It is more of a true neighborhood—where life is active on the streets and people know one another—than any other part of the city. But we all know that we have our problems.
Beyond some fairly simple administrative measures that could be taken with relative ease (we could, for example, use more public toilets, especially ones open 24 hours a day), there are economic vitality issues, quality of life issues, and our enormously high unemployment rate.
Solutions that don’t come out of the Reagan or Giuliani playbooks are possible. The Tenderloin and mid-Market have far too many empty residential units and storefronts. There has been talk, from time to time, of a blight tax, which would push landlords who speculate on gentrification and avoid renting out at market rates to get those units back on the market, consequently driving down both residential rents, and mitigating a substantial barrier to entry for small businesses.
Similarly, small rent subsidies (which Shaw has opposed for families but supported for single adults) help low-income families to access market-rate housing, and free up finances to spend in the neighborhood, thus stimulating local economic growth. These subsidies have already been proven successful in San Francisco, and cost less per family than the provision of temporary shelter.
Police sweeps have been used time and again to address drug dealing in the neighborhood. This has only ever resulted in the replacement of one group of dealers with another. Most recently, this has led to an increase in violence. Economically, such sweeps are simply unrealistic: As long as demand for addictive substances remains inelastic, providers will find a means of making their money off of the existing market. Part of the solution is easier access to recovery programs. Right now, there’s a waitlist of a few months for *every* rehabilitation program. Another portion of the solution may be safe use facilities, much like those in use in Vancouver, and championed by our neighborhood’s popular former police captain, Gary Jiménez. Less money spent on drugs means more money flowing into sectors of our neighborhood and city economies that lead to real growth.
But we also need to recognize that the Tenderloin will never be—and *should* never be—a Hayes Valley. As long as we have the economic system that we do in the United States, we will have poverty. And as long as we have poor people, poor people will need accessible housing. As things stand now, housing in all US cities tends to be economically segregated. With residents of the Marina going absolutely apoplectic over the arrival of housing for homeless youth in that neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine full economic integration happening any time soon. This means that we *need* neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin for poor people. Shaw’s vision of a bleached-toothed neighborhood of yoga-practicing IT professionals cannot, ultimately, be a Tenderloin comprised of the same people who live here now. That doesn’t mean that conditions cannot change: We of the Tenderloin need real solutions for bathrooms, for addiction, for bedbugs, for irresponsible landlords, for domestic violence, for youth who don’t have room to play or do homework, for cultural alienation between people who don’t share a language, for unemployment, for poverty. And we can create those solutions.
This is not unprecedented: In the first part of the 20th Century, when unemployment was even more daunting than it is now, poor people pushed the Federal government to create jobs. Through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, we addressed unemployment nationally, and stimulated the economy through the creation of work and the production of expendable income. These efforts, combined with the production demands of the Second World War and the post-War period, brought one of the world’s biggest countries out of the weakest era in its economic history. The solutions for the 2010s may be very different from the solutions for the 1930s. But what has not changed is that those solutions need to come from us, and not from a resident of the Berkeley Hills who wants to recreate our neighborhood in his own suburban image.