Seizing space - Page 3

How Rebar and other artsy renegades reignited a movement to reclaim the urban environment
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The Parkcycle from Parking Day
Photo by Andrea Scher

It's also about moving from those short-lived installations to something a little more lasting, even while working within the realm of temporary projects. As Aguilera said, "A lot of the projects we started with were creating moments to maybe think about. But we're shifting into more permanent ways to interact with the city."

They may not be sure where they're headed as an organization, but they have a clear conception of their canvas, as well as the traditions they draw from (including movements like the Situationists and artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, who worked in urban niche spaces) and the fact that they are part of an emerging international movement to reclaim and redesign urban spaces.

"We're not the originators of any of this stuff," Bela said. "It's like emerging phenomena happening in cities all over the world. We just happened to have plugged into it early on and we continue to push it."

 

EXPANDING THE POSSIBLE

Rebar is strongly pushing a reclamation of spaces that have been rather thoughtlessly ceded to the automobile over the last few decades. "Street right-of-way is 25 percent of the city's land area. A quarter of the city is streets," Bela said. "And those streets were designed at the time when we wanted to privilege the automobile.

"So basically, there's all this underutilized roadway," he continued. "It's asphalt and it's pavement, and the city wants to reclaim some of those spaces for people. That's a thread we've been exploring in our work for a long time, and now it's elevated up to a citywide planning objective."

The short-term nature of the projects comes in part from political necessity: temporary projects are usually exempt from costly, time-consuming environmental impact reports. Demonstration projects also don't need the extensive public input that permanent changes do in San Francisco. But there's more to the philosophy.

"It stands on this proposition that temporary or interim use does actually improve the character of the city," Passmore said. "People used to think that if something is temporary or ephemeral, what good is it? It's just here today, gone tomorrow. But I think now people are realizing that the city can be improved like this."

And it goes even deeper than that. When people see parking spaces turned into parks, vacant lots blossoming with art and conversation nooks, or old freeway ramps turned into community gardens, their sense of what's possible in San Francisco expands.

"What we're remodeling is people's mental hardware. It's like stretching. You have to bend something a little more than it wants to go, and the next time you do that, it's that much easier," Merker said.

"There's also a psychological aspect to that. When people see a crack in the Matrix open up, if you will, it can open up a whole lot more than just that one moment," he said.

For those who have been working on urbanism issues in San Francisco for a long time, like Livable City director Tom Radulovich, this new energy and the tactic of conditioning people with temporary projects is a welcome development. "There is a huge resistance to change in San Francisco, no matter what the change is, and a lot of that stems from fear," Radulovich said. But with temporary projects, he said, "you can establish what success looks like from the outset."

 

BUILDING ALLIANCES

The Rebar folks have been fairly savvy in their approach, making key friends inside City Hall, people who have helped them bridge the gap between their idealism and what's possible in San Francisco.

"We are a process-driven city, and temporary allows you to create change without fear," Farrah told us. He said the partnership between the Mayor's Office and community groups that want to do cool, temporary public art really began in the summer of 2005 with the Temple at Hayes Green by longtime Burning Man temple builder, David Best.