Reclaim San Francisco’s corporate-sponsored public spaces

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By Steven T. Jones

I love the idea of temporarily closing streets to cars and transforming them into open space, a concept known as cicolovia that San Francisco has adopted under the moniker Sunday Streets and which now take place in Portland, Miami and New York City, as well as a host of foreign cities where the idea began many years ago.

Last year, the Guardian heavily promoted the first Sunday Streets events and even defended Mayor Gavin Newsom against attacks from supervisors and business interests for supporting them. This year, the first of six Sunday Streets is coming up on April 26. But after looking through the details of this year’s corporate-sponsored events, I’m having a hard time summoning much enthusiasm for them.

San Francisco is slowly becoming a place where it takes corporate backing just to throw a simple street party, or even to ride your Big Wheel down the street, and where failure to fill out the proper forms and display the sponsors’ logos will get you shut down by the cops.

At a time when San Francisco city policies are squeezing out homegrown, community-organized events such as the How Weird Street Faire, Halloween in the Castro, flash mobs, and this weekend’s Bring Your Own Big Wheel event – and letting corporations like AEG sanitize venerable traditions like Bay to Breakers -- it’s unsettling to see Sunday Streets brought to you by some of the most villainous corporations in town, including PG&E, Lennar, WebCor Builders, and Clear Channel Entertainment, and laid out as a promotional tool for the very Fisherman’s Wharf merchants who opposed it last year.

This is a tough one for me, as well as some of the progressive individuals and groups who are helping make Sunday Streets happen this year, including Livable City, Walk SF, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, all which are publicly calling on members to volunteer while privately admitting that there are some unsettling tradeoffs this year.

Yes, it costs money to close streets, money that the city and community event promoters just don’t have right now. But what does it say about San Francisco when we need to rely big corporations in order to use and enjoy our public spaces?

Of course, that’s not the only way to look at this, particularly when one’s goal is to push the envelope on seizing back space from cars. Susan King, a Green Party member helping to organize Sunday Streets for Livable City, acknowledged my point-of-view but said that it’s a step forward when institutional powers are willing to help with progressive goals.

“It really mainstreams the concept of carfree spaces,” she told me, noting that directing traffic through and around the street closures is a complicated effort that will cost between $40,000 and $50,000 per event. “The costs are associated with how difficult it is to take a roadway and repurpose it.”

But in New York, Portland, and Miami, the city covers some of those costs, making corporate sponsorship less crucial and pervasive. The thing I loved about the ciclovia in Portland that I attended last year was its community feel, the parties in its parks rather than its malls, and the lack of overt corporate sponsorship. And when I heard the father of ciclovias from Columbia, Gil Penalosa, talk about what this was about, it was about the people seizing back public spaces.

Yet in San Francisco, the people aren’t enough. Apparently, we still need the corporations to subsidize the popular will.