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.

Comments

Don't fuck with Susan King.

Unlikely coalitions are good things, selling out your soul for cash is not.

Political cooties attach to an action, not to the person, unless everything they do is cootie producing.

If it takes working with corporations and ugly corporate sponsorship to build a coalition capable of closing a few streets for a few days each year, then unless you're conceding to corporations on other issues, that cost is worth demonstrating to folks what a car-free street can be like.

Susan King is no Roberta Achtenberg.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Apr. 14, 2009 @ 10:52 am

How is this any different from Gay Pride week? Both events cost money - money that you are not going to find unless you have wealthy private sponsorship.

Yeah it sucks, but that's kinda how the world works folks. I think it's completely fair to criticise, but the alternative is what? Not do anything? Hope that the city of SF will pay for everything with tax money (at the same time that we're in a long-term recession)?

I guess I'm not hearing a well thought out alternative plan.

Posted by Matt in SF on Apr. 13, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

Susan King selling out for a few pennies? who knew?

duh.

why you even take her seriously, or why she is put in charge of anything is a mystery.

she shouldn't be organizing a 2 bike parade, much less something like this. But hey, Lennar and PG and E wanna pay up, so let's let them take over the event. How much you wanna bet my bike with "public power now" plastered on it will be allowed to participate.

ah, progressives. the local version of the Democrat party...selling out for the rubber stamp of approval from Corporate America. Rincon Hill FTW!

Posted by susan king sells out on Apr. 12, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

In analysing the issue of corporate sponsorship, it's important to consider the vast amounts of damage PG$E & the Lennar Corp. do on a daily basis to the very communities Sunday Streets are supposed to benefit most: the BVHP residents whose neighborhood adjoins the stretch of the Embarcadero that will be closed down. Its proximity to the Bayview was supposedly why Mayor Newsom chose to close the Embarcadero rather than streets closer to the Downtown core. Not that he preferred to push car-free festivities to the outer reaches of the city where they would cause the least amount of inconvenience to motorists -- oh, no, that wasn't it. It was so the street closures would be located in a place where lower-income black kids would have a chance to easily participate. For this reason the choice of Lennar & PG$E as sponsors of this event particularly rankles.

Here is my question: is the benefit to overweight Bayview kids who can now recreate in the middle of the street for a few car-free hours a year greater than whatever benefit will accrue to PG$E and Lennar by having their logos attached to such a green, environmentally benign event? Or is the benefit greater to the corporations, in terms of how much they can now use this event to greenwash their image? Also, which is greater, the amount of benefit these few car-free hours a year confer on the Bayview, or how much serious damage PG$E and Lennar do there every single day, day in, day out, by stubbornly refusing to run their companies in ways that aren't deadly to the residents of the communities where their power plants are located?

Given their sordid history in the Bayview, it seems incredibly cynical and opportunistic for Lennar and PG$E to even offer to sponsor these events, and really naive for the local non-profits who organize Sunday Streets to accept their offer. There is no pride in making underprivileged black kids unwitting pawns in the next PG$E greenwashing campaign. One more time when a so-called "leftist victory" in S.F. ends up leaving a very bad taste in my mouth.

Posted by Katherine Roberts on Apr. 12, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

Brian:

If "corporate goons" help people get to public space... well, then it's not public space, especially as this "help" includes a huge branding effort with visuals, identification tie-ins during media interviews and so on.

From the other things you say I assume you know what "greenwashing" is.

As I understand one of the main issues with local, organic farmers is that produce sold by the big chains could come from farmers who receive reduced profits in a situation which they would not be able to control. For some of them and many environmentalists, the distance the food travels to the consumer is also important. Not all organic food is equal, i.e. some of it is less sustainable than others.

I DO like what you say about pushing the boundaries.

Finally, what Susan King doesn't seem to understand is that when institutional powers in an unsustainable society get closely involved with something, it is no longer progressive.

Posted by Todd Edelman, Green Idea Factory on Apr. 12, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

clear channel got chris daly re-elected so it is not evil.

Posted by pokemon on Apr. 11, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

Steve,

The Portland Ciclovia was sponsored by George Bush's EPA. Hard to find a less "green" organization than that.

I'm gonna side with Susan King on this one. The more mainstream the better. If people come ride bikes on SF streets for the first time and feel safe, maybe they will come out for bike to work day and eventually join the crowd who have decided to live car-free.

The thing about public space is you have to have programs that get people out for the first time. If corporate goons help this happen, I'm thrilled.

Your argument reminds me of the consernation local organic farmers felt when WalMart and Safeway started including organic veggies. If you are a working class person living far out in the suburbs with no access to groovy farmers markets, this may be your first chance to buy organic.

Everyone should have access to healthy food.

As they say in the green business world, let's create market share for the sustainable.

Cheers,

- b

P.S. If your favorite street party has become too mainstream, it is your job to creat something even more out there that pushes the envelope.

Naked Sunbathing Day on the Embarcadero, anyone?

Posted by Brian on Apr. 11, 2009 @ 7:29 am

Matt, the Pride Parade is subsidized by the city. It, like several officially favored events that have been around for awhile (including the Haight-Ashbury Street Faire, which has been boring since they banned booze), are not considered "full cost recovery events," so they get cops on the clock rather than having to pay for cops on overtime. New events and those not embraced by City Hall must pay full freight. So, Newsom could have simply waived the fees for Sunday Streets rather than requiring corporate sponsors, but he has shown that he actually prefers the corporate-sponsored model, which dovetails so nicely with his gubernatorial ambitions.

Posted by Steven T. Jones on Apr. 13, 2009 @ 6:13 pm