On its fifth anniversary, Sunday Streets offers a lesson in urban experimentation

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View from the last Sunday Streets, in the Western Addition on Sept. 8.
Courtesy of Sunday Streets

It’s hard to believe that Sunday Streets -- San Francisco’s version of the ciclovia, or temporary closure of streets to cars as a way of opening up more urban space for pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, performers, and loungers -- is five years old. It’s even harder to believe that this family-friendly event was once controversial, especially feared by the businesses that now clamor to hold them in their neighborhoods.

But it was, and that’s a great reminder that ideas that disrupt the status quo and seem quite radical and unsettling can embody just what The City needs to feel like, well, a city, a place with people mix and mingle and get to know one another in the streets, strips that can become important social spaces and not simply conduits for cars.

“Sunday Streets provides the opportunity for recreation and activity in neighborhoods all across San Francisco,” Sunday Streets Director Susan King of Livable City told us. “Each community it’s in is helped with health and economic benefits and the easing of community cohesion.”

This Tuesday, Sept. 17, the folks from Sunday Streets will be hosting a fundraiser and celebration at Cityview, atop the Metreon, in honor of the hard work that has been put into various Sunday Streets events around the city throughout the years. The event will feature speeches, snacks, an open bar, a raffle, live entertainment, and other hoopla.

Among those being honored at the event will Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who as mayor worked with alternative transportation activists from Livable City (the event’s main sponsor), the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and other groups -- including a large contingent that attended the first ciclovia in the US, in Portland, during the Toward Carfree Cites conference in 2008 (which we at the Guardian covered) -- to create Sunday Streets.

At the time, the business-friendly Newsom stood up to opposition from merchants in Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39, and both progressive and conservative supervisors looking for a way to tweak the mayor, to help become one of the first cities in the US adopt the ciclovia model that had been pioneered in Bogota, Columbia, and which has now spread to cities around the world.
“We really have to thank former Mayor Gavin Newsom for instigating Sunday Streets,” King said. “Without him, Sunday Streets in San Francisco wouldn’t exist.”

First hosted in the late summer of 2008, King has overseen Sunday Streets since its inception, hustling up fiscal sponsors and volunteer support like a whirling dervish the whole time. 

“There’s so much that goes into Sunday Streets,” King said. “I had no idea that it would get to where it is now.”

The anniversary event costs $50 and lasts from to 6 to 10 p.m. Proceeds will go to future Sunday Streets events.

This year there have been Sunday Streets in a handful of neighborhoods, making appearances in the Embarcadero, Mission, Bayview, Great Highway, Tenderloin, and Western Addition. There are two more Sunday Streets scheduled this year in the Excelsior (Sept. 29) and the Richmond (Oct. 27) districts.