According to the city, by 2015 Market Street will be reborn as the culmination of a four-year public process called the Better Market Street Project. So, since the beginning September the artist collaborative called Studio for Urban Projects has been staging a series of interventions along Market to engage the public in the street’s potential futures, with the the support of SPUR and SFMTA. They’ve called this series of public events Reclaim Market Street!, and have paired them with an an exhibition showcasing similarly experimental urban planning projects in other cities, such as Paris, Bogotá and New York. The main premise behind Reclaim Market Street! is that “artists can be provocative agents in helping us to re-imagine our cities”, and particularly a street that “needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space”.
As part of this series, last Saturday I checked out an interesting Sidewalk Intervention event. It included a Listening Booth at the UN Plaza in which people were encouraged to sit down and to listen to an attentive listener for five minutes to emphasize “brightening effect of being listened to” (my mother would agree). There was also what looked like a little mobile parklet by the fecal fountain, but which was called Urban Hedgerow, hosting discussions on how to create “wild, unmanaged green veins throughout San Francisco made of hedges, sidewalk gardens, treetops and stream corridors — thoroughfares for songbirds, pollinators and other urban wildlife”. A bit further between 5th and 6th streets, by the defunct St Francis Theater soon-to-become the CityPlace Mall, passersby were invited to collectively imagine a new Market Street through play, humor, and dialogue through changing the messages on the former theater’s marquee. And last but not least, a collective sweeping took place in front of GAFFTA, where people were invited to take a group broom and help clean up the street — transforming the simple act of sweeping into a public dance event.
It was a sunny and fun day, but after spending a couple of hours hanging out with the different artists who were struggling to involve the passersby into their sidewalk actions, I couldn’t help but wonder (like I’ve wondered before with projects like this) if art is actually enough to revitalize a place like Mid-Market. I keep thinking that a lot more needs to happen. Of course, the city is doing more than art (ie payroll tax exemption), but it seems that a lot of emphasis — and money– is being put on public art projects that are hardly achieving anything. They definitely help and make the area more enjoyable while the murals/performances/actions lasts, but afterwards the vacancy rates of awesome historic buildings remain, the street keeps being dirty and the overall socioeconomic problems preventing its development are still there. So why is the transformation of Mid-Market, à la Times Square in New York, so elusive?
Would love to hear your opinions, though, so rant away in the comments.