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Part III- San Francisco's Public Space During COVID-19: Castro Parklet Experience

The city's color, characters, and vibrancy can all be felt from outdoor dining. COVID-19 removed our ability to dine outdoors, but San Francisco’s quick response to keep business’ afloat and give people a chance to dine, has created an explosion of outdoor dining. As I write this in early September there are over 1,000 ‘shared spaces’ parklets that have been built. What is it like to experience one? How is it the same or different than dining pre-COVID? How do restaurant owners feel about the shared spaces, parklet program? Read below to find out.

Le Marais Bakery is on Sanchez and 18th St, where The Castro meets The Mission. I sat in the light blue, aqua parklet, admiring how nice and comfortable the situation feels during an uncomfortable time. The parklet has lights hanging from the top of the street-facing wall. The partition to the street looks like it was painted just in the last 4 weeks-no marks, no character, no history, a virgin, black sheep in a neighborhood full of promiscuity.

Beneath the stringed lights are plants; lilac, and lavender based on appearance. I stand up to look over to see how they were planted. Not well. An obvious metaphor for both San Franciscans and communities around the world during COVID-19: shock, and bare minimum support. They look like they were just taken out of their pots and placed on top of the soil with no additional potting or nurturing. I hope they survive, but if they stay like this, untucked, ungrounded, not able to spread their roots-I fear they will not.

Dogs are a signature part of San Francisco.

They are allowed almost everywhere and it feels like everyone has one but me. “It’s dog alley”, a woman jokingly says to

her girlfriend as they get funneled by a big dog and a little dog chasing their tails on the sidewalk. Shortly after I’m greeted by Dexter, one of the cutest corgis I’ve ever seen. A blonde woman appearing in her early 30s and her golden retriever pop up to the cafe and speak to the kind man who also took my order. “I called ahead”, she says. She waits and waits for her order. While she waits the golden retriever instinctually begins retrieving...something. He abruptly got up, took off, dragging the two of them, their chair, and the table inside the restaurant. She was embarrassed and angry, mostly at the dog. But you could tell probably a little at herself. Indeed it was dog alley. It felt like a normal dog filled, San Francisco, Sunday.

The only eco-friendly and sustainable item that was brought to me was the compostable straw for my orange juice; in contrast, everything else was brought to me in plastic, single-use items including the juice’s cup, the bag my food wasdelivered in, and the box wrapping the salad and croissant-avocado-egg-creme fraiche sandwich I had. This makes sense as the CDC recommends using disposable items (utensils, dishes, napkins, tablecloths). However, Politico found, “Stanford University epidemiologist Steven Goodman said, ‘reusable tableware should be as safe as disposable as long as restaurant staff takes proper precautions.’ He goes on in the virus killing power between handwashing and dishwasher, ‘It doesn't sound like there should be a big difference if they're handled carefully,’ he said. ‘Washing the plates well should get rid of [the virus], and so the only difference could be how they're handled between the time when they are on the table and in the sink or in the washing machine.’ He noted that there could be a potential difference between hand-washing plates and using a dishwasher if virus particles somehow became aerosolized.” I attempt to enjoy my lunch, but it's hard for me to enjoy knowing that most of the food plates waste won’t be recycled.

“I (croissant in the shape of a heart) SF” is painted on the side of Le Marais. A couple sits in the seats below it and takes a selfie. Everyone who is sitting down, 10 people including myself, are all wearing masks except a group of three 20-something aged women who look like they’ve been here for hours. They are two tables away from me in the parklet, which has four tables and takes up three parking spaces. I notice once someone or a group stays somewhere long enough there isn’t any urgency in putting their mask back on. It seems once someone is somewhere long enough a sense of invincibility and detachment from reality starts to develop. I’ve felt it too. Relaxing and being on guard just don’t go together.

Cliche french jazz plays in the background. A fresh, crisp day is on its way.

The hills of Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower are in my front view, as I face west. I can see the fog trying to spread further into the city, but it is burned off by the time I finish my croissant. (Yes..!) I am thankful that I have some sunshine in early August in San Francisco. The real sunflowers on each table are a nice touch. For a moment I forget we’re in a pandemic and that I’m wearing a mask. A flamboyant couple walks by, looking at the menu in the window, switching between Spanish and English tongue. They decide to go somewhere else.

Two women who just finished their bike ride sit down at the table next to me. They take pictures of their food and their masks switch from off to on and off again. One of them mentions she listens to NYtimes “The Daily” and “Up First” from NPR. I feel connected because I know those podcasts. Her friend has a tote that says Penn State on the side

A homeless woman who is clearly, extremely disturbed, makes a golem-like screech. Everyone pauses. Serenity disturbed. I found that The Guardian reported back in May on how the COVID crisis has affected the already existing homeless crisis, “Tents have sprung up throughout San Francisco’s 49 sq miles since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, but in the Tenderloin, the number of tents had exploded by 285% – 268 tents total” While I was far from the tenderloin, for a moment, we were all reminded of the homeless crisis in San Francisco.

One hour into my parklet experience the 11th table was occupied by a middle-aged man, who puffed on his vape pen. The restaurant has four tables that can sit three per table in the parklet and seven tables that sit just by the restaurant on the sidewalk that can seat two people.

I emailed the manager of Le Marais Cafe, Patrick Ascaso, to get his take on their parklet. I found that it was built just two weeks before I sat down and it took three days to build. When I asked how the restaurant’s business has been, he responded with, “[The outdoor space] helps us tremendously. I do hope we get to keep it after COVID-19.” He went on to say, “I think this is a great program that the city started and I am very grateful that the city executed it quickly.”

The roar of skateboard wheels on the street echoes and ascends as they roll down the hill towards me. The rider boldly takes a bite of his breakfast as he skates by. He didn’t need a parklet to have his breakfast, but I needed it to be able to see him.

Check out Le Marais's Instagram for the latest and greatest eats.

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