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Part II-San Francisco's Public Space during COVID-19: North Beach

As I indulge my strong sip of foamy milk and espresso, the dopamine of sunshine, music, and people being together hits like a lightning bolt! Latin guitar plays from the restaurant outdoor speakers. The old man sitting in front of me who looks like he was a teenager during WWII, gets out of his outdoor seat and wanders off, presumably to his rent-controlled apartment in North Beach, San Francisco. His cane gives him support. His seat is almost immediately replaced by opposing energy.

A woman in her 30s pulls up to the table on her electric snowboard meets skateboard, uni-wheel, scooter (we’ll call her scooter woman). A clash of generations touched by the same seat within seconds. I offer to watch her scooter while she and her girlfriend go to order coffee inside.

I’m bordered by a sidewalk to my right, and Columbus Ave. to my left, in what feels like perfect weather I check my phone to see what it says the temperature is, and it feels super inaccurate 60 degrees. It but feels like 72.

I feel thankful that I live in a city that has public parklets, I ponder how the noticeable increase in all types of parklets

will impact San Francisco’s economy and environment. The transformation is happening at lightspeed, and the people all around me are commenting on it as well. A triad consisting of two middle-aged women and one man comment on how the Calzones Pizza Cucina (across the street from us) is making their own parklet. The parklet has a white picket fence bounding the seats and partitions from the other side of Columbus Ave. Freshly sawed pillars of what look like Oak add height to the unused partitioned seats and tablespaces. The owners are setting up, likely for the lunch and dinner crowd as it is 11:30 am.

The scooter woman returns from ordering and says thank you. We joke about how it was no problem and comment on how nice it is outside. Scooter woman and her girlfriend agree that it is much warmer than 60. She looks to her girlfriend and says, “It feels so weird to be outside with a mask off.” Scooter woman takes a glance at the recently constructed parklet (Same parklet as the group of three behind me) across the street. Words like “city” and “permits” leave her mouth.

As I take another sip of my treat-yo-self latte and a bite of my Belgium waffle.The passers-by never fails to remind me that I’m in San Francisco. A young couple walks by holding hands. The man wears a black shirt with white writing that says “Sorry about our President” in English and the phrase repeats in about 30 different languages below. A man who works for the city walks by in his neon orange a yellow construction vest, picking up trash with long tongs.

Returning my overactive mind to this piece’s purpose, I question the direction I want to take this parklet piece. Should I interview the group of three behind me? I get inspired. I take a last gulp of coffee, realizing my potential interviewees may get up to leave soon. What will I ask them? I write on my receipt paper potential questions, “I heard you talking about the parklet across the street. What are your thoughts on these? Do you think these should be here for good?”

My heart begins to race. Is it the two shots of espresso (which I know makes my heart race), or is it just my nerves? Maybe both? Now is my chance. Swoosh, here I go. As we all act normal in our incognito look of masks and sunglasses I speak with Susan, Jay, and Anette.

Susan has lived in San Francisco for 42 years. She currently resides in the Dogpatch neighborhood. When I asked her what her thoughts are on the dramatic uptick in parklets since the COVID lockdown, she responded about the real estate and appearance of the parklets. “We were talking about how much space they take up.” She adds, “Some look tacky.”

Annette, who has stopped counting the years she’s lived here and just says when she moved here, “1968”, cut in and said, “I just worry what will happen when it (hopefully) rains in the winter.” Rhetorically, she asks, “How will they survive in the wetter and colder months?” I nod and agree, and Susan says, “Just the other day at another restaurant I had to bring my blanket.” We all laugh and joke about the classically windy and chilly San Francisco summer days.

I turn to Jay, who has lived in San Francisco for 58 years. “What do you think about the outdoor seats extending to the streets, and removing car parking?” With no hesitation and convinced certainty, Jay responds, “F*ck the parking.” All four of us give a laugh and everyone leans in to hear what else Jay will say. Jay was really curious about how much it costs to make these outdoor parklets. Jay got out his iPhone and started googling costs, like a natural. Jay debated on whether we’re actually sitting on one, and I pointed to the sign that says ‘public parklet’. He was ambivalent to admit that we were on a city, public, parklet. We were. He wants to get a sense of how much owners are spending on these. Susan added some thoughts. “I saw on my Instagram the other day that Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights raised $17,500 from GoFundMe, to build an outdoor seating area.” We all gasped and debated whether it looked like it was worth 17K. Check out Pinhole to see the GoFundMe and design page to see more.

The last topic we discussed was about the environmental effects of the single-use serving items. While the latte and Belgian waffle with banana, walnuts, and whip cream I had were delicious, all of it was served in to-go containers with plastic utensils. I couldn’t help but feel guilty and contradictory toward my own environmental ethics by partaking in ordering from the restaurant. I asked if any of them knew why they were served this way which led to Jay commenting on the fact that he wouldn’t eat anywhere that had dishes, for the obvious sanitary and health concerning reasons. Susan was surprised, “Really?” Susan brought up the fact that garbage has been piling up in North Beaches’ infamous Tony’s Pizza area. “The city has added more garbage cans”, said Susan. Anette evoked sincere disappointment in the idea of trash building up from going to restaurants. Susan said, “Yes but humans are social, we need to be together.”

I decided to interject and get us to refocus with the following: “It seems like there is so much changing so quickly, good and bad. Do you think the parklets will stay for the long term? Do you like them? Do you think they will be here in 5 years?” Susan responded, “Well thanks to the city allowing these to be able to quickly pop up, it gives restaurants a chance, which is great. I’m not too worried about 5 years from now. It is uncomfortable and we can’t go back to the way things were. We all have to do things differently.”

Thank you Jay, Suzanne, and Anette! & Thanks to Cafe Greco for then pen, paper, and public parklet.

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1 Comment

Sep 03, 2020

Hi Kala -- Great to hear what you are up to! The term "parklet" is new to me, but not the concept. The best example down her on the peninsula is downtown Mountain View which narrowed the major downtown street (Castro) removing lots of parking and letting dining take place in the territory formerly used for parking spaces.

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