Monday, March 23, 2009

San Francisco - The Mission

It seems that every city and town from San Francisco south and all the way east to El Paso had some sort of Mission District, Mission Hill, Mission Valley, Mission Street...etc. We were lucky enought to stay in the San Francisco Mission District which turned out to be a very interesting place. As it happened, it was our first true city stay since we were in Chicago. If you'll recall, Chicago was typified by large blocks of residential areas with a grid of commercial areas around them. By contrast, the Mission is a collection of long, thin strips of commercial areas with similarly long, thin strips of residential areas in between them.Just by form alone, this was a new kind of place for us. The development of these sorts of near-by strips was likely a result of the frequent stops of a streetcar line along a main roads as opposed to the distant stops of subways. One of the most interesting aspects of these strips were their independent character and functionality. Valencia Street for example, runs just 500 feet parallel to Mission Street yet has its own unique character and feel.

While staying on Valencia Street, we witnessed a public display of one of the rarest actions in cities; the public got its way. Two doors down from the apartment building we were staying in, American Apparel had posted a massive sign in an empty storefront, appealing to an unwilling community for support in their bid to open up shop along Valencia St. In 2006, San Francisco began a tedious certification process for new chain stores opening up in the city. Most stores, especially those like American Apparel (kind of progressive), are granted approval.

The residents of Valencia St were not keen on the idea of a major retailer moving onto their block though. They were proud of the myriad of local shops that had taken decades to establish themselves on the street and they'd be damned if they'd have to bask in the glow of American Apparel's ever-burning high-intensity fluorescent lights. If you're interested in urban activism, and how a healthy neighborhood flexes its power, read this entire blog, it details the unfolding efforts to stop the new shop from moving in. Over the course of 20 days, an entire neighborhood was able to mobilize sufficiently to prevent one of the nations largest retailers from opening up shop in a vacant building. That's a symptom of a pretty good city. For those out there that think that this was a stupid issue, consider that the people who live in a place had some say in defining it. That is far more important that any single issue. Moving on...

A distance that gets kicked around a lot is 1/5 of a mile. According to research (hmmm), that's about the distance that most people are willing to walk to get somewhere. Those 1000 or so feet are used to design and layout New Urbanist developments across the country. There were probably at least a dozen coffee shops within that radius from where we were staying yet every morning we went to the same one that was two doors down. As it turns out, convenience knows no limits. If there had been a coffee shop on the floor we were staying on, we would have gone there instead.

As planners begin to try and provide conveniences to residents by zoning in special use areas, they misunderstand how people relate to use and space. For example, a coffee shop 1/5 of a mile away gets added to the "places to go" mental file, but not to the "place you're buying" file. A coffee shop downstairs means you don't even have to get dressed to go there, it's an extension of your house. That adds to the price people are willing to pay. But enough about density and convenience.

The Mission is an economically and ethnically mixed neighborhood, to the benefit of all. The variety of retail options was astounding, from a high end health food store to vendors hawking produce on the street and from $4 burritos to $9 burritos. This district exemplified the benefits of living in a city.One thing that struck me as I first began wandering around the Mission was the wideness of the main streets. Mission Street, pictured above, is an enormous street. Valencia Street was so wide that it seemed planners didn't know what to do with all the space; the bicycle lane was 10' wide! All my thoughts about cities would have left me thinking that with so much street, you couldn't get sufficient density to support such lively districts. As I continued to explore, the answer became clear.It was the incredible density of the residential areas--tall, modest homes set along narrow little streets--that allowed enough people to live in close proximity to these districts to make them functional. Even with the wide main streets, the districts are compact and dense enough to support some of the old-school sorts of freight delivery.These people care about their neighborhood, and one of the easiest ways to tell is from the murals that adorned any exposed and undecorated building surface.The climate and wealth of the place make it an excellent place to paint, even the trucks have a pretty amazing look to them. If this is how all automobiles looked, I think I might be more supportive of them.

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