| Forsaken Landscape Meets Forgotten History
Sep 02, 2009
The Bay may not be far from the Mission or Bernal Heights, but it feels a million miles away. Though drivers can make the trip in no time, walkers and transit users find it easier to get to Oakland. But help may be on the way.
Several blocks of Cesar Chavez east of Highway 101 have no sidewalks or only three feet of walkway, with utility poles smack in the middle. Crosswalks are also lacking. Veritable Vegetable, a distributor of organic produce at Tennessee, has facilities on both sides of Cesar Chavez, and workers constantly cross the street at corners that lack even basic stripes. To cross at a light, they would have to go blocks out of their way. The company petitioned the Municipal Transportation Agency for a crosswalk, but the MTA turned them down.
“The workers at our business, which brings healthy, fresh produce to stores and restaurants in the City, deserve safe streets and sidewalks as much as do the workers along the northern waterfront,” said Veritable’s Peggy da Silva.
Meanwhile, Muni has rebuffed requests for east-west service from the Mission/Bernal to the Potrero/Bayview side of Cesar Chavez, including the freeway interchanges, which can terrify pedestrians. Officials said “the numbers aren’t there,” meaning potential ridership of such a line is questionable. Perhaps few people travel to eastern Cesar Chavez because it is so difficult, however, not because they don’t want to. And new developments may make this corridor more of a destination.
Muni is building a maintenance yard near 280 and Cesar Chavez that will bring an influx of workers who will need someplace to eat and a better way to commute. Also in the pipeline is restoration of the Copra Crane, a labor icon located at the foot of Indiana on Islais Creek, two blocks south of Cesar Chavez.
Labor historian Harvey Schwartz, author of Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU, has been active with the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association (CCLLA) since 1996. He described the origins and current status of the restoration.
“Copra is dried coconut meat,” Schwartz said. “There was a warehouse behind the dock at Pier 84 that used to process copra coming from the Philippines into various products, including animal feed. The feed was put into outbound vessels by the tall mechanism on Islais Creek.
“The longshore workers who removed the copra from incoming vessels and the warehouse processing workers were all International Longshore and Warehouse Union members. Almost all of this work ceased in the mid-1970s. The crane was hand-operated, which makes it unique on the San Francisco waterfront. There’s nothing quite like it left. Naturally, ILWU people got interested in preserving the crane.
“The effort to save it came from a core group consisting of labor folklorist Archie Green, who was a shipwright on the waterfront in 1941, Julia Viera and Robin Chiang of the Friends of Islais Creek, and Bill Ward and Don Watson of the ILWU. We picked up important support from additional unions and the Port of San Francisco, which has ended up being very kind to the CCLLA. In 2006, the ILWU donated a large sum of money to the crane’s preservation, but it will still cost a lot more money. Hopes remain high that the crane will ultimately be preserved as a handsome monument to all of the workers who built and sustained San Francisco.”
The Islais Creek Promenade runs east from the crane, offering unexpected quiet views along the water. It is typically deserted, however, from being in such an out-of-the-way place. The promenade and crane could become an attraction if they were easier to get to.
Bonnie Ora Sherk, an ecologist, educator, and landscape architect with A Living Library/Lifeframes, sees the whole Islais Creek watershed as a crucial connector of many neighborhoods and a major opportunity.
“The water below Chavez, which goes out to the Bay at the Islais Channel near the Copra Crane, provides a key for solving many of the problems in the area,” she said. “The whole street from Noe Valley to Third, including the 101 interchange, is the northernmost frame of the Islais Creek watershed.
“We should look at what was accomplished in Seoul, Korea, when the underground water was daylighted from below tons of concrete roadways, and a green corridor was planted. This magnificent redevelopment brought new life and economic stimulus to a formerly drab, dangerous urban environment. Planners and designers transformed the street, almost unbelievably, into a bucolic, ecologically rich haven. We could and should do something like this along Chavez. The time and opportunity is NOW.”
One group of nonmotorized travelers should have an easier way to reach the Bay soon. The MTA voted in June to create bike lanes on Cesar Chavez from 101 to 280, primarily by restriping unnecessarily wide lanes from 13 to 19 feet wide down to 10 to 12 feet. Car travel lanes eastbound from 101 to Mississippi would be consolidated from two to one, with a dedicated right-turn lane at Evans, where the westbound left-turn lane would also be retained.
Several community organizations, individuals, and local businesses supported the proposal, and no one registered opposition, even though an earlier version had called for removing over 90 parking spaces. The reworked plan reduced this to seven spots, all on the south side just west of Kansas Street. Removal of parking on this block could help smooth the merge of eastbound cyclists into traffic, though the freeway maze itself won’t see any improvement.
The Planning Department, MTA, and Department of Public Works submitted a joint grant application to Caltrans in late spring, however, that would allow for a community design exercise to rethink the 101 interchange, or “hairball,” especially pedestrian and cyclist connections through it, and Cesar Chavez to the east. The application was supported by the mayor’s office, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, State Senator Mark Leno, and State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, as well as local constituent groups and businesses.
“We expect to hear from Caltrans at some point this fall as to whether this project was selected for funding,” said Andres Power of Planning.
Eastern Cesar Chavez isn’t a pretty stretch, and its essential industrial uses will keep it from looking like the typical neighborhood street. But it is slowly becoming a bit more accessible, and a great deal of interesting work is going on down there.
Fran Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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