South Park, Aerial View
Nearby Brannan Street, San Francisco
Here are several views of the South Park neighborhood in San Francisco where PUBLIC is headquartered. Depending on one’s point of view, it can be seen as an urban oasis in the industrial SOMA area, or an unaesthetic parking lot. The neighborhood has an amazing history, having morphed from a snooty residential community in 1855, to a center for the Japanese American community in the early 20th century. It later became a manufacturing center and then a destination for vagrants and drug addicts until the dotcom boom helped turn it into what it is today: an elegant and eclectic meeting place for the community (and a velodrome for PUBLIC bikes).
There are many ways to get perspective on how the modern world has shaped our cities. One of the most entertaining and elucidating angles is to read Walkable City, a new book by Jeff Speck. I wrote a lengthy review for PUBLIC, but I don’t mind being mildly redundant with this post, as the book deserves it. Jeff makes a compelling case for the pedestrian friendly nature of our communities being key to our well-being and survival as a species.
If you take a copy of Jeff’s book to your local downtown area, situate yourself in a café or (weather permitting) on a bench somewhere and read the first 50 pages while periodically looking up and noticing what’s going on around you - the width of the sidewalks, the number of lanes in the street, the parking, the mix of stores and cafés, how fast the cars are going, how many people are on foot or bike – you’ll receive a unique and invaluable urbanist education. You will also be entertained. Jeff is witty, provocative, and appropriately irreverent.
And the book is rich in anecdotes and examples that are not obvious to most of us. For example, the “white flight” from cities in the mid-20th century has been countered with “bright flight” back to the cities in the 21st century. Young educated people are increasingly moving to cities for the opportunities and lifestyle it provides. (South Park being a quintessential example.) Speck cites many explanations for this, an amusing example being the influence of the media. Television programs in the 1950’s through the 1980’s that dealt with cities typically focused on crime and violence: Hill Street Blues, Streets of San Francisco, Dragnet. Movies like Taxi Driver were epic. Fast-forward thirty years and the popular urban television shows are Friends, Sex in the City, and Seinfeld, movies like When Harry Met Sally. And the current influential media - digital search - celebrates finding and enjoying restaurants, café’s, bars and all things urban and social.
For an acoustic introduction, listen to Jeff on NPR Weekend Edition.