The neighborhood near City Hall was blighted for years, thanks to an ill-considered double-decker freeway. When the overpass came down, the area sprang to life. But given San Franciso's runaway development, can it stay as nice as it is right now?

Statue in Hayes Valley park.
Credit: Getty Images

One of my favorite places in San Francisco is Patricia’s Green, a pocket park in the neighborhood of Hayes Valley. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon there, not far from a lacy wooden pagoda built by an artist who has erected and incinerated similar structures at Burning Man. I ate freshly mixed blood orange ice cream and watched people read, gossip, and push strollers and bikes.

It would be easy to ridicule this scene and its privileges. The median price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,500 a month, the highest in the country. In this capital of income inequality, middle-class residents live in terror of eviction. The homeless population has exploded.

Did I mention that my ice cream had bits of pistachio cookie mixed into it?

I should also mention that it came from Smitten, one of a cluster of small, independent businesses set up in shipping containers next to the park. And that Patricia’s Green is named after the late Patricia Walkup, founder of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, who fought for the removal of a double-decker freeway spur that for years darkened and endangered the neighborhood. Once that hulking piece of infrastructure was finally dismantled, cafes and public art projects replaced drugs and prostitution.

The situation in Hayes Valley isn’t perfect. It has also become one big construction site for new housing, much of it unaffordable. But right now the neighborhood is at that sweet spot where the benefits of gentrification outweigh the costs.

Located near City Hall, Hayes Valley started as a 19th century resort, to which urbanites escaped by train. Over the decades it was absorbed into San Francisco proper and received an influx of low-income residents. The area’s relative poverty made it vulnerable to mid-20th-century urban planners eager to build an extensive highway network across the Bay Area. While more affluent neighborhoods resisted, Hayes Valley was bisected in 1959 with a segment of the 40-foot-high mile-long Central Freeway. One local reporter recently recalled it as a “pollution and crime-spewing blight” that residents likened to the Berlin Wall.

It took an act of God to change things: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which damaged the Central Freeway. After more than a decade of community activism and two Propositions, the elevated highway was replaced in 2005 by a tree-lined boulevard that ends at Patricia’s Green.

This wasn’t the only silver lining of the quake. It also toppled the Embarcadero Freeway, a blight for more than 30 years on San Francisco’s picturesque skyline. In 1985, the city council actually voted to tear it down, but only succeeded after it was damaged by the temblor. Now that it’s gone, the 1898 Ferry Building has once become again the jewel of the city’s waterfront, renovated with shops, restaurants, and a farmer’s market.

Demolishing the Embarcadero Freeway
The demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway led to the present-day renaissance of the waterfront around the San Francisco Ferry Building.
| Credit: Getty Images

I get exhausted thinking about the brute forces—human and seismic—that are needed to erase the poor decisions of urban planners. When highways carve up cities, the built environment defaults to the job of moving vehicles through it, and its scale becomes huge, concrete, and alien. Highway overpasses create dead zones below that can easily become hellholes.

Emily Fishbaine, a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design, is appalled by the place where I-95 slices through downtown Providence, connecting to Route 6 in a jumble of linguine. Steps away from pedestrian-friendly blocks, she finds desolate, weed-choked patches, routes leading nowhere, and the roaring sound of traffic overhead. For her Master’s thesis, she is exploring ways to soften the impact of the interchange and give it a human scale. She has toyed with putting green spaces below overpasses, decorating the brutal surfaces with artworks and light shows, and even designing walking tours through the forbidding environment.

Fishbaine points out that however much of a bully infrastructure can be, it is far from permanent. A half-century has passed since I-95 was built, and with repairs needed, she sees an opportunity to better integrate it into the urban fabric. “The ravages of time—that’s our earthquake,” she says. But she doubts the city will feel enough pressure to produce an alternative. A provisional overpass will probably be built and traffic rerouted there until a replacement is completed. Downtown Providence is no Hayes Valley.

Hayes Valley may not be Hayes Valley either, once its open spaces are filled with lucrative housing. Smitten and its shipping-container neighbors (including a juice bar and a bicycle rental business) in the city-owned lot at Hayes Street and Octavia Boulevard are part of the Proxy project, which was created with the idea of impermanence. The website of Envelope A+D, the architecture studio that designed it, refers to the cluster of commercial and cultural venues as a “placeholder.” What the earthquake contributed to this friendly, small-scale environment, the 2008 economic crisis furthered by momentarily arresting development. The Proxy project was granted only a three-year stay when it leased the property from the city, but its foothold has been extended until 2021. In geological time, that’s an instant. In ice cream time, it’s eternity.

Follow Julie on Twitter at @julielasky1.