Saturday, June 1, 2013

Polk Street: On Corridors and Community

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers several definitions for  “corridor.”  While some are metaphorical (“the corridors of power”), the physical emphasis is on a travelled path, such as “a usually narrow passageway or route.”  The implication of the physical definition is that a “corridor” is something you employ to get from here to there.  Consequently, you give little attention to or thought about what you are passing while you are using a corridor.  And when you are not, such thought as you give to it is limited to issues that might affect your use of it to get from here to there.

It is with some trepidation that I describe Polk Street as a significant north-south corridor, as it lies one block east of and parallels Van Ness Avenue (U.S. 101), which is San Francisco’s principal north-south corridor.  While Polk Street is definitely the road less traveled by, it remains a corridor, for several forms of transportation.  The volume and mixture of its traffic require close attention from those navigating it; even brief glimpses of the scenery to either side carry great risk.  And that is a shame really, for a journey along Polk Street can be much more than just the act of getting somewhere else; it is a trip through the highs and lows of San Francisco, both in geography and community.

I believe that now, during a temporary pause while MUNI collates the information from its “open houses,” is a time to reflect on Polk Street not just in the context of gain or loss for one’s particular cause, but on the more significant issue of how an improved Polk Street might make for an improved community through which it passes.  The key to that, in turn, lies in not thinking of Polk Street solely as a “corridor.”

The overwhelming focus of attention so far in the continuing saga of Polk Street has been on the narrow section, above Post Street.  It is by far the longer stretch, the players are more numerous and the stakes are certainly higher.  Small businesses line the narrow section for block after block.  Those using Polk Street to reach them, from semis to bicycles, must “share” a common lane in each direction along this stretch, a condition that pleases no one.  The fundamental struggle between expediting traffic and providing parking is most starkly displayed here, with bicycles an additional—and welcome--component in the mix.

The community that deserves attention, however, lies at the lower section of Polk Street.  It begins at Post Street, precisely the point that Polk Street widens.  It is a shorter stretch, extending south just to Turk Street; below that are the large, new Civic Center buildings that house only elements of city government, and then only during the day.  

Polk’s wider width on this lower stretch cushions it from the sharpest edges of the disputes that rage about the stretch above, although not the disputes themselves.  There are also fewer businesses here. The representatives of Save Polk Street that I spoke with knew of no businesses south of Post that were members, despite the fact that lower Polk contains virtually the only automobile-oriented businesses south of Union Street; stores for auto parts, shops for auto repair and motor courts, each with its own small parking lot.  Save Polk Street has nonetheless taken a position in favor of the “safety changes only” option for this section, as it has for the narrow section to the north.  This is to be expected, and expected equally is its continued focus on Polk’s narrower, longer and thus “more important” segment to the north.   The bicycle coalition will also focus its efforts above Post Street, for equally good reasons.

The combination of a wider street and far fewer merchants has made the lower section almost an afterthought to those with a particular cause to support.  This is unfortunate, for the intersection of Polk and Post Streets is a border in rather more ways than just that of street width.  If your travel is southbound on Polk Street, the up and downs you have traversed from Union Street to this point are substantial, but they are only geographic.  The adjoining community differentiates largely in the level of affluence.  As you descend from the western ridge of Nob Hill, however, you are entering “Polk Gulch,” a name now considered very politically incorrect among the neighborhood boosters, who prefer “Polk Village.”  Gulch does have a purely geographic origin, but it remains reflective of the descent in income and class a southward journey quickly demonstrates.

The border between affluence and want is an abrupt one, but no more so than is common in any large city.  The first clue comes between Sutter and Post: an awning that proclaims “Check Cashing, ” with a smaller sign below advertising “Payday Loans.” Another such establishment appears just below Post.   There are no such signs on the higher elevations.  But now you have entered the Tenderloin District, technically its western boundary.  If you had any doubts, the street people hanging out at the corner convenience store quickly eliminate them.  The structures that abut the sidewalk begin to signal the change later, as the small shops that characterize upper and middle Polk Street begin to disappear, further accenting the difference from the heights of Russian and Nob Hills.  But much more than the buildings and their inhabitants have changed.  The difference between Good Vibrations up the hill and Frenchy’s Adult Superstore below Post is as much one of attitude as altitude.

Even what remains the same is different.  People sitting along the sidewalk enjoying the sun and conversation are a common sight all along Polk Street.  On upper Polk, they are sitting in chairs next to little tables while eating dainty creations and sipping coffee.  Below Post Street, they are sitting in wheel chairs or just front stoops, and sipping from bags and bottles.  Those in the cafes above may have arrived by car or bike as well as by properly-shod foot, but down here they are the urban poor, mostly elderly, and the only wheels involved in getting them here are the ones on their chairs.

A similar theme is seen in the food outlets.  Food along Polk is ethnically diverse, with a great many locations that are tasty and healthful, plus a few that are famous (see Oyster Depot, Swan).  There are no national brand fast food franchises on Upper Polk.  The first—Subway—makes its appearance at Sutter.  Then, at Eddy there are two, KFC and Taco Bell.  Actually they are one: one building, one entrance, one counter, but two menus.  Neither has any provision for parking, nor any apparent need.  Their customers (with the exception of truck drivers on lunch break) all walk, most from the Tenderloin District to the east.  The chicken is lousy, even for KFC.

Even the buses avoid lower Polk.  The southbound Route 19 bus turns east on Eddy, to turn south again on Hyde, while the northbound 19 does not even turn onto Polk Street until Geary, having come up Larkin.  There are more customers on those streets than on lower Polk.

Muni’s options for this lower stretch derive from the wider width available, but they also suggest that while Polk Street may be a corridor, very few vehicles of any sort travel its full length, particularly to or from its southern edge.  One of Muni’s options put to the public was to divert northbound traffic off of Polk Street entirely for the first few blocks.  This hardly suggests high vehicle usage.  It does not require statistics to conclude that most of those who travel Polk Street turn onto and off of it at some point, headed in other directions.

Thus, while Polk Street is a transportation corridor, it tends to be a partial one, allowing it to nourish its neighbors along the way.  Except, it seems, those unfortunate enough to live in the Tenderloin; they can’t even benefit from the scrutiny that controversy would bring.

Upon the conclusion of whatever work the final project actually undertakes, Polk Street will continue to be a transportation corridor, and a safer one.  While we will all likely applaud the result (some more than others perhaps), those who focus solely on the street and its traffic will miss a much more important point:  the true significance of streets, roads, or any other form of transportation corridor derives from what they do for the people and communities they touch.  Some understand this more than others, in their own way.  The merchants behind Save Polk Street fear that making Polk Street easier to travel will make it harder to stop, particularly in front of their stores.  As I stated in my previous post, this fear should not be airily dismissed.  At a very personal level, these merchants realize the importance of people using the street as not just a means of getting somewhere else, but as a means of getting to the people—and thus enriching the community—along the way.  There has been much talk within the bicyclist community about how they should stop and buy at the stores along Polk, to convince merchants that safer cycling will mean more business.  This is to be encouraged, but will a safer corridor encourage its users, pedestrians as well as bicyclists, to stop and buy at the stores on lower Polk also?  While I don’t expect bicyclists to greatly increase the business at KFC/Taco Bell, there are several other stores and shops that do deserve a boost.  This can only benefit a community that could use the help.


When all is said and done, it is the community, not the corridor, that should matter the most.  Regardless of how you get there.

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