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DESIGN BY THE COMMUNITY

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 | Posted by Robin Karson

McDonalds on Mission Street

McDonalds on Mission Street

The Mission is drier and warmer (and flatter) than anywhere else in San Francisco, which makes getting around fun, but something more compelling is in the air in this distinctive place. Walking down 24th Street last week, I wondered what Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. or John Nolen would make of this neighborhood—deemed the most vibrant “hipsterhood” in the nation.

The long stairway from the BART station at 24th and Mission opens up into an avalanche of color. Someone has planted a bougainvillea to spill down a bordering fence and the McDonald’s across the street has been transformed by murals. These paintings–vivid and angry and gorgeous and weird–began in the alleyways in the 1970s, but now they are everywhere. Surely, even the fastidious Rick Olmsted would see their beauty. I can’t imagine that John Nolen wouldn’t celebrate them, too.

Mission Street

But change is definitely in the air. The taquerías are being edged out by trendy restaurants and wine bars. And there are more and more transplants, drawn by the food, the music, the art, the ease of getting around on foot, and also, I think, by the sense of edge. Despite the occasional gang-related shooting, rents are skyrocketing. The people who made this place what it is—many of them having escaped from repressive regimes in Latin America during the 1970s—are being pushed out. This isn’t exactly a new story, and it doesn’t relate directly to either Olmsted or Nolen, but I still wonder how these planners would understand the appeal of the Mission, which also must rate high on the New Urbanism scales of diversity, walkability, community, vibrant local culture, and great public space.  

Mission Street mural

The elephant in the room of these random musings is race, a topic that our books on early twentieth-century planning and design have dealt with only gingerly.  Jews weren’t permitted to live in Olmsted Jr.’s planned community of Forest Hills Gardens when it opened, and we found it impossible to do justice to the breadth and profundity of that fact in a book that focused on Rick’s independence from his famous father, street design, open space, and pre-fab construction. The idea that African Americans or Hispanic people would have been welcome at Forest Hills—or in the wealthy suburb of Brookline (the topic of our next book)—is surreal, appalling as that is. And yet the principles that Olmsted and Nolen aimed to build into these places are very much at work in the Mission.

Mission Street

Landscapes of Exclusion by William O’Brien (due out in 2014) grapples more intensely with the topic of racism than any of our other books has. It is the story of state parks in the South created during the Jim Crow era, when blacks were given separate and unequal space in which to recreate. Inferior sites with less appealing natural features were selected for these purposes. They didn’t have views (those were reserved for white visitors), and they didn’t have nice beaches. In some cases, the state parks were shared, but “Negro areas” were set aside for people of color. In these cases, racial tension determined design.

Mission Street murals

Which brings us back to the Mission, where people of color have created an extraordinarily vibrant place. Once the color—the murals and the food and the music—have been commodified (as they almost surely will be), and many of the people of color are gone, what will this place be?

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