By Hugh-EMC, V.P., NCLF
When I was a kid, I always felt unsafe walking across the pedestrian bridge spanning Steiner St. over Geary Blvd. As a child, I never knew Geary Blvd. has destroyed so much of my community and that its creation was spearheaded purposely by Justin Herman and the City and County of San Francisco’s Redevelopment Program. I never consciously understood the pedestrian bridge to be a passive-aggressive bottleneck restricting the passage of Black Fillmore towards White Pacific Heights but unconsciously, I surely felt it. Every time I’d cross either the Steiner or Webster St. pedestrian bridges, I always felt I wasn’t “fully wanted” on the other side. At least directly across the Steiner St. bridge, I had a sanctuary from the hoodlums and drug dealers called Hamilton Recreation Center. The bridge was just this clumsy inconvenient route I’d have to take if I wanted to safely make it to the Hamilton Rec Center.
I use the word safely reluctantly because every time I walked across that bridge, I felt as if the railings would break loose and the very visible tar-filled segments that kept the bridge’s concrete path connected would crumble apart and I would tumble to my doom; onto a busy chaotic boulevard. The Geary Blvd. is that concrete and asphalt maw that facilitated White San Francisco’s journey downtown and acted as a modern asphalt moat filled with speeding automobiles instead of alligators and sharks. Geary Blvd. is this physical and psychological barrier that discouraged the poor and Black populations of the Fillmore from easily crossing into Japan Town and Pacific Heights. It is a warp speed roadway that bypassed the businesses that still existed in Fillmore despite the destruction of public parks, schools, industries, and the banishment of over half the population that occupied the Geary St. Fillmore area prior to the creation of what we now call Geary Blvd.
I went to Benjamin Franklin Middle school which was located right along Geary Blvd. at Scott St. (Today, it is KIPP SF and Gateway High School) Once a week or so, the gym coaches would take us over to Hamilton Rec Center to use the pool. They would line us up on the corner of Steiner and Geary and march us up the winding entrance up towards the span of the bridge. I’d look over and see cars, trucks, and the 38 Geary Muni Bus speeding down what equated to a highway in the middle of a neighborhood. We all hated having to walk across that bridge. It seemed unnecessary and I always wondered why a crosswalk with traffic lights wasn’t made to slow down the hoard of automobiles that seemed to be in all too much of a hurry to speed through my neighborhood.
Over the years, residents, mostly children, were often hit by traffic near the span of Steiner across Geary Blvd. That bridge was such a nuisance and hindered the free flow of pedestrians. Literally, one would choose to risk life and limb and run across the insanely busy Geary Blvd. just to swim or play basketball over at Hamilton. I remember one day as our gym class prepared to cross over the Steiner/Geary St. pedestrian bridge, a friend of mine attempted to run across Geary Blvd. towards Hamilton Rec Center but was hit by a 38 Geary bus. We all saw it and the whole class was seriously shook up. Luckily, he survived but it took years for him to fully heal up and I still can spot the scars on his face from the accident today. Being young and anxious, many of us would dart across Geary Blvd. not fully realizing we were playing a real-life-and-death game of Frogger.
What I find amusing is that I could imagine certain people reading my story up to this point thinking, “Those dumb kids should have taken the bridge.” Well, it seems human nature is universal because as the very “grown-up” White residents moved into the Fillmore, they found this bridge to be just as much an inconvenience as the young urban youth did. Rather than crossing the ugly winding eyesore from one side of Geary to the other, these new White residents would constantly jaywalk. I don’t know of any incidents that involved any of Fillmore’s newer residents being hit while dashing across the Steiner and Geary Blvd. span nor do I now of the SFPD ramping up patrols and issuing jaywalking citations to these people the way they do so often in Black and poor communities. No the way the SFMTA chose to respond to these White people chronically jaywalking was to finally create a crosswalk and add stoplights on Steiner and Geary under the pedestrian bridge span. To many of us who are longtime residents of the Fillmore, it seemed the city turned a blind eye to actual accidents for decades but once thes bridge inconvenienced and affected the safety of a newer, richer, “Whiter” group of residents, the City finally created a crosswalk I’m like finally, the City and SFMTA made the crosswalk and that seemed so logical to me back when I was in the 6th grade.
For years, plans to remove the bridge at Steiner and Webster have been formulated but up to this point, there had been little to no follow through. For various reasons, the pedestrian bridge spanning Geary Blvd. remained in place. It seems in previous proposals to demolish the Steiner St. span, it was tied together with the removal of the Webster St. span, and its possible this stalled the process back in 2015. There were some members of the Japan Town and Fillmore community that feared to cross 10 lanes of traffic at the Webster/Geary St. intersections on foot. The Steiner and Geary St. intersection has 8 lanes and can be made into a regular crosswalk far easier. I’ve walked across King St. at 4th often and it’s also an 8-lane span plus a Metro Train track and the traffic lights work quite well there.
I must point out this bridge was never built to beautify a neighborhood but rather to span a virtual 8 to 10 lane freeway that gouged out a neighborhood. Geary St. was a deliberately built obstacle designed to segregate a community and allowed that tremendous amount of traffic to roar past the businesses and shops that filled a still vibrant Fillmore. A Fillmore that, at the time, still survived the gutting that was at Geary Blvd. Growing up over the years, my elders told me tales of a bygone sparkling magical era of a Fillmore where Black folks dressed impeccably, drove the fanciest cars, and sipped champagne at the hottest Jazz and Blues clubs on the West Coast. I was also told how Justin Herman dug a huge chasm called Geary Blvd. directly in the middle of what was once a beautiful vibrant community thus initiating its destruction. Whole houses were uprooted packed onto trailer beds and moved. Many more were simply demolished. City planners and transit officials not only engineer our roads, but they also engineer our society. Once you know the history, its plain to see the poverty and misery of the ’80s and ’90s Fillmore where I grew up in were, in part, a result of this civil engineering. A Fillmore weakened by Urban Renewal was no match for the onslaught of crack cocaine that would further degrade my community.
If you’re not familiar with this aspect of Fillmore’s history, an outsider or newcomer could easily blame its current state on the original inhabitants alone. But like so much of Afro-American history in America, the hidden hands of the rich and powerful or the direct blunt blows of these same groups render damage to both our community and culture. When I look at the decades’ old rickety bridge spanning Steiner across Geary Blvd., I think of the mistreatment and neglect our city has bestowed on our community.
This is why I for one agree this pedestrian bridge needs to be torn down, demolished, and done away with. Secondly, I feel that some sort of landmark should be erected. Not only in remembrance of this bridge but a landmark, a monument that speaks to the history of displacement and pain the creation of Geary Blvd. has caused. So few San Franciscans are even aware of the fact houses, apartments, and businesses once occupied the area of that 10 lane Behemoth. I think that loss should be recognized by the city. An artistic monument made using materials from the Steiner St./Geary Blvd. pedestrian bridge would not only be a beautiful gesture, but it would also beautify the area. I find it Ironic the Redevelopment Plan to expand and “end the blight” in Fillmore was established in May of 1956. This Memorial Day weekend, May 22nd to 25th, the city plans to demolish and remove the Steiner/Geary Blvd. pedestrian bridge and expand the crosswalk area. A monument speaking to the historic displacement of Afro-American residents during the Western Addition Redevelopment Project 1 A would be a just and eloquent statement from the city of San Francisco, speaking to how City Hall recognizes its mistakes and it’s sincere intentions to rectify these misdeeds.