A Brief History of How Cesar Chavez/Army Street Became So Damn Awful in the First Place

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The photo above (Thanks Mark!) shows a view of Cesar Chavez Boulevard looking west from Folsom in 2008, a few years before the current/ongoing sewer and streetscape improvement project got underway. As you can see, it is very unlovely.

In the comments to Monday’s item about the removal of the ugly-ass, freeway-style road sign across Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Neighbor Andy was prompted to wonder how Cesar Chavez Boulevard became so awful and so highway-like in the first place.

The short explanation is simple: Cesar Chavez — formerly Army Street — WAS designed to be a highway. Sort of. The wide thoroughfare as we now know it was carved out in the 1930s and 1940s, with the intention of using the road as a major east-west route to carry automobile traffic, first to the US101 Bayshore Freeway (which was built in the early 1950s), and eventually to the Southern Crossing, a second transbay bridge that was planned to terminate in the area around Army/Chavez and Third Street.

Wait. A second transbay bridge??? At the foot of Army/Chavez?? WHAT??!!

Follow along as we take a quick survey of Army Street history, give-or take a few years here and there:

1859: Here, Precita Creek runs unfettered down the present-day Cesar Chavez Boulevard corridor, providing a primary route for water drainage for the eastern slopes of Twin Peaks. It also functions as a sewer. Present-day Precita Avenue shadows the route of the former Precita Creek. Army Street not created yet, but Navy Street ran parallel:

1888: Precita Creek still a creek. Army street is a jankey east-west road that runs alongside it:

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Circa 1900: Precita creek channeled underground, Army street built on top

1931: Check out this amazing view of Army Street, looking west from Harrison, when it was a relatively normal San Francisco City Street (with a streetcar line!). That’s Le Conte Elementary School (now, Leonard Flynn) on the left, with the St. Anthony’s church steeple behind it. The church burned in the 1970s.

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1936 and 1937: Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge open to traffic.

Late 1930s: Army Street widened from a normal 4-lane city street to an 8-lane surface throroughfare. This is why many of the houses on the street are so close to the curb, with no front yards. Eminent domain is a bitch.

1940: View west on Army at Harrison again, showing both widened and unwidened portions. The caption on this photo hopes “the city soon may have the money to finish the widening.” Good times.

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1940s: Flush with bridge-building ardor and postwar can-do, Southern Crossing bridge proposed.

1947: Here’s a view looking south from Potrero Avenue at the Army Street intersection. That’s Bernal Heights in the top right, with the stairs leading up to Holladay. The US101 freeway was built here 10 years later.

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1948: A Southern Crossing was envisioned as part of an urban freeway network that would have encircled Bernal Heights in a maze of concrete viaducts, including one that followed Mission Street:

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This scenario is so grim that we must zoom and enhance to see how bleak it really was (while also admiring the map’s realistic attention to geographic detail). Note the Army Street interchange on the proposed Mission Freeway, at the western end of Precita Avenue. Oh my:

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1948: Here’s another view of the City’s proposed freeway network, showing more clearly how Army Street would have played an important role as an east-west artery to the Southern Crossing (and how thoroughly all of this would have sucked for Bernal Heights):

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1949: California Department of Public Works map shows the Southern Crossing linked to the Bayshore Freeway via a dedicated highway, with Army Street feeding southwestern San Francisco

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Check out the Army Street detail:

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1950: Shortly before US101/Bayshore Freeway construction begins, aerial view shows the now-complete Army Street widening, and the undeveloped approach to the proposed Southern Crossing:

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1953: Army Street, shown from street-level at South Van Ness, a few years after the Army Street widening was completed. Notice how then-and-now photos reveal that today’s nasty-ass Army St. streetscape design is basically unchanged from this time:

Then and Now: South Van Ness at Army Street, 1953

1950s: US101 converted from Potrero Avenue/Bayshore Blvd. routing to the elevated limited-access freeway. A roundabout under the Freeway connects Army, Potrero, and Bayshore.

1960s-1970s: I-280 constructed in San Francisco

1968: Steve McQueen begins iconic “Bullitt” car chase on Army Street at Bryant in Bernal Heights. Location looks just as unpretty then as it does today.

1970: San Francisco Chronicle declares “Southern Crossing Should Be Built,” arguing in favor of a “missing link the Bay Area’s traffic system” that would carry 36 percent of all transbay traffic to San Francisco, diverting 45,000 vehicles a day from downtown.

1971: Even after most other San Francisco freeway projects have been abandoned, California Freeway Planning Map still shows proposed Southern Crossing:

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1972: Sierra Club freaks out over proposed Southern Crossing. Voters reject a bond measure to build a Southern Crossing bridge terminating in Hunter’s Point.

1973: Army Street/US 101 Spaghetti Bowl interchange built, replacing the roundabout that previously linked Army with Potrero Ave. and Bayshore Blvd. The new interchange was intended in part to serve traffic coming from and going to a future Southern Crossing:

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Late-1980s: No means no. Another proposal to build a Southern Crossing dies amid widespread opposition from environmentalists.

1995: Amid much grumbling, Army Street renamed Cesar Chavez.

1995-2010: Southern Crossing proposals basically dead in the water, although Diane Feinstein advocated the idea yet again in 2000. Cesar Chavez Boulevard remains very ugly.

2012: Big, sexy new sewer main installed under Cesar Chavez:

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2013: Work begins on Cesar Chavez Streetscape improvements intended to strike a better balance between cars, pedestrians, bikes, and adjacent neighbors (not necessarily in that order). When finished, the basic configuration will look something like this:

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So there you have it.

Looking back on the last 80 or so years, the unifying thread in Army/Chavez history is that, first and foremost, the street was intended to serve as a high-volume route within a regional transportation plan that envisioned freeways and a future transbay bridge as its core elements. Like Precita Creek that runs underneath it, Army/Chavez was designed to carry traffic flowing from Twin Peaks eastward toward the shoreline of the Bay.

In that sense, the conspicuous ugliness of Army/Chavez is simply part of its function, because it was designed serve as a backbone of a car-centric vision of what San Francisco’s future required.

For a whole host of reasons, that’s not quite how the future turned out. So now — at last! — Cesar Chavez is being reimagined around a different vision for a different kind of future; a future in which Chavez continues to serve as an important artery, while also doing more to serve the neighbors who use it and live near it.

Of course, that may or may not be how the future actually turns out. So check back with again us in 80 years for another retrospective.

UPDATE: Let the bonus photos begin!!

Neighbor Joel dug into his photos archives and pulled up some more Army Street gems.

Here’s a view of Army Street during the street widening, circa 1940. Looks to me like Army at Harrison, shortly after the properties on the north side of Army were condemned and removed. (This block then became a rather notorious public housing project.) I believe the building visible just to the left and behind the (now-demolished) school-like building is the northwest corner of Army and Shotwell; that’s the same garage workshop space that’s now home to John’s Jaguar Repair:

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Google Street View confirms the location; notice the two houses on the far right:

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Neighbor Joel also sent a clean aerial shot of the Army-Potrero-Bayshore roundabout under the 101 freeway, probably sometime during the 1960s.

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Bernal Designer Creates Fabulously Cool Folding Lamp That Looks Like a Book

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Neighbor Max lives on Folsom near Eugenia. He tells Bernalwood that he left his corporate job about a month ago to work on a lighting project he invented. It’s called Lumio, and it’s totally spiffy:

Three days ago Max launched a $60,000 fundraising drive on the Kickstarter to begin production. Now — get this! — he’s already blown through that goal, with a colossal $111K pledged. Wow. (Engadget FTW!)

Go Max, Go! Bernalwood gives you a neighborly high-five, and we can’t wait to buy one on Cortland.

PHOTO: Neighbor Max with a Lumio

Bernal Architect Creates Whimsical Steampunk Bathroom

Residential architect Andre Rothblatt lives in Bernal Heights, and he recently finished a very wild project: a Steampunk Bathroom. In an email to us, Andre explains:

The bathroom was part of a whole house remodel of a Craftsmen-style home is located in Ashbury Heights. The clients are 30-something techies; He’s a computer engineer and she reviews patent application. They introduced me to the Steampunk genre. I’ve always enjoyed industrial design influences in architecture, and I was enthusiastic to design the bathroom in that style. We were lucky to find a great contractor (Frederic Grasset, also Bernal Heights resident!) who teamed with us to realize this imaginative design.

PHOTO: via Andre Rothblatt

Gift Guide: A Homegrown Toy, Developed in Bernal Heights

Need a last-minute gift idea for the kids in your life? Neighbor Matt contacted Bernalwood to tell us about the educational toy he created:

I live on Anderson Street, 13 years now already. Back then I was making computer games. But then the powers that be began looking into making even the golf games violent. I knew it was time to move on. I took time off and pursued patenting something that was the opposite of the computer game: battery free; non electronic; hand held; educational; and real. My effort took 10 years. I founded Twisterz Toys 2 years ago. We are now in 250 retail stores across the country, and in Barnes and Noble, and in 7 countries. We’ve won several awards, and our reviews have been excellent. This might all sound good, but we remain on the brink. My biz partner and I chose a tough time for a start up toy company.

The closest retailer that sells our toys is Peekabootique in Noe Valley. Check us out if you’re looking for battery free edu-toys for kids 3-10.

Want to see it in action? Here’s the promo video:

Bernal Artist Transforms Traffic Lights Into Tableware

Neighbor Lauren Becker has been busy of late, creating industrial-chic tableware from recycled glass. This weekend she’s having an open studio at Recycled Glassworks on Bonview to release some of her new work:

Ever wondered why Bernal Heights doesn’t have any traffic lights once you leave the “flatlands” of Mission/Cesar Chavez/Bayview?

I have them. Sort of.

I just got a good load of traffic lights lenses in — thrown out by surrounding neighborhoods. When they leave my art studio, they have been turned into eye-catching plates. In my Bernal studio, I have been upcycling plate glass into functional tableware for many years. Usually I create artful bowls and dishes from windows, which were discarded by contractors or homeowners nearby.

Occasionally, traffic light lenses come my way. The traffic light dishes are a rare sighting because most glass lenses have already been replaced by more efficient LED lights. If you hate red lights, here is your revenge: eat from them!

This weekend, for the first time, I will open the doors for a Holiday Open Studio where the neighbors can see the entire collection:

Saturday/Sunday (Dec 17/18), noon to 5pm at 238 Bonview St (half a block from Cortland Ave, around the corner from Avedanos).

PHOTOS: Recycled Glassworks

Who Created that Cool Kinetic Sculpture in Holly Park?

La Principessa Errante, a blog about San Francisco art and architecture, has the answer. The sculpture is called Odonatoa, and it was created by Joyce Hsu:

Born in Hong Kong, Joyce Hsu received her BFA from the Mount Allison University in Canada in 1996 and her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1998. She works out of Oakland and creates all kinds of mechanical sculptures.

This kinetic sculpture of painted stainless is one of many insects that Joyce has created.

PHOTOS: La Principessa Errante

Sutro Tower Mini-Model Is Must-Have Decor for Devoted Fans

Though it’s often the subject of scorn and sanctimonious head-shaking, Sutro Tower is also beloved by an underground army of devoted fans who appreciate it as San Francisco’s second-most iconic piece of landscape architecture. (Number One, of course being that famous International Orange bridge.) Monumental and futuristic, Sutro Tower fanboys and fangirls often express their affection via loving photographs, clever t-shirt graphics, and even permanent tattoos.

Meanwhile, Bernal residents enjoy a particularly intimate connection to Sutro Tower, both because it dominates the western horizon when you look out from atop Bernal Hill, and because our own microwave tower so obviously wants to be more like Sutro Tower when it grows up.

But for the sophisticated devotee who craves a 3-D representation of Sutro Tower, the options have been very, very limited. Until now. Through the miracle of modern laser-cutting technology, a local whiz named Aidan now offers 1/1000 wooden models of Sutro Tower for sale on Etsy, and they are superb.

La Lengua rebel leader (and Sutro Tower fetishist) Burrito Justice captured this spycam video footage inside the secret “Mini-Sutro Manufacturing Facility” located 2000′ below the El Farolito burrito shop on Mission at 24th Street. Here’s how the magic happens:

I ordered one last week, and it arrived two days ago. Here’s how it looked when it arrived:

Sutro Tower (Before)

And here’s how it looked after 5 minutes of fun, hands-on, assembly — no tools or glue required:

Sutro Tower Model (After)

Now, as my new model sits on my dresser, I can savor the luxury of admiring Sutro Tower from the safety and comfort of my bed, anytime day or night — even when the real Sutro Tower is obscured by a a brooding blanket of fog. Peekaboo!

Above Sutro Tower

Get your Sutro Tower model right here.

PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics