It’s hard to imagine Hayes Valley as the booming neighborhood it is today if the Central Freeway still stood in place of Octavia Boulevard. A hard-fought battle by Hayes Valley neighbors in the 1990s to remove the highway made it possible, knowing it would reshape the neighborhood — and San Francisco itself.
But while everyday people stepped up to push for their vision of the city, the less urgent task of commemorating the action is slow to take off.
For those hazy on the details: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Central and Embarcadero freeways enough to make the once-politically intractable issue of rethinking the city’s mobility a winnable fight. While demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway came in 1991, the Central Freeway took dozens of community meetings over more than a decade, and four competing ballot measures within three years before it was finally demolished in 2003, and replaced by Octavia Boulevard.
“It touched on a lot of issues,” says Robin Levitt, one of the core activists, who now serves on the Market & Octavia Community Advisory Committee. “People had very little power and very little say.”
They had little say in the decision to put freeways — which often come with health and economic impacts — in historically Black neighborhoods of Western Addition, but through this process found enough voices to undo it, majorly adjusting how the city moves around. This power of community to work toward a common goal, battling their city leaders and even sometimes neighbors, is something the original movers and shakers want to be remembered.
“Certainly, it needs to memorialize the power of people to force needed change,” says Paul Olsen, another core activist on the community advisory committee. “So much was gained when the freeway came down.”
Once the highway activists were able to take a breather from the accomplishment, they wanted to make the memory into something tangible. But as they learned with the pushing for the freeway removal, diving into a project in San Francisco can take years of your life — regardless of the scale.
“It took years and years and countless hours of my time and a lot of people’s time to accomplish that,” Levitt says of the freeway demolition. “Nobody is taking the lead on [the memorial].”
Levitt says he and his fellow activists felt especially moved to find a way to memorialize the freeway removal when Patricia Walkup died in 2006. Walkup — who Patricia’s Green on Hayes and Octavia streets is named after — started the very Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association that brought people together for the effort.
“This isn’t about a freeway,” Olsen says. “This is about people, and it would be a shame if their stories weren’t told, too.”
Fifteen years after the demolition, the commemoration is still too early in the planning process to have an inkling of what it should look like. It could be one plaque, a series of plaques, a statue or structure or even a self-guided walking tour. But, it is coming.
The Market & Octavia Community Advisory Committee raised some seed money to launch some project for it and is thinking of hiring a consultant to refine the idea with the help of the community, says Levitt. Still, the project needs someone to be the point person.
“People have very short memories,” Levitt says. “I think it’s important to tell these stories.”
Contact the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association at hayesvalleysf.org/contact to share ideas or for more information on how to be part of the process.
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