Friday, July 10, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Plaza of the Pavements

Brian here. Some months make me remember why I call this blog "Hell on Frisco Bay". June was a busy, stressful month for me, mostly outside the world of moviegoing, and so far July has been less stressful but even busier. Clearly, one of the things that has gone by the wayside in this time has been my ability to maintain this blog as a reliable and timely pointer to the myriad of terrific film events happening here on Frisco Bay. I'm keeping a better log of the latest local film screening announcements on my Twitter Stream, and you don't even have to register for anything to read it. But my time and energy for writing longer pieces for this site seems to be temporarily at a low ebb, even as practically every venue on my sidebar has a summer schedule well worth blogging about, even on-again, off-again cinemas like the Paramount in Oakland and the California in San Jose. Click the links to the right of this text and see.

Of course, the Silent Film Festival is opening this evening, and I am pleased to have a pass, some time off from work, and hopefully the stamina to see every program like I did last year. I certainly have the enthusiasm, built up over the past few months thanks to my connection with the festival, explained here. More previews of the festival are popping up everywhere, from authors such as Richard Von Busack, Thomas Gladysz, Carl Martin, Dennis Harvey and Michael Hawley.

Another preview of the festival films here at Hell On Frisco Bay seems extraneous. Which is why I'm also filled with enthusiasm to publish this piece by my good friend Adam Hartzell, on the 17th Street Plaza, which ought to enhance this year's festival experience as it lies mere inches from the line into the Castro Theatre that snakes around the corner of Castro and 17th Streets. Fascinatingly, this reclamation of space from motorized vehicle traffic is connected to the era during which silent films had their heyday. After reading, you may find the connections Adam makes resonating with your viewing of the masterful Underworld, with its depictions of police officers and getaway cars, or of So's Your Old Man, in which W.C. Fields plays an inventor of an automobile part. Adam will explain:

In spite of the fact that we sit in a theatre, often reclining in a fairly comfy chair, for many film-goers, cinema is not a passive activity. Hence the needs for a term like ‘film-goer’ which illuminates the more active process of watching cinema. Many of us prepare for the films we seek by reading about them or engaging in conversations about the films, either face to face with friends or in the comments section on blogs like these. Following the screening, we return to those spaces, the text on a page of a blog or the face of a friend, in order to sort out what we just actively saw.

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival (running from July 10th through the 12th) allows for a unique opportunity for examining active cinema. If you can’t make it to Pordenone, Italy, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the second best stop for those who find silent film as invigorating as any talkie. In this way, the Silent Film Festival is a festival acted upon by cinema-goers. And when this season’s patrons seek to break their silence inside the theatre and talk about the film outside the theatre, they have a new space in which to have that conversation.

As usual, the Silent Film Festival will be taking place at the cinematic temple that is the Castro Theatre. But this year, halfway up the block where 17th street nudges between Castro and Market Street, is the recently established "17th Street Plaza" (an alternate name for it is "Castro Commons"), a retrofitting of a street into a pedestrian plaza where people can cross at their leisure, as well as sit, talk, read, watch, and eat. Taking a cue from the long term plans of New York City to transforms spaces such as Times Square into pedestrian paradises, San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks project states on its website that it "...seeks to temporarily reclaim unused swathes and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks."

I must disagree with San Francisco Pavement to Parks (SFP2P) referring to these spaces as 'unused'. In actuality, they are indeed 'used', just not as the modern day city planner intended them to be. To the city planner, spaces like where 17th meets Castro and Market are supposed to be streets. In our present day, this means a public space where cars are privileged and pedestrians are corralled into the crosswalk if permitted to cross at all. But SFP2P has taken note of how San Franciscans have been re-thinking certain urban spaces, where pedestrians have re-oriented streets from their previous plans, where cars have discarded these thoroughfares from their choice of options. The area where 17th meets Castro and Market was an area dominated by pedestrians, an epicenter of the queer geography that, roughly 50 years ago, began re-mapping Eureka Valley into the gay enclave we now know as the Castro. It is at this ambivalent intersection where pedestrian confidence has been so pronounced that cars began to use the street less and less. Seeing that the pedestrians had made the street theirs, SFP2P made what was unofficial official and inaugurated the Pavement to Parks projects with the 17th Street Plaza. Now we have a space where people can sit, people can wonder, with only occasionally having to be aware of the launching of another inbound run of the nostalgic beauty that is the F Market Street Railway fleet.

Part of what I've found to be a problem with some of the film festivals in San Francisco is that they haven’t had have a place to fall out of the theatre. The Castro Theatre’s outside atrium crowds up quickly, leaving some of us feeling a need to get out of the right-of-way of the pedestrians, disrupting the flow of conversation for the ease of pedestrian flow. Out-of-town festivals I’ve been to, such as The Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy or the Woman’s Film Festival in Seoul, have a public space at the ready for those who wish to carry their film-fueled conversations outside of the cramped spaces of the lobby without having to worry about moving along.

So this year I’m curious what the 17th Street Plaza will add to the already wonderful experience of the SF Silent Film Festival. How will the patrons appropriate this space? Will it be used as a space for cross-town friends to meet before queuing up for a screening? Will it be used as an impromptu lecture hall where signifying gestures will reveal ones thoughts, from the apathetic shrug of the shoulders to the full arm wailing rant or rave? Will it provide a space for kids to run around before or after the family-friendly fare on offer? (This year it’s Disney’s Oswald The Lucky Rabbit) Will it be a place to sip coffee from The Cheeseboard in order to stay alert for the next screening, or nosh on a bagel from Posh Bagel so one isn’t distracted by ones stomach growling? Or will it be a resting space for the lonely cinephile to reflect on where in their personal canon they will place what they’ve just seen?

What’s particularly poignant about the 17th Street Plaza placement outside the Silent Film Festival is what was going on in the U.S. at the time some of these films were initially screened, how cars were beginning to claim manifest destiny of city streets. Cars and streets have become so synonymous in our mental frames that the real history of streets as contested spaces between pedestrians and cars has been forgotten. It took University of Virginia’s Peter D. Norton to excavate that history for me. In his informative book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (The MIT Press, 2008), he reveals a surprising history of "bloody and sometimes violent revolution" that took place on city streets before they became the sole domain of automobiles in the 1930’s. Although we expect downtown businesses to resist plans to de-car Market Street, accepting their beliefs that such would adversely affect their profits in spite of recent studies demonstrating exactly the opposite, in the 10's and 20's of the 20th century, businesses were not fans of the automobile. Nor were police, since it often fell on them to direct traffic, and even the emerging field of traffic engineers initially found cars to be more a nuisance than a convenience. (Consider this quote underscoring the pedestrian’s traditional rights to the streets from a New York City judge in 1923, "Nobody has any inherent right to run an automobile at all." Such sounds like sacrilege, if not ludicrous, today.) The Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that led to the necessary safety regulations in industry and the unnecessary prohibition of alcohol, also sought to severely restrict cars from acting like they had any claim to city streets. (Symbolic measures taken were monuments for children killed by automobiles erected in major cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Along with photos of these monuments, Norton also includes propaganda fliers denouncing 'motordom', as the automotive industry was often referred to at the time, as basically child-killers.) It wasn’t until the automobile industry metaphorically connected the automobile with the concept of 'freedom' that our streets were envisioned as first and foremost for the car, placing responsibilities upon pedestrians (looking both ways, children not playing in the street, etc) that were never imposed upon pedestrians before. As Norton notes, "jaywalking", began as a term for people who blocked pedestrians from their right of way! Now the term, thanks to the efforts of the Boy Scouts and public safety week campaigns suggests a pedestrian is overstepping boundaries. (In our very own San Francisco in 1920, a safety campaign was implemented where jaywalkers were pulled from the street and immediately forced to face mock outdoor trials in order to teach them to feel shame about an activity that was, at the time, perfectly normal.)

Now as we begin the 21st century, the pedestrian is joining the critical mass cyclist in reclaiming the streets for active transport. As a result, cities have also begun a process of rethinking city streets. This is a result of the environmental concerns we were unaware of in the early part of the 20th century, the health benefits addressed by engaging in more active forms of transport, and the sociological needs to reconnect after suburbanization and digital technology increasingly isolate us from one another. We don’t want the bloody revolution Norton notes from our past. And SFP2P has taken care to lessen the possibility of conflicts between modern day motordom and pedestrians. In re-visioning spaces, they have thought ahead about possible obstacles. For example, concern about complaints of parking space loss led to SFP2P implementing an increase in parking around the upcoming "Guerrero Park" project. With The 14th Annual Silent Film Festival being the inaugural silent film festival for the 17th Street Plaza, here’s hoping this represents a roundabout where a significant portion of our city streets will return to the pedestrian promenades they were at the heyday of silent film.

Thanks Adam! Hopefully the discussion of the festival, and of the relationship between pedestrians and automobiles, will spill into the streets, and into the following comments section!


  1. Thanks for posting this Brian. And guess what? It was announced today that the '17th Street Plaza' (I guess that's what it's primarily called, not the 'Castro Commons' as listed on the SF Pavement to Parks website) will get a four month extension. Not in honor of the SF Silent Film Festival, but let's just say it is anyway ;)

  2. According to the staff at Orphan Andy's, they are responsible for securing the tables and chairs of the "17th Street Plaza." They tie them together with a chain late at night. It makes sense since they are open 24/7.

    I think it is revealing that I have never seen fact that acknowledged. Perhaps the Parks Dept considers it too trivial to mention. Perhaps they don't want the public to know that they are using the staff of a private business to do some of their work.

    I also read that Orphan Andy's originally supported the idea because they wanted to use the area as overflow seating for their restaurant during peak periods. The staff denied that and called it a misrepresentation. They were of the opinion that serving customers in the open area would lead to numerous instances of people skipping out on the check so they do not provide table service to that area.

    Regarding the Silent Film Festival, I recall that there was talk of making the slide presentations available after the festival. Did that ever come to fruitiion? Nice job with The Gaucho presentation and program essay.

  3. Dan, that's interesting stuff about the Andy's - 17th Street Plaza connection. I used the tables and chairs to eat my take-out from Thai Cafe down the street yesterday, and noticed the reference to Andy's on the table, which was curious to me. I'm glad to know a bit more about the situation.

    Thanks for your kind words on my materials for the Gaucho. I really enjoyed the process; I learned so much about a key film personality I had not considered a particular favorite before. I saw just about all his films available on DVD or VHS, though I saved Thief of Bagdad for some upcoming day when I can see it on the big screen. The Black Pirate comes to the California Theatre next month, for a further Fairbanks fix.

    As for making the slide shows available on-line, I understand it's still something in the works. But the festival only just started putting up some of the archived essays on its site, though the idea has been talked about for at least as long as I've been part of the writers group. I remain patient.

  4. The festival was a terrific treat, as usual! Currently working on my comments, bleary-eyed and wondering why year after year I still do not take the following Monday as a personal day off???

  5. Dan,

    That's interesting what you say about the Orphan Andy staff. I know that the San Francisco city office that is assisting with the establishment of these pedestrian plazas have been working w/ local communities about donating furniture. (I'm in conversation about with them about the one planned in SoMA tentatively called 'Showplace Triangle' and furniture donation is one of the things we are looking into.) So it sounds like not everyone was on the same page with it. And, in my mind, I wonder if the chairs/tables are even necessary, since the cinder blocks seem to be fine serving the same purpose. But, I agree, that if there are volunteers involved in the refular upkeep, they should be given their props. This is a plaza in progress, so hopefully they will work out all the kinks as they go forward with the next projects.


  6. Also, sadly, it looks like someone didn't read through the whole piece -

    Brittney Gilbert falsely claims I'm against these projects based on, obviously, too quick a read. I wrote a response to her lead-in adamantly disagreeing with it. Hopefully she'll correct herself.


  7. Brittney Gilbert corrected her lead-in to represent my admiration for the project. To me, that shows real professionalism. People make mistakes on blogs on occasion, and it's great to see someone like Gilbert take responsibility for that. Thank you, Brittney!

  8. My only complaint about the Silent Film Festival is that they frequently start the shows several minutes late. They don't seem to schedule sufficient time for the introductions (sometimes they have three separate intros - the welcome, the short film intro and the feature film intro), cleaning the aisles, sound checks and allowing people to enter & exit the theater.