A simple campaign to make a major street safer has sparked discussion in the affected neighborhoods of broader issues: What is the purpose of a street? Who benefits and who suffers? Why do we allow barriers between neighborhoods? The street in question is Cesar Chavez, which runs from Noe Valley to the Bay, acting along the way as the dividing line between the Mission and Bernal Heights west of the Highway 101 maze and between Potrero Hill and Bayview on the east side. Its configuration goes from four lanes (two car traffic lanes in each direction) east of the freeway to six lanes from the freeway to Guerrero, where it suddenly narrows to two lanes up a steep grade.

Few current residents, drivers, walkers, transit users, or cyclists along Cesar Chavez knew the former Army Street before it was widened by about 30 feet back in the 1950s. Around the same time, the original Bernal Dwellings public housing block was built on the Mission side on the site of a tannery. The Dwellings have since been torn down and reconstructed in a less prisonlike townhouse style, but the widened street continues to function there as a moat around Bernal Heights, discouraging children, seniors, and slow-moving adults from crossing its six lanes of speeding traffic. The posted limit is 25 mph, but a radar gun set up at Alabama regularly clocks drivers doing 40.

Topographically, Cesar Chavez is a logical path for travelers going east and west who are otherwise blocked by either the freeway or the hills of Bernal and Potrero. Drivers and bicyclists contest for a share of the pavement, while transit riders face truncated service. The Muni map shows a huge hole in the area from Bryant Street to Evans with no east-west service through the freeway maze (the crammed #9-San Bruno travels north-south along Bayshore/Potrero but doesn’t stop at Cesar Chavez). Walkers must navigate a creepy underpass, dangerous on- and off-ramps, narrow sidewalks, and inadequate crosswalks.

Efforts to humanize the street, especially the stretch between the freeway maze and Guerrero, go back years. In the late 1990s, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition proposed bike lanes for the two blocks between Bryant and the freeway. Neighbors got up in arms at the proposed loss of parking involved, and the coalition agreed to a compromise part-time lane on the south side only. An interesting byproduct of stormy meetings over this issue, however, was a unified disgust at the busy traffic that was making cyclists and neighbors alike miserable. Both sides took time out from disagreeing with each other to find common ground in a desire to make the street something other than a “traffic sewer.”

The issue came up again during the reconstruction of the Bernal Dwellings. Residents and neighbors, meeting monthly as a task force with representatives of the Housing Authority and city agencies, asked the Department of Parking and Traffic for safety measures such as pedestrian signals at Harrison, where Dwellings children would be crossing to attend the Leonard Flynn Elementary School or catch school buses for destinations throughout the city. When the DPT rep told Dwellings mothers in 2001 that they might get a signal by 2003, the room exploded with anger. Of course, his prediction was correct, and then only after two Flynn students, a brother and sister, were hit by a truck as they made that very crossing in August 2003. The nearby Precita Community Center, which provides after school and other services for neighborhood youth, pulled together a large demonstration after the two children were hit. Suddenly, countdown signals were in. The young girl wound up missing a year of school.

Cesar Chavez is also the main strip for day laborers hoping to get work. After years of contentious neighborhood debate, the Day Labor Program finally opened the doors of its new center on Cesar Chavez near Mission last year. Individuals continue to wait along Cesar Chavez and 26th Street in hopes of being picked up for a day’s work. One explanation for the vehemence of opposition to their presence from some neighbors is the unpleasantness of Cesar Chavez itself. The day laborers function as a proxy target for general dissatisfaction.

All these elements and history have gotten stirred up by a campaign put into motion last summer by a group of bicycle and pedestrian activists, neighbors, parents, and merchants. Monthly meetings have led to some concrete moves and a lot of heated discussion. The group, named C.C. Puede, or Cesar Chavez Si Se Puede, in honor of the UFW chant “Yes we can!”, collected over 600 signatures on petitions circulated in the neighborhood that suggest removing a lane of car traffic in each direction for the six-lane segment, installing bike lanes and left-turn pockets, and making crosswalk and other pedestrian improvements. Greening is proposed to reduce noise and pollution as well as slow traffic. The group has turned in the petitions to the DPT, with copies going to supervisors Dufty, Ammiano, and Maxwell and greening czar Marshall Foster.

Objections to the plan are basically twofold: It will slow down and inconvenience drivers, and it will lead to cut-through traffic in Bernal Heights. Proponents agree it will slow drivers down but say that’s the point—a U.S. Department of Transportation statistic reveals that 85% of pedestrians struck by a car going 40 mph die, while 85% struck by a car going 25 mph survive. As for cut-through traffic, similar changes on Potrero and San Jose/Guerrero have failed to generate much increase on neighboring streets. Interestingly, though 26th Street on the Mission side would be the most logical alternative if drivers did peel off Cesar Chavez, response on there has been largely positive, prompting criticism of a “Fortress Bernal” attitude on the other side.

Some of the most active proponents of Cesar Chavez traffic calming live in Bernal Heights, and discussions with opponents from the Precita Park area have remained polite. But the demographics involved have sparked speculation about hidden agendas. On one side of the street is the heavily Latino Mission and the overwhelmingly African American Bernal Dwellings. On the other side is the mixed, progressive but much whiter and more middle-class Bernal Heights. Resistance to easing a barrier between the two has raised eyebrows even if individual intentions are innocent.

Added to these concerns is a climate of tension in the southeastern sector of the city, as the Third Street light rail nears completion, and a huge swath of Bayview/Hunters Point has just been voted a redevelopment zone by the planning commission. Fear of gentrification is ongoing in the Mission and rising in BVHP. Proponents of changes on Cesar Chavez are careful to emphasize that their efforts to improve conditions along the corridor are meant for the people already living there and not for some new wave of wealthy condo dwellers marching south from Rincon Hill.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, for example, is adamant about not adversely affecting truck traffic in the eastern segment. Representatives of C.C. Puede, including a staff member of Veritable Vegetable, which has its warehouse on Tennessee a block from Third, agreed at a meeting with Maxwell that the industrial segment in District 10 need not be prettied up or made inaccessible to trucks but insisted that workers in the area should be able to safely cross the street to buy lunch and to travel to their jobs without cars.

Even greening efforts have unearthed class and race implications. Floods near Harrison have forced residents of the Bernal Dwellings from their homes more than once. Flooding also hit the Bernal Gateway affordable housing complex on Mission, closing its childcare center. Replacing asphalt and concrete with trees and other plants reduces storm runoff and could help prevent recurrence of flooding that has disproportionately affected residents in low-income housing.

The process will be long and involved, and other questions and debates will no doubt arise. Everyone involved has been getting a crash course in just how complicated the issues are. The only thing that supervisors, representatives of the mayor’s office, community groups, and most neighbors seem to agree on is that something needs to be done. If drivers have to slow down, good.

CC Puede plans to participate in the April 1 Cesar Chavez parade under signs and banners supporting a street that would better honor the man it was named after, in a project that could bring communities together instead of acting as a moat. The group tentatively plans to meet at 10 a.m. at the Ebb Tide Cafe, 26th and South Van Ness, where it will head out to join the larger rally starting at 11 a.m. at La Raza Park (Potrero del Sol Park) at 25th and Potrero. Please join us. For updated information, contact Fran Taylor at 947-6497 or ftaylor@cmp.com.