King of the commons

Departing director of Sunday Streets made community organizing the key to opening up public space

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Sunday Streets Director Susan King wants to open up streets in more cities.

steve@sfbg.com

When Susan King attends the Aug. 24 Sunday Streets in the Mission District — the 50th incarnation of this car-free community gathering, coming the week before her 50th birthday — it will be her last as director of an event she started in 2008.

That successful run was made possible by King's history as a progressive community organizer who also knew how to do fundraising, a rare combination that has made Sunday Streets more than just a bicycle event, a street faire, or a closure of streets to cars that the city imposes on its neighborhoods on a rotating basis.

Instead, King took the ciclovia concept that started in Bogota, Colombia in the late '70s — the idea was creating temporary open space on streets usually dominated by cars (See "Towards Carfree Cities: Everybody into the streets," SFBG Politics blog, 6/23/08) — and used it as a tool for building community and letting neighborhoods decide what they wanted from the event.

"I regard the organizing as community organizing work rather than event organizing, and that's significant," King told the Guardian. "We're creating the canvas that community organizations can use."

San Francisco was the third US city to borrow the ciclovia concept to create open streets events — Portland, Ore, was the first in June 2008, followed quickly by New York City — but the first to do one that didn't include food trucks and commercial vending, which Sunday Streets doesn't allow.

"It's not a street fair, it's about meeting your neighbors and trying new things," King said, referring to free activities that include dance, yoga, and youth cycling classes and performances. "It's a really different way of seeing your city. A street without cars looks and feels different."

Now, after seeing how Sunday Streets can activate neighborhoods and build community, and watching the concept she helped pioneer be adopted in dozens of other cities, King says she's ready for the next level.

"I want to apply what I know on a larger scale, ideally statewide," King said of her future plans. "This really opened my eyes up to the possibilities."

 

WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

After a lifetime of progressive activism — from grassroots political campaigns to city advisory committees to working with the Green Party — King knew the value of listening to various community stakeholders and earning their trust.

"We try to be culturally competent and work with each neighborhood," King said. "We want to work with the neighborhood instead of dropping something on the neighborhood."

That distinction has been an important one, particularly in neighborhoods such as Bayview and the Western Addition, where there is a long history of City Hall officials and political do-gooders trying to impose plans on neighborhoods without their input and consent.

"We worked really closely together and she gave me a lot of leeway to do Sunday Streets in a way that it worked for the community," said Rebecca Gallegos, who managed public relations for the Bayview Opera House 2010-2013. "I can't say enough great words about Susan. She was a truly a mentor to me. They're losing someone really great."

The first Sunday Streets on Aug. 31, 2008, extended from the Embarcadero into Bayview, opening up that neighborhood to many new visitors. King cited a survey conducted at the event showing 54 percent of respondents had never been to Bayview before.

"Susan wore a lot of hats. Not only did she create community in all the neighborhoods in San Francisco, but she knew how to go after the money," Gallegos told us. "She walks the walk and doesn't just talk the talk."

Meaghan Mitchell, who worked with the Fillmore Community Benefits District, also said King's skills and perspective helped overcome the neighborhood's skepticism about City Hall initiatives.