Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Western Addition Open Space Workshop

Just received this from the Neighborhood Parks Council, residents of the Western Addition should give it a look.

Dear Western Addition Resident,

Hosted by the Friends of Kimbell Park
Wednesday, March 11th, 6:00pm-8:00pm
Western Addition Branch Library
1550 Scott Street

This meeting is part of a series of community workshops led by NPC and the City's Open Space Team. The workshops will solicit the public's vision and priorities for the future of open space in San Francisco.

This community engagement process seeks to initiate creative thinking about key issues impacting existing and future open space in San Francisco neighborhoods. NPC also hopes to encourage participants to serve as advocates for quality open space in the city.

The complete workshop schedule to date and meeting details can be found at

To find out more, please contact Michael Kritzman: or 415-621-3260.


Can’t make it to a meeting? You are invited to complete a brief survey at

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I've spent a lot of time in and around the Japan Center mall during this project, and I've found a number of troubling problems with the way business is conducted in the area. For several years there has been significant concern among the merchants and regular customers that the area might undergo significant changes, worries which became serious in late 2000 when an outside corporate interest bought up two-thirds of the mall. Only the Kinokuniya building remains in the hands of its original owners, and even then only because the Kinokuniya parent corporation in Japan finds it profitable to keep their satellite U.S. bookstore open.

A number of community activist organizations have sprung up since the buyout, most notably the Japantown Task Force which was established to directly obstruct the ability of 3D to pursue new development in the region without community approval. The Task Force often organizes local residents and merchants to enforce attempts to maintain the area's strong cultural hegemony, including keeping many outside franchises from establishing footholds in the mall and blocking developers (either working with 3D Investments or the city) from building new housing in the area.

While I appreciate the desire of those in and around the mall to maintain the cultural atmosphere they've worked so hard to create, I seriously question the logic of excluding new business opportunities while at the same time lamenting the lack of economic vibrancy. Several businesses have closed in the past few years that have not re-opened, and many more are struggling to maintain profitability. Commerce in the area is generated from two primary sources: tourists trading on the afore-mentioned atmosphere and Japanese-American citizens who desire the specialty products sold at ethnic retailers like Nijiya and Kinokuniya.

Attracting new business is the Japan Center's primary goal if it is to survive, and while the residents has taken admirable strides by pursuing community enrichment programs like citizen clean-up and the Better Neighborhood Plan, much more needs to be done. The JTF recently sponsored a petition to block Starbucks from opening a new franchis on Post St., yet trendy coffee shops would seem a surefire way to attract younger clientele. The Task Force also worked against the construction of a new apartment complex at 1481 Post two years ago, and they continue to veto plans by 3D Investment developer EDAW Inc. because they propose to build new housing structures above the mall.

Yet when I spoke to a member of the Task Force about these issues, he specifically cited the isolation of Japantown as one of the primary problems in attracting repeat business. "There's no strong residential base to support merchants," said Darryl Abantao, yet they repeatedly block new housing efforts. They complain of a lack of multi-generational social spaces (i.e. rec centers, playgrounds, or ) yet the community has a history of exercising their veto right (as delineated by Supervisor Mirkarimi's legislation designating the area a "special use" district) to keep new business opportunities out of the mall and surrounding community.

This is a serious problem, and I wonder if groups like the JTF are making the right decision in keeping the area closed to businesses not in keeping with their homogenous atmosphere. I know they wield a significant amount of influence, because uniting the various commercial interests in the area is no mean feat; for example, while the mall building itself is divided among two owners the parking garage is owned by the Municipal Transit Authority, the Peace Plaze is under the jurisdiction of Park & Rec and the office complexes across Geary are owned by a group of Korean doctors. If these disparate elements can come together to keep unwelcome influences out, they could certainly develop a more constructive plan to bring new business to the area. I feel strongly about this issue because San Francisco has the largest and most vibrant nihonmachi of the three left in the U.S., and if it is demolished to make room for a generic strip mall or movie theater the future looks bleak for those in San Jose and New York.

Do you agree? I encourage those interested in the future of the neighborhood to contact the organizations linked in this article and on the link directory.

Video courtesy of the Western Edition.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

We were recently introduced to the mapping tools provided by Google, and though I was originally tempted to map local eateries or public meeting places I feel the following is of greater utility to residents of the Western Addition. The map below illustrates a number of community outreach organizations in the neighborhoods where residents can find safety and support in times of crisis. A complete directory of similar community services can be found here.

View Larger Map

Monday, October 13, 2008

The architectural influences of the Western Addition are diverse at best; at worst, the impressionistic imbroglio of the various neighborhoods leads the puzzled observer from the gentrified Victorian-era firetraps of Alamo Square to the sleek urban-chic developments of Fillmore Street within the space of a few scant blocks.
Pushing even further north leads one across the sound and fury of Geary Boulevard to the imposing Japan Center, a squat and unappealing two-story structure sprawled across the edge of an otherwise quaint and unobtrusive residential neighborhood. Rising out of that imposing edifice is a building many recognize as the symbol of Nihonmachi, the beacon of culture that signals an oasis of Japanese tradition in the sociological smorgasbord of San Francisco. The Japan Center Peace Pagoda is a cultural landmark, a point of pride for civic officials and a wonderful place for grateful visitors to relax in the shade and enjoy a quick lunch.
The massive stone monolith has been a part of the Japan Center since its construction in 1968; at just over 160 feet tall, the imposing foreign edifice inspires both wonder and trepidation in the tourists who take solace in the shelter of the cool stone sanctuary. Like any civic monument worth erecting the Peace Pagoda is surrounded by a number of garish ceremonial plaques, each highlighting in tawny hues of copper and bronze the historic significance of the largest Japantown in the U.S.
Donated by the citizens of Osaka, Japan the Peace Pagoda is a modern interpretation of the traditional Buddhist stupa, structures which were originally constructed to serve as places for worship and veneration of relics left behind by the Buddha. Designed by noted architect Yoshiro Tanaguchi, this variant of traditional stupa construction features a five-tiered design reminiscent of classic Japanese pagodas. Built entirely of concrete, the structure was donated to the citizens of San Francisco as a symbol of peace, communication and goodwill by the denizens of our sister city in Japan.
All this and more can be gleaned from a few minutes spent wandering the Plaza, as numerous civic markers and informational kiosks hidden among the cherry blossom trees proudly proclaim the virtues of a city dedicated to peace, prosperity and cultural acceptance. But with a little time and research, the true nature of the monument’s arrival proves to be a more ambiguous affair. The first Peace Pagodas were constructed at the direction of the Nipponzan-Myohoji, a sect of Buddhism established by Nichidatsu Fujii in an effort to promote peace and non-violent conflict resolution worldwide. Over eighty Pagodas have been built throughout the world as monuments to world peace, yet San Francisco is notably absent from that list. Though the Japan Center bills the imposing edifice as a Peace Pagoda (indeed, the central Peace Plaza takes its name from the monument’s presence) the structure has no connection to the Nipponzan-Myohoji Order, and was built exclusively to generate goodwill and civic pride among a group of people who had but recently returned from government-imposed exile in the internment camps of the second World War.
In the long run this slight deception is little more than intriguing historical trivia; a monument is defined by the feelings it evokes, and according to weary shoppers this solemn shrine reminds them that given enough time and effort, any mistake can be made right. I tried to press a few visitors further on their thoughts concerning the implications of the Peace Plaza serving as a monument to the forced emigration of Japanese-American citizens, but my efforts proved fruitless. The truth is all were drawn to the sanctuary of the plaza by the same indescribable beauty which first ensnared my attention, a strange sense of tranquility which marks a fragile oasis in the otherwise frenetic shuffle of downtown San Francisco.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Brief Introduction

When it comes to first impressions, downtown San Francisco doesn’t skimp; stepping off the bus at the corner of Geary and Webster, the first thing to notice was the overpowering aroma of hearty beef stew and fresh-baked bread which rendered an already rumbling stomach weak with anticipation. Up the street a small Vietnamese noodle house and a dingy Subway outlet shared a choice corner spot, endlessly engaged in a bitter rivalry for the hearts, minds and stomachs (not to mention wallets) of the lunchtime crowd.

And crowd is certainly the consummate choice to describe the neighborhood populace; home to popular tourist spots like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Japan Center, the area does a fairly brisk bit of business thanks to gregarious out-of-towners eager to catch a little taste of San Fran’s uniquely exotic blend of cultures and communities.

The area in and around the Japan Center (hereafter referred to as “Japantown” for ease of use) ended up subverting the lion’s share of my visit, but it wasn’t the first thing to demand my attention as I tightened my jacket against the bitter wind funneled down to street level by the endless apartment complexes and condos which flank Geary Boulevard. A dull roar from just behind the local Safeway drew me closer, where I beheld the Fillmore Farmer’s Market in the last throes of its weekly Friday showcase. The overwhelming auditory assault was the enthusiastic stylings of a local Gospel band celebrating the start of the weekend, and several representatives from local churches had turned out to take advantage of the market crowd; among them were representatives from nearby Third Baptist Church encouraging residents to register for the upcoming election and a young man from Glad Tidings Ministry working to promote the Teen Challenge youth outreach program.

The Fillmore Market has been a boon for local farms and businesses as well as the nearby community; I had the opportunity to speak with many of the shopkeepers as they were dismantling their stalls, and all were positive about the increased commerce and visibility the popular event has afforded them. Max Jacobs, an employee of Tomatero Farms (based out of Watsonville, CA) was quick to point out that his company had been taking advantage of the event for the last five years, and since their first year in attendance the farm had expanded to selling produce at local farmers markets across the city.

Unfortunately, the increased foot traffic in the area may not be an entirely benign phenomenon; many shopkeepers in the nearby Japan Center complained of a recent rash of burglaries, break-ins and blatant petty theft by juvenile patrons. Though they declined to give their names, a pair of security guards who work to patrol the area in and around the commercial center cited vagrant youth moving in from the housing projects along nearby Cleary St. as the primary cause of petty crime in the area. On my way back to the bus stop (the sun had long since begun to set) I chanced to overhear a young couple arguing about a recent theft; when I questioned them, it turns out that the two had suffered a break-in that very evening. An unknown perpetrator had evidently scaled the wall outside the window of their apartment in the Fillmore Center, broken the glass and swiped a laptop computer (valued at $800) before disappearing into the night. The pair (Lyuba Traue and Alex Litvak) were understandably incensed, and Ms. Traue was seriously considering taking legal action against the building owners for negligence and security mismanagement.

Interested in pursuing the matter further (perhaps with the Fillmore Center management) I was slightly disappointed to see my bus had arrived a few minutes early. I think this entry has run on long enough, but I look forward to the chance to get back and explore the neighborhood more deeply.