How this S.F. neighborhood group helped turn a decrepit city bridge into a public art project

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How this S.F. neighborhood group helped turn a decrepit city bridge into a public art project

When the pandemic shut down Carol Dimmick’s neighborhood gym, she needed a way to burn off excess energy.

One of her outdoor walks led her to the Portola Crossing, an uninviting footbridge that connects at least five neighborhoods in west San Francisco.

Dimmick, 78, is the type of person at her best when consumed by a project. By the time she made her way through the trash and brush that choked the bridge that spanned four lanes of Portola Drive, she had one.

She posted flyers on the bridge’s piers to raise $8,000 and kicked in another $4,000 herself. An artist was hired while Demmick’s volunteer crew did the cleanup so the city could power wash the bridge.

It all happened so quickly that the neighborhood group never had time to give itself a name. And now the 108-foot concrete span that connects West Portal on the north with Miraloma Park on the south is a freshly painted and graffiti-free work of art.

“Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but that’s how I meet people,” said Dimmick, a retired attorney who has lived in West Portal for 30 years. “My idea was to open up these two communities so that neighbors would get to know each other.”

The Kensington Bridge, as it is more commonly known, is one example of a number of neighborhood beautification projects undertaken since the COVID-19 lockdown.

Elsewhere in the city, the College Hill Neighborhood Association sponsored a mural called “Bridging the Bernal Cut” by Andre Jones on the Richland Bridge that connects College Hill to Glen Park.

In the Bayview District, a blighted piece of land on the Caltrans right-of-way has been landscaped and outfitted with mosaic letters that spell out “Bayview.” The Portola Garden Club turned a strip of buffer land along San Bruno Avenue into the Freeway Greenway.

The projects were all expedited by Carla Short, interim director of San Francisco Public Works, which oversees city roads and rights-of-way.

“I am always willing to help community members who want to improve their neighborhood,” Short said.

“I believe in ‘the broken window’ effect. If there’s a well-maintained neighborhood, think twice before they throw a coffee mug out the car window,” Short said.

The residential developments west of Twin Peaks took off after the streetcar tunnel was blasted through the mountain and the commuter line pushed west, in 1918. The neighborhoods are small and crowded and the streets tend to be narrow and crooked, meeting at roundabouts to settle them. away from the street grid that runs west to the sea.

As the main street car stop, the hub of West Portal has traffic circles and medians and islands and parks to be planted and maintained. When they weren’t planted and maintained by the city to Dimmick’s satisfaction, she began doing the work herself.

Over at least the past five years, Dorchester Median, West Portal Walkway, and Dewey Circle have all been renovated by resident volunteers in cooperation with the Bureau of Urban Forestry, a division of Public Works. The driving force is Dimmick and her e-mail list of 60 she gathered by knocking in her own neighborhood and Forest Hill, Forest Hill Extension, Edgehill, Miraloma Park and St. Francis Wood.

“Her tenacity was infectious,” said John Odell, a neighborhood volunteer, who met Dimmick three years ago when he had just moved to the neighborhood. As he rode his bike around Dewey Circle, he saw a woman tending to the plants and stopped to chat. It was Dimmick. The same day he got off his bike and started helping her out.

The Portola Crossing, widely known as Kensington Bridge, was built after Portola Drive was widened and beautified with a median in 1963. The bridge design is mid-century modern and “people were afraid to use it,” said Dimmick, who moved to West Portal. with her husband, Steve, in 1994.

Doug Barry used the bridge twice a day for 27 years to walk from his home in Miraloma Park to catch the streetcar at the West Portal station.

“There was a lot of scrubbing, a lot of brush, a lot of trash, no color,” said Barry, who was one of the first residents of Miraloma Park to join the West Portal push to clean up the bridge and the surrounding landscape.

The neighbors went out with garbage bags and determination, and a Public Works crew picked it up and hauled it away with the truck.

Because the bridge is a city-owned structure, three city agencies—San Francisco Public Works, the Department of Real Estate, and the Arts Commission—all had to sign off on the design. The artwork on five pillars by Darin Balaban is untitled, to go with the nameless, to match the untitled motif of the neighborhood group that sponsored it.

“What happened is the bridge brought the city and the residents together,” Dimmick said. “It’s a partnership that works for everyone.”

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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