How a San Francisco neighborhood group helped turn a dilapidated city bridge into a public art project

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

One of her outdoor walks led her to the Portola Pedestrian Overpass, an unattractive pedestrian bridge that connects at least five residential neighborhoods in western San Francisco.

Demick, 78, is the type of person at his best when a project consumes him. By the time she made her way through the trash and woodland choking the four-lane bridge on Portola Drive, she had one.

She posted flyers on the bridge’s poles to raise $8,000 and then kicked another $4,000 herself. An artist was commissioned while Demmick’s volunteer crew cleaned up so the city could wash the bridge.

Things went so fast that the neighborhood group didn’t even have time to name themselves. Now, the 108-foot concrete expanse that connects West Portal on the north side with Miraluma Park on the south is a freshly painted, graffiti-free work of art.

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

Kensington Bridge, as it is widely known, is one example of a number of neighborhood beautification projects undertaken since the COVID-19 shutdown.

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

In the Bayview District, a damaged plot to the right of Caltrans Road was designed and fitted with mosaic letters spelling “Bayview”. The Portola Garden Club has converted a strip of buffer land along San Bruno شارع Street At Greenway Highway.

All projects have been accelerated by Carla Short, the interim director of Public Works for San Francisco, who oversees city roads and right of way roads.

“I am always ready to help members of the community who want to improve their neighborhoods,” Short said.

“I believe in the ‘broken window’ effect,” Short said.

Residential developments took off west of Twin Peaks after a tram tunnel was blown through the mountain and pushed the commute line west, in 1918. The neighborhoods are small and clan and the streets tend to be narrow and graceful, converging at roundabouts to hold them. From the network of streets that extend west to the ocean.

As the main street of the car park, the West Portal hub has traffic circles, brokers, islands, and Parklets that must be planted and maintained. When it wasn’t planted and maintained by the city to Demick’s satisfaction, she started doing the job herself.

For at least the past five years, Dorchester median, West Portal Walkway, and Dewey Circle have all been renovated by resident volunteers in partnership with the Department of Urban Forestry, a city agency. The driving force is Demick and her 60-person email list that she’s amassed by knocking on doors in her neighborhood, Forest Hill, Forest Hill Extension, Edgehill, Miraluma Park and St. Francis Wood.

Her cohesion was infectious,” said neighborhood volunteer John O’Dell, who met Demick three years ago when he had just moved into the neighborhood. While riding his bike around Dewey Circle, he saw a woman tending plants and stopped chatting. It was Demick. That same day he got off his bike and started helping her out.

The Portola pedestrian overhead bridge, widely known as the Kensington Bridge, was built after an expansion and beautification of Portola Drive on Medium in 1963. The bridge’s design is mid-century modern and “people were afraid to use it,” said Demick who moved to West Portal with Her husband, Steve, 1994.

Doug Barry has used the bridge twice a day for 27 years to walk from his home in Miraluma Park to catch a tram at West Portal Station.

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

Neighbors walked out with garbage bags and grit, and a crew of public works carried them away by truckload.

Since the bridge is a city-owned structure, three city agencies—San Francisco Public Works, the Estates Department and the Arts Commission—had to sign off on the design. The artwork on five columns by Darren Blaban Untitled, to go with the unknown, to fit the untitled theme of the neighborhood group she sponsored.

“What happened is that the bridge brought the city and the residents together,” Demick said. “This is a partnership that works for everyone.”

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: Tweet embed

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