What Indian cities could learn from a San Francisco street festival

At a time when narratives of mistrust, exclusion and discrimination in our cities are all too common, the author finds an urban street festival across the globe that explicitly encourages intermingling of its diverse citizens, prompting each to know more about ‘the other’.

The glass doors slid open, an air-conditioned breeze hitting our faces. It was less cold and much less forceful than San Francisco’s winds on the street. Some of my classmates and I (students from around the world) had come to the San Francisco Planning Department’s office on one of our weekly co-curricular visits. Our university would take us to different organizations in the city each week, for a chance to learn about their work and how it was impacting the city that we had arrived in only very recently.

Just like how we stood at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, marvelling at the wonder that this city’s ancestors had built, we approached these organizations with reverence and awe. We assumed we were to stand silently, nod our heads and ask some questions – we were here to learn from the city.

“Alright, so what do you think the Civic Centre situation is lacking?”, one of the men in the suits threw at us, almost immediately. Perhaps catching the utterly blank look on our faces,  he added “Isn’t that like less than a hundred meters from where  you live?”

Someone in our bunch muttered a confused yes, when he piped up again “Well then, tell me what you see! What’s lacking, what’s wrong with the space? And what’s right?”

The conversation gradually had us wheeling around to the lack of public toilets in the space which forced the homeless people there to openly defecate and the lack of shade to sit under in the Civic Centre Park which made the space less inviting during the afternoons.  And there, they had what they intended, those people at the SF Planning Department.

If we were living in San Francisco, then we were citizens that needed to look around the city  and start speaking up. Living and walking along those streets was the only qualifier anyone needed, to be a part of the community and to march with it and this is the message they began to drive home for us, that day.

They began to drive it home for San Francisco, with the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

The Market Street Prototyping festival

At the turn of fall to winter in October, when the winds started getting noticeably more cold and only less forceful in San Francisco, the SF Planning Department organized the annual Market Street Prototyping Festival. Market Street, cutting across nearly all of San Francisco is iconic because of the intense variety of people it hosts everyday. Everyday, it sees a horde of homeless people finding shelter under its street lights; it sees tall, glamorous women headed towards Union Square. It sees children clutching their icecreams from the waterfront at Pier 39, it sees techies zooming past on their hoverboards headed to the Twitter headquarters.

Everyday, it saw us drawing our curtains from our ever-so-slightly worse for wear hostel building facing the Uber Headquarters, bang on 10th and Market. Yet, somehow we were all oblivious to each other and to Market Street – some of us because we didn’t belong, some of us because they didn’t belong enough for us to care.

For months before the festival, the SFPD had been reaching out to multiple communities – rich and poor, young and old, black and white alike – asking them to open their eyes more, when they walked down Market Street everyday. They asked the creative budding prototypers in the community – some school children, some architects and even that unemployed guy that liked to tinker around in the hanging garden in his verandah – to come up with temporary installments on Market Street.

With the support and guidance of professional prototypers, provided by the SFPD, the San Francisco community came up with multiple temporary installments along Market Street, for the few days of the festival and a few days before and after.

The prototypes were designed to have people on Market Street engage with them and in the process, with each other. They automatically aroused curiosity amongst the walkers of Market Street, resulting immediately in a lot of incidents of unusual mingling and empathy. “We did this to sensitize the people of San Francisco to change and to each other; you’re only going to like it [change or the community] if you’re a part of it.” one of the SFPD staff said.

They engaged around 590,000 San Franciscans on the streets in over the three days of the festival (and many more in online campaigns). People began creating art together under one street lamp, adding their own little masterstrokes to a larger canvas painted by the rest of the San Francisco community, some of them began to talk to each other to paint a spot together.

If you were waiting for the next bus at the bus-stop, there would be a tiny box with a lever that you would rotate until the box spit out a piece of paper for you. This paper had the message or story of another random San Franciscan, for you to smile at and scribble something onto – for the next person at the bus-stop.

And when you got off the bus, two stations down the road, you would be greeted by a band of musicians and random instruments that you could pick up to join the band. Because who doesn’t want to create some cheery music for the bunch playing a game right across the street, where you had to tag the next stranger to continue the game?

The magic of communication

This wasn’t just any festival that had the city in raptures, the kind that made even the morose old lady from the neighbourhood smile at the lemonade vendor – don’t we have our own shares of Diwali and Eid festivities? This was more. The city was intentionally prompting its diverse citizens to communicate with each other in ‘safe spaces’ and try talking to each other – because once the other becomes a more known entity, we don’t unconsciously alienate them.

I would walk down Market Street, just like I did down MG Road. I avoided the homeless man meddling with a filthy trolley carrying all his life’s possessions at Patricia’s Green Park, just like I avoided eye contact with every man on a BMTC bus. But because San Francisco made me and the the lady wearing Prada, figure out the history of San Francisco, together in a game – I wanted to speak to the lady wearing the faded blue coat, sweeping my street everyday.

I wanted to ask her what her story was, how she came to Bangalore and talk about the service she does for my, our city everyday. If the lady wearing Prada spent thirty years in San Francisco and still had something to learn about the city by the bay with me, through me – imagine the Bangalore, or the Delhi we will be discovering if the several millions in the city simply spoke to each other.

The auto-rickshaw uncle that refuses to take you and your friend from Lalbagh to Church Street only because your friend is black, wouldn’t do that if he had spoken to the Ugandan youth in Cubbon Park two days earlier, as they planted a sapling together. He wouldn’t think the black man would immediately mug him, because he would know that there was another black man in the city actually working at an NGO working for the betterment of Bengaluru.

The aunty that asked the Manipuri girl whether she speaks Hindi, wouldn’t have if she had been on the same team in a victorious game of dodgeball at Juhu Beach, where she would’ve learnt that the Manipuri girl was born and brought up in Bombay.

Imagine a Bangalore and a Calcutta, where conversations at the bus-stop, at the departmental store when you shop for eggs and milk, at the saree store where you’re trying to find the perfect purple and when you walk by your neighbour’s door – are intentionally made more inquisitive and less judgemental.

Do you think a Dilli-Haat and a Powai would see less hostility, more genuine curiosity and a real citizen community then? Would we then finally belong, truly become an insider of the cities that we all so heavily populate and claim to love?

Also read: When do you become an insider in your city?

[This is the second story in a series by the author, on a study tour through seven cities across the world, trying to find home in them. As she does so, she notices that amongst all their starkly different lanes, cuisines and homes, there are similar stories being told, similar situations and also potentially similar solutions that may be weaved.]

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