The Politics of a Beautiful Neighborhood
By Joel P. Engardio
The uglier national politics get, some seek solace in local matters.
“It’s stressful spinning your wheels on big issues you can’t control,” said West Portal resident Kate King. “You can only write so many checks to the ACLU. So, I decided to pour my energy into hyper local projects.”
Focusing on community improvements might sound like a good way to renew civic faith. But what happens when local concerns end up feeling as divisive as the national ones?
“Neighborhood beautification should be a no-brainer,” said King, who organized neighbors to clean up a walkway overgrown with weeds near her home. “I was surprised by the number of challenges and road blocks I faced.”
While there was agreement the West Portal walkway was unsightly, some longtime residents didn’t trust a makeover would look better.
“They were afraid we’d rip everything out and make it modern and glossy,” King said. “Status quo becomes a powerful force when people believe nothing will be as great as it was way back when.”
The homeowners who remember mid-century West Portal have defined the neighborhood for decades. But King represents change across San Francisco that isn’t always embraced by longtime residents. She moved into West Portal four years ago and her husband works for Google. They have two kids under six.
“There’s a tension between new folks and those who’ve been here generations. I’ve lived in San Francisco 14 years and I’m still not considered a citizen by some,” King said. “But I believe our neighborhood beautification project can bridge that gap.”
King, 41, found an unlikely partner and mentor in her 75-year-old next-door neighbor. Carol Dimmick has lived in West Portal for more than 25 years.
“I live in the present and so many of my peers don’t,” Dimmick said. “I say learn from the past and embrace that we’re here now.”
Dimmick faced resistance to her efforts to beautify a street median and the 90-foot traffic artery Dewey Circle.
Some residents didn’t want any one person or committee to direct the renovation. They recalled previous attempts that fizzled out years ago. They also feared a betrayal of neighborhood character. What if the weeds were replaced with something even worse?
Yet what King and Dimmick have done so far, in partnership with city agencies and neighborhood associations, looks tasteful and respects West Portal’s history. They even replaced a missing urn on Dewey Circle with an exact replica.
California lilacs, Bird of Paradise plants and a Yucca tree grace the walkway. Nothing crazy.
Still, Dimmick has a hard time winning people over when she knocks on doors for volunteers and donations to maintain the Dewey Circle project.
Some are uneasy it could lead to more drastic changes, like closing a parking lot for a weekend farmer’s market or building housing above retail on West Portal Avenue. These are the two most controversial ideas in the debate over how to keep the local business district alive.
“I stay away from those issues,” said Dimmick. “You can’t talk about those things productively when people are being defensive. The only way to get people to hear and listen is after you’ve established a connection.”
The focus on foliage and flowers is a good connector, considering 45 residents showed up to prune a portion of the walkway.
“Neighbors were meeting for the first time,” King said. “We were able to model civic responsibility to our kids and each other.”
Building community is King and Dimmick’s larger purpose. It’s essential for neighborhood safety and resiliency, especially after a fire or earthquake.
It’s also hard for City Hall to ignore an organized neighborhood where residents have a variety of talents, like knowing how to navigate local government.
“I can make a website, but I’m no good at knocking on a city supervisor’s door,” King said. “I’m so glad we have Carol for that.”
Dimmick’s effort to beautify the Dorchester street median led to a discovery that the road itself was unstable. The city ended up having to install 30-foot concrete pilings under the new flowerbeds to shore up the street, at great expense.
“The Dorchester and Dewey Circle projects were challenging for the neighbors, city agencies and for me,” Dimmick said. “But I learned a lot and everyone stepped up.”
King was impressed at how Dimmick persisted.
“Carol can interface with all those department heads at City Hall in a way I never could,” King said. “I don’t have her thick skin and tenacity. She is tough. If people aren’t giving answers, she’ll get them. The lady gets things done.”
After raising two sons, Dimmick began a mid-life career as an investigative journalist. She turned her attention to neighborhood issues in retirement.
Today, the Dorchester median looks gorgeous. The West Portal walkway is progressing and the improvements at Dewey Circle turn heads. As word spreads, people want to know if King and Dimmick’s formula for collaboration can work in other neighborhoods
Dimmick said imparting lessons on grant writing and other processes is possible. But what can’t be bottled is the mix of people who complement and support each other to keep a project from falling into dysfunction and acrimony.
“Kate and I have very different personalities. She can make people feel welcome and comfortable, which isn’t my strength,” Dimmick said. “It’s important to work with people who understand themselves, can accept what they’re good at and know when to pull back.”
King said a winning team requires both “good and bad cop” roles along with a combination of optimists and realists who agree to put community interests over their own.
Several drivers traveling around Dewey Circle honked in appreciation recently when they spotted Dimmick tending some plants. Perhaps they will be inspired to take up a civic project, too.
This is Dimmick’s goal, which also happens to be an antidote to the current national discourse.
“We need to create an atmosphere of respect so we can talk about issues honestly without being fearful of change,” she said. “We can start right here in our neighborhood, working on something visible that makes people feel good.”