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 took her to the Portola Pedestrian Overpass, an unattractive walkway that connects at least five residential neighborhoods in western San Francisco.

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

She posted flyers on the pillars of the bridge to raise $8,000, then donated another $4,000 herself. An artist was hired while Demmick’s team of volunteers did the cleanup so the city could power wash the bridge.

Everything happened so quickly that the neighborhood group never had time to give themselves a name. And now, the 108-foot concrete span that connects West Portal in the north to Miraloma Park in the south is a freshly painted, graffiti-free work of art.

“Everyone thinks I’m a maniac, 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 for neighbors to get to know each other.”

The Kensington Bridge, as it is more widely known, is an 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 entitled “Bridging the Bernal Cut” by Andre Jones on the Richland Bridge connecting College Hill to Glen Park.

In the Bayview district, degraded land on the Caltrans right-of-way was landscaped and fitted with mosaic letters spelling out “Bayview”. The Portola Garden Club has transformed a strip of buffer land along San Bruno Avenue into the Freeway Greenway.

The projects were all accelerated by Carla Short, San Francisco’s acting director of public works, which oversees the city’s roads and rights-of-way.

“I’m always ready to help community members who want to improve their neighborhood,” Short said.

“I believe in the ‘broken window’ effect. If there’s a well-kept neighborhood, people think twice about throwing a cup of coffee out the car window,” Short said.

Residential developments west of Twin Peaks took off after the streetcar tunnel was destroyed through the mountain and the transmission line was pushed west, in 1918. The neighborhoods are small and clannish and the streets tend to be narrow and winding, meeting at roundabouts to define them. off the street grid that goes west to the ocean.

As the main tram stop, the West Portal hub has roundabouts and medians, islets and parklets that need to be planted and maintained. When they were not planted and maintained by the city to Dimmick’s satisfaction, she began to do the work herself.

Over the past five years or more, the Dorchester Median, West Portal Walkway and Dewey Circle have all been refurbished by volunteer residents in partnership with the Department of Urban Forestry, a municipal agency. The driving force is Dimmick and her mailing list of 60 which she amassed knocking on doors in her own neighborhood and in Forest Hill, Forest Hill Extension, Edgehill, Miraloma Park and St. Francis Wood.

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

The Portola Pedestrian Overpass, widely known as the Kensington Bridge, was built after Portola Drive was widened and beautified with a median in 1963. The design of the bridge 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 West Portal Station.

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

Neighbors came out with trash bags and determined, and a Public Works crew picked him up and trucked him out.

Because the bridge is a city-owned structure, three city agencies—San Francisco Public Works, the Real Estate Department, and the Arts Commission—all had to approve the design. Darin Balaban’s five-pillar artwork is untitled, to go with the unnamed, to match the untitled design of the neighborhood group that sponsored it.

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

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

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