Beneath an arc of oak trees on Golden Gate Park’s JFK Promenade, a large crowd of San Franciscans gathered last week to celebrate the victory of Proposition J. In a high-stake midterm election, Proposition J — the “Safe Parks for All” measure — beat out Proposition I, solidifying JFK Drive as car-free JFK Promenade. At the celebration, state Senator Scott Wiener took to the mic and said, “This took 50 years. It’s been a fight, with ups and downs, different ballot measures but it’s finally over because the people of San Francisco have spoken.”
Unknown to many, the seeds of the Proposition J movement were planted in the ‘70s roller skating boom. Bumping disco from boom boxes, tens of thousands San Franciscans took to skating on polyurethane wheels — the first wheel to allow for outdoor roller skating.
In the summer of 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Something’s happening in Golden Gate Park and even the birds and the bees and the flowers and trees — not to mention that species called pedestrians — are trying to stay out of the way of what one man calls the ‘roller phenomenon.’”
Founder of the Church of 8 Wheels roller rink — aka the “Godfather of Skate” — the Rev. David Miles Jr. calls those days the “wild, wild, west of roller skating.” Neighbors called in noise complaints, the news sensationalized skate injuries, and the city threatened to ban skating completely from Golden Gate Park.
In response, the Recreation and Parks Department formed the Skate Patrol in 1979. Led by Miles Jr., the team aided injured skaters and pedestrians. “We were the rebel rousers of the park, we were the ones [the city] wanted to get rid of, but that changed when we became the Skate Patrol,” he said.
According to Miles Jr., the patrol administered CPR to park goers on multiple occasions and helped the cops arrest a shooter on one occasion, all while on skates. Not stopping there, the patrol mobilized to advocate for car-free spaces in GGP and laid the groundwork for the success of Proposition J — successfully lobbying for Skatin’ Place, the skaters’ haven on JFK Drive and 6th Ave.
Since those early days, Proposition J has seen many iterations from holiday closures to a proposed six month car-free schedule. Remembering it all, Miles Jr. said, “Everytime, we would get something. The first time we got the Monday holiday closures and that was cool. I thought, ‘hey, we’re making progress.’”
Along the way, Proposition J organizers faced pushback from various opponents like Prop I’s key supporter, the deYoung Museum. But Proposition J campaigners remained undeterred and found their turning point at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.
In 2020, an ordinance unrolled by Mayor London Breed closed off parts of JFK Drive as well as the Great Highway— giving residents the freedom to get out into nature without breaking social distancing protocol.
Janelle Wong, Executive Director of the SF Bicycle Coalition, a key Proposition J advocacy group, said, “I think if there could be a silver lining of the pandemic it would be that people, for the first time, saw what it would be like to be car free 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
With the park closed off to car traffic, a shift occurred. The SF Bicycle Coalition reported a 36% increase in park visitors after the closing of JFK and roller skating came back into the mainstream.
In July of 2020, roller skating went viral on Tik Tok and a world wide shortage of roller skates ensued. San Franciscans indulged in the fun; throughout the pandemic days, young and old skaters weaved between runners, families walked their furry friends, and bikers commuted safely on the Promenade.
In April of this year, the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority held a special joint meeting to semi-permanently decide the fate of JFK Drive. For nine hours, board members heard comments from the public and then voted, 7-4 to approve then-JFK Drive as a car-free JFK Promenade.
The legislation that passed stipulated that JFK Promenade would remain closed off to private vehicles as long as accessibility improvements were made under the supervision of SFMTA and SF Recreation and Parks.
Supervisors Catherine Stefani and Gordon Mar introduced amendments requiring that city officials provide quarterly reports for two years on the progress of increasing accessibility for disabled folks and elders.
Since April, the city has built a parking lot behind the Music Concourse bandshell and has added 29 accessible spots, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — exceeding the previous amount of ADA spots available.
This November election, the battle lines were fiercely drawn between opposing campaigns: Proposition I and Proposition J. Proposition I argued that a car-free Promenade would prevent disabled people and elders from accessing the park’s amenities. But, the changes made by Supervisors Stefani and Mar, answered those concerns.
“We’ve been fighting for so long that every issue they could come up with had been answered,” Miles Jr. said. “There’s a shuttle going up and down the street, there’s a parking lot, ADA parking and more than ever before.”
For Supervisor Mar, Proposition J is as personal as it is public. Over the pandemic, he began bicycling through the Promenade to get from his home to meetings at City Hall.
“It really changed my perspective on car-free streets,” Mar said. “Seeing that they’re not just a hobby, or supporting some folks who ride for recreation. They really can be a key part of addressing our transportation through climate action.”
The Proposition J majority vote on Nov. 8 showed that organizers had at last overcome their largest challenge — one of “showing people the vision of what JFK people have always known,” said Wong. A vision of the Promenade embodying a safe space anchored in community, the arts, climate responsibility and of course, love.
Ben Davis, CEO of Illuminate SF, the organization responsible for many of the park’s latest recreational additions, chimed in on the win and the long-winded battle for it.
“We had a lot of talk about votes, a lot of talk about cars. We had a sense of fight in our spines but the word we don’t use enough in the civic space is love and that’s what this space is about,” Davis said. “It’s the compact of love and keeping each other safe that you and I see manifesting as people slow down to enjoy this space.”
Now, newly painted murals pave the Promenade, mini free-book stands and pianos dot the path and live musicians sing beneath the oak trees.
Reflecting on these changes, Miles Jr., said, “From starting with Skate Patrol to coming to where we are now, it is just unbelievable. It is unbelievable.”
He added with a smile, “You don’t see no advertising, you don’t see no selling stuff, none of that, it’s a park. This is what a park is supposed to be.”
Sage Bliss-Rios Mace is a fourth-year sociology major. They are the Foghorn’s opinion editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.