It’s been about nine months since San Francisco artists painted a diverse array of murals on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, taking advantage of the busy road’s closure to vehicle traffic during the pandemic and contributing to an outdoor community space for all.
Here’s their story.
The first, obvious sign that change was underfoot in the area was the sight of paint cans and trays, bright orange cones, taped-off sections, construction work signs and people, brushes and rollers in hand, creating something colorful on the pavement.
Then came the three massive dachshund heads wearing chef hats (Doggie Diner Heads) smack dab in the middle of the road, along with the grand pianos, the enormous L-O-V-E blocks, potted-tree-filled rest spaces, a coffee caravan and no fewer than 100 yellow Adirondack chairs.
“All of this was sort of precedent-setting, never mind happening in a matter of weeks,” says Ben Davis, founder and chief visionary officer of Illuminate.
The hurriedly installed, yet thoughtful and unique, additions to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are components of the Golden Mile Project, a collaborative effort initiated in September 2022 to establish the Promenade as a definitive public space. The 1.5-mile stretch of John F. Kennedy Drive (i.e., the Promenade) was literally and visually transformed over the course of a mere couple of months. Ever since, it has existed as an active, art-filled outdoor hub for social gatherings, exercise and community connection.
Says Davis, “It came alive in a short amount of time, transforming it into a space where there was a much higher form of social function. Suddenly, people with dogs and children and seniors and people in wheelchairs were vulnerably in the midst of the public and felt safe to do so. It sent a signal to the cyclists who were still going too fast that they had to just slow down and give in to this greater space.”
Illuminate, the arts-focused nonprofit organization steering the Golden Mile Project, is also the source of the Bay Bridge LED lights sculpture (“The Bay Lights”) and Golden Gate Park projects including the light projection on the exterior of the Conservatory of Flowers; the Spreckels Temple of Music (Bandshell) revitalization; and the supporting of sculptor Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning,” also in the Music Concourse.
Pre-pandemic, JFK Drive was a busy stretch in the park, with cars going east and west, often to destinations not in the park. Drivers used the road as a cut through, flanked by speeding cyclists in designated bike lanes. That changed in 2020 with COVID-19, as people were looking for safe, spacious outdoor locations to escape the confines of their homes. JFK Drive (and a few other roads in the park) closed to vehicle traffic and became a sanctuary for many during an unquestionably difficult time.
Legislation in April 2022 maintained JFK Drive as a pedestrian-friendly, car-free space. Then, in November 2022, San Francisco voters passed Proposition J, making the closure permanent. Suffice it to say, the Golden Mile Project had a strong influence on that majority vote.
But the project was more an intentional visual demonstration of what the Promenade could be than a political action. The aim was to show that it could serve an improved purpose, as a public space for residents to visit, explore, freely wander about and enjoy.
Davis explains, “I didn’t think it was political just to show people what was there. We didn’t want to tell anyone how to vote. We just wanted to show them what they had. … It’s mind-blowing in terms of what’s possible when we give ourselves permission to think differently about the space that we live in.”
To carry out the project, Illuminate obtained an encroachment permit from the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, and a series of contingent agreements gave them permission to “activate” the road. In partnership with several local organizations, including the American Indian Cultural District, the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone, the San Francisco Parks Alliance and Walk San Francisco, organizers set out to transform the project idea into a reality.
Davis immediately called the San Francisco nonprofit Paint the Void, which supports and facilitates public murals made by local artists, connecting with founders Shannon Riley and Meredith Winner to quickly get to work on a key feature of the Golden Mile Project.
Winner explains, “There was a big push to get it [the murals] done before the elections were happening in November because there was going to be a ballot measure to reopen the streets, and he [Ben Davis] wanted to really show that this is an amazing space for the people in our community to enjoy.”
Davis and Paint the Void came up with the plan to put a dozen murals down the center of JFK Drive, edge to edge in many cases. Their objective was to make it feel less like a road for cars and more like a place for people. Though they were unable to remove the stripes from JFK Drive, they obtained permission to put paint on it.
“We started, right off the bat, getting a kind of a superhero and diversity poster of artists,” says Davis.
Riley and Winner got to work, efficiently figuring out logistics for the endeavor.
“It really was an incredibly fast timeline with a lot of unknowns. … The park was closed to cars, so we were like, ‘How do you get materials in? How do we clean the sidewalks?’ We didn’t have a huge budget considering the size of the murals, but we worked with a lot of amazing artists who were down for the cause and that we have connected a lot with over the years,” says Winner.
“When this project came up, Shannon [Riley] called me because she was like, ‘Well, we want you to do this, but also who else do you think we could ask to do this?’ Because, I mean, I don’t know every artist in the area, but as an art gallery, we have a pretty good reach. So that’s how I got involved,” says Seibot, whose “Flower Boi Crosswalk” piece is just outside Golden Gate Park’s rose garden.
Seibot and other artists were involved in selecting their murals’ locations. Riley and Winner supported the artists’ creative freedom, not requiring them to go with a certain theme or concept for their murals, though they did offer suggestions.
Winner shares, “Because the spaces were so large, we encouraged more swaths of color, and it couldn’t be as detailed as some of the artists would have liked because there was so much space to cover. … It was a fast process with a tight budget and we couldn’t use the highest grade of paint. We just worked with what we had.”
Once designs, motifs, size and color were proposed, discussed and decided upon, paint was purchased and the murals began to take shape, paint brush strokes precise and swift.
Hurd said Riley and Winner thought that, with its rainbow theme, it represented San Francisco. “They kind of figured out that for the space that I had chosen, a larger piece would work better. And so it ended up being I think one of the biggest pieces of the project.”
Hurd painted it by himself, without help from volunteers. It took him approximately two weeks to complete.
Hurd says, “I thought it would just be something that would be positive and bright and vibrant for people. … It was a lot of work, but I’m grateful for it being big; I think you kind of get immersed in it. If you’re there, you kind of feel like it’s everywhere.”
Hurd and Seibot say their experience offered them an opportunity to interact with park visitors, and many stopped to chat.
Shares Seibot, “One hundred percent of the comments were ‘Looks great.’ ‘Love it.’ ‘This is beautiful.’ No one really said anything about the piece itself. They were giving me feedback about the art in the park in general. And they were just very thankful that I was doing this.”
Some people they met now follow them on Instagram. Others they spoke with at length were simply delighted with the presence of art itself in the city.
As Seibot explains, “I feel like the sentiment was that we were all kind of feeling like this is sort of the San Francisco that people who had lived here for a long time really missed. The weird San Francisco. The ‘let’s put a piano in the middle of the street and paint it’ San Francisco. Older folks would say to me, ‘There used to be so much more art here, and it was always just very encouraging. …I felt like [the project] was a collective thing.”
Hurd said passersby “were nonstop curious and asking questions—what was the project about, where was the art inspired by, who was I as an artist and where was I from—almost almost to a point where I was like, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got to work.’”
While the inquiries sometimes paused Hurd’s work, he appreciated being able to meet people, tell them about it and give them the opportunity to witness art-in-progress.
“I loved seeing parents tell their kids, ‘He’s painting that; he’s doing the colors.’ For them, it was like, ‘Oh, wow, this thing’s being made right in front of us,’” shares Hurd, who is enjoying the fact that roaming children, their parents and caregivers, dog-walkers and other visitors are interacting with the art.
“I hope this [mural] is kind of something that people can play around with in different ways, whether it’s by riding their bike through or running. Even while I was working, kids were kind of jumping in between the colors and the shapes and stuff like that. So I kind of thought of it as a playground piece,” he comments.
Now, nine months since the initial “go” date for the Golden Mile Project, the murals on the Promenade show clear signs of wear and tear. The paint is less vivid; some sections of the murals entirely gone because of weather conditions and consistent foot and wheel traffic.
“I think public art, especially if it’s eye level or ground level, has a natural shelf life. I think it’s just the nature of having things out in the world that are sort of part of the public ecosystem,” Seibot says.
Both Seibot and Hurd are on board with refreshing, updating and perhaps even adding changes to their pieces at some point.
A plan is in place to continue evolving the Golden Mile, with Paint the Void and Illuminate giving thought to reactivating the space. As the nature of the Promenade has altered, so too have the aspirations for it.
There is a larger conversation with SF Rec & Parks and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency about taking the stripes off JFK Drive. The markings go deep into the asphalt and consequently would need to be scraped away, a process that would disrupt the murals and demolish pieces of them.
But Davis says doing so is the right choice, to get the road clean so that it “purges the energy” of what was there before and highlights its new use.
He explains, “We have to let that process get sorted through until we figure out, do we replace? Do we repair? Do we reposition any paintings?”
While careful considerations of the Golden Mile’s future are taking place, JFK Drive continues to offer the San Francisco community the opportunity to enjoy a one-of-a-kind space simply by being out there, relishing its features and encouraging the project’s aims.
“As a community, it’s important that we really keep bringing love and creativity to the Golden Mile. Because, one, it’s the payoff of itself, right? It’s just great to have. But also it’s a source of inspiration for the rest of San Francisco; it’s a source of inspiration for the rest of the world. And it really is a unique opportunity to move into an already sacred space and find ways to make it resonate even more so. … So I don’t know what the specific outcome is, but I think people should know that it’s not a process that’s abstracted from them. They’re part of it,” says Davis.
He adds, “And, really, we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”
The Golden Mile Project offers a family-friendly Beer & Wine Garden (with alcohol service for ages 21 and older) from noon to 7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, in Golden Gate Park’s East Meadow, with live music, food trucks and lawn games. For information, visit https://goldenmileproject.org/events/.