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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM: San Francisco

Crooked Crossroad

Flocks of Tourists at S.F.'s Famed Twisting Street Drive Residents to Distraction

October 08, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — For six car-honking, exhaust-choked years, Andrew Bacigalupi has lived near the tortured twists of the Russian Hill block known as "the crookedest street in the world," often feeling like a captive of some chaotic carnival ride.

Twenty-four hours a day, camera-toting tourists and day trippers flock to take their turns careening down the serpentine switchbacks of the street that is among the city's top draws.

At the busiest times, gridlocked drivers wait 30 minutes to traverse the 1000 block of Lombard Street as slow-moving motorists snap keepsake vacation photographs of its colorful gardens and stunning city vistas, dodging pedestrians who ignore signs warning them not to walk down the middle of the red-brick roadway.

But the popularity of the block that's become as much a San Francisco symbol as its cable cars and Golden Gate Bridge is prompting residents to call for a stop to the tourist madness. Increased traffic and uncivil visitors make them feel like captives in their own homes.

"If there's an eighth wonder of the world, this is it," says Bacigalupi. "The top of that block gives you three world-class views of San Francisco, and I can understand why tourists clamor to come here. But one thing they have to understand: People live here."

Homeowners recently formed the Crooked Street Task Force to suggest ways to curtail the cars. City workers have also polled neighbors and studied everything from traffic patterns to noise and air pollution.

Next month, officials will present their findings to the Parking and Traffic Commission--weighing solutions that range from closing the street and developing a shuttle from nearby Fisherman's Wharf to posting cops to keep the traffic moving.

Neighbors say the city is being overly cautious for fear of alienating tourists. City officials argue that although the traffic complaints have gone back decades, the interests of both residents and visitors must be considered.

"We've tried things in the past that didn't work," said Amanuel Haile, a city transportation engineer. "This time, we'd all like to see some permanent solutions."

Planners say out-of-towners take too much blame for the congestion. A Memorial Day study found that 54% of drivers were Bay Area residents and 40% were from outside the area. Only 5% were driving the rental cars used by most tourists, according to a city report.

After zipping down the block in a rented Mustang convertible, Seattle tourist San Ng understands how such trips get on the nerves of nearby residents.

"I know I'd get annoyed after awhile," she said. "Why doesn't the city compromise by opening the street only on Saturdays and compensating residents for living so near a tourist draw?"

The 1000 block of Lombard wasn't always the world's crookedest street. Near the turn of the century, the block was among many cartoon-steep straightaways that caused Model Ts to overheat.

Then, in 1922, officials built switchbacks to make the pitch more manageable, adding the brick pedestrian pathways on either side of the roadway.

Twenty-five years later, an enterprising resident planted the hydrangeas that evolved into the swaths of gardens that line the block, the upkeep of which is still paid for by neighborhood residents.

By the 1960s the curvy street was a staple of postcard companies, the movie industry and tourist guidebooks of all languages.

German's Guidebook Leads Him Here

Berlin resident Stephan Schmid recently explained the block's allure. "See, it's in my guidebook," he said. "For many Germans, this is a must-visit. We like things that are well-engineered."

Twice in the 1970s, residents tried to shut down the street, calling for a traffic-barring gate at both ends. But city officials reasoned that they could not close a public street only to outsiders and that, for it to be legal, even residents' cars would have to be banned.

Then-state Sen. Quentin Kopp in 1987 sought to change the law banning public street closings, but his bill was never acted on.

Merr Jaye, a resident of the block since 1966, says the rising level of visitor rudeness suggests it's time to resurrect the closure idea.

Jaye has seen arrogant limousine drivers repeatedly become stuck and have to be towed off the block. She's seen fistfights between motorists vying for photo angles, people throwing trash onto neighborhood lawns, and mothers pushing strollers down the middle of the one-way street.

"They take umbrage when you drive your own block, saying, 'I have the right to stand in the middle of the street,' " says Jaye.

Suddenly, Jaye can't contain herself. She chastises a tourist who blocks traffic while photographing a female companion.

"It's just selfish," she fumes.

Many motorists make illegal left turns to enter the block at its western crest. The traffic is further glutted by the Hyde Street cable car that stops at the block to disgorge even more pedestrians.

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