Amber Hasselbring (left) teaches third grader how to plant a seed in McCoppin Hub. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

The sun shone brightly on McHoppin Hub’s Earth Day celebration Wednesday as a group of third graders performed Louis Armstrong’s classic “It’s a Wonderful World.” But the conversation around McCoppin, which reopened earlier this week following two weeks behind chain-linked fences, hasn’t always been so sunny.

Debate about how the city is dealing with the persistent homeless community that often makes use of the new plaza, first installed in August 2014, has been fierce. When the fences went up, several neighbors saw it as an aggressive act against the homeless, while others welcomed the reprieve from frequent encampments.

“It’s a very different place today than it was a month ago,” said Patrick Simms, who works for the group People in Plazas, which organized the Earth Day celebration. As he spoke, third graders from St. Elizabeth’s Elementary School in Oakland scrambled around the plaza’s ramps and planters and participated in Earth Day activities with representatives from environmental education non-profits.

The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development gave People in Plaza a six month grant to program events in McCoppin Hub, such as the Earth Day one. It’s all towards the goal of “activating the space.” People in Plazas, which has previously organized free lunchtime concerts in office plazas downtown, plans to have frequent events in McCoppin over the next six months.

The idea is to promote the use of the free public plaza but also to bring people into public space for organized events so those spaces are less likely to become havens for crime and transients.

At the Earth Day celebration, a security guard stood sentry. Nearby, signs posted in several places throughout the plaza listed rules against vandalism, camping, alcohol, unpermitted peddling, smoking, and more. (The third graders mostly stayed clear of anything approaching a violation, though they did participate in a friction fire demonstration with the environmental education group Weaving Earth.)

“We don’t want to be kicking people out, it’s a public space,” said Simms about the homeless. In terms of the security presence he explained he didn’t know yet if this would be a regular feature of McCoppin Hub events. “We’re testing it now, it’s a good way to remind people of the rules.”

Lisa Dunmeyer, a longtime resident who lives near McCoppin and came to check out the Earth Day event with her two dogs, described Simms as “part of the solution.”

“Activating the Hub is part of a larger dialogue,” said Dunmeyer about neighborhood quality of life issues and the homeless communities that inhabit the area.

“We need consistency though,” said Dunmeyer. “The reason Hayes Valley’s park is so successful is because of the ice cream and Ritual, they’re always there. It’s consistent.”

Simms says over the next months McCoppin will be abuzz with constant activity. There will a “Day of Dance” with outdoor Salsa lessons and Bhangra performances. McCoppin will host an outdoor movie night organized by SF Docfest. He’s working with various food trucks to return to the space they frequented before McHoppin was constructed. He also wants to host an outdoor jobs fair and new skills workshop.

A former cable car depot, with a history as a drug hotspot, and currently nestled between the 101 off-ramp and a U-Haul rental facility, Simms acknowledges McCoppin is “a strange little place.” Getting it to become a vibrant, attractive public resource for more people to use won’t be easy.

On Earth Day, the third graders of Elizabeth Elementary seemed to enjoy it. After circulating around to tables set up by the organization Nature in the City, where they could seed California indigenous plants, and SF Environment, where they could play a recycling game, they gave a short concert to small gathering of adults.

They did an adorable rendition of “Wonderful World,” “We are the World,” and Joni’ Mitchell’s “Yellow Taxi.”

For their music teacher, Holly Burnett, the lyrics to Mitchell’s song and the famous refrain, “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot,” had a lot of resonance for her Oakland students.

“In their neighborhoods, every open space is getting made into a condo,” said Burnett, who said she appreciated a public space like McCoppin. “There’s barely any parks where a lot these students live.”

Once the third graders headed home for the day, foot traffic slowed and there were few neighbors to check out the environmental groups’ activities. Though other neighborhood school groups were expected to arrive.

“It’s a lull now, maybe it will pick up later this afternoon, but this is a good first step,” said Simms. “This is just day one and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.”

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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