Standing on a busy Guerrero Street sidewalk, Jim Chappell held a shrub cutter that looked like it could do some damage. But he effused warmth and gentleness, dressed in a fluorescent vest that belied his mission.
Chappell said the “median guardian” he tends between 19th and 20th streets is due for a cleanup ahead of the rainy season. He apologized for the “terrible” state of the garden but, with the drought, he has had to hold back on watering.
Chappell is a retired urban planner who has lived on Guerrero Street for more than 30 years. He said the median gardens are meant to accomplish three things: beautification, traffic calming, and community building.
“The easy one to understand, of course, is beautification,” he said. “You know, living plants are nicer than concrete.”
“A second is traffic calming,” Chappell continued. “There are all kinds of studies that show that street trees and landscaping psychologically narrows the road, which then slows down traffic.”
Drawing on his city planning background, he explained how Guerrero Street became the neighborhood’s traffic corridor: Mission Street accommodates public transit and pedestrians, and Valencia Street’s timed lights cater to pedestrian shoppers and bike traffic.
“Guerrero is essentially an onramp to the freeway,” said Chappell. “They just let it rip.”
The third “really, really important” reason for median gardening is community building. “Especially on a heavy-traffic street, you never meet your neighbors across the street. You hardly meet them next door, because you’re not socializing on the sidewalk,” Chappell said. “We’ve met all kinds of people we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
He said the original idea came to him about 50 years ago, during graduate school in Pennsylvania, where 17th and 18th century housewives cleaned up after garbage trucks by sweeping sidewalks and scrubbing Philadelphia’s famous marble steps.
When a fellow city planner with young children moved to his block around 2000, their shared vision for safety and sense of community sparked the Guerrero Street version, and the rest is history.
Chappell and a cadre of neighbors have since carried thousands of buckets of water and sustained an exchange of plant cuttings among blocks. With assistance from San Francisco Public Works, every block on Guerrero Street from Duboce to 27th has been planted.
Chappell has walked the full length of Guerrero Street, taking inventory of trees and plant conditions, which resulted in a Department of Public Works replanting in 2020.
Chappell did not take any credit for his vast public service, but his neighbor Ned Moran stopped by.
“Jim is a very modest person,” said Moran, who helps organize neighbors for regular garden maintenance, “but everything from getting this to happen, not only on our block but all the other blocks, as well as moving it forward, is this man’s effort.”
Chappell listened and laughed off a suggestion that he had a green thumb (although he has wanted to be a landscape architect since childhood).
“The street is my garden,” he said. “It’s on all of us to take care of our neighborhood.”