San Francisco

Outdoor movie screenings launch in Lower Polk's reactivated Fern Alley

Lower Polk Street's recently renovated Fern Alley will host its first outdoor movie screening this week, showcasing films about the importance of bringing life to underutilized spaces.

The Sidewalk Cinema event tomorrow, July 10, will be highlighted by a screening of "12 Pianos," Dean Mermell's documentary about San Franciscan Mauro Ffortissimo and his efforts to bring pianos to unexpected parts of the Bay Area, like the SF Botanical Garden and the San Mateo coastline. 

While "12 Pianos" has been shown before in San Francisco, this is the first time it will screen outdoors. Ffortissimo and Mermell will attend with a piano in tow, to play music and take questions from community members. 

Spaces like Fern Alley are where "12 Pianos" "should be shown… because it highlights the potential of the city’s hidden and underutilized spaces,” said San Francisco Urban Film Festival (SFUFF) founder and executive producer Fay Darmawi, whose group is coordinating the screening. 

Fern Alley has been revamped with wide sidewalks and decorative paving. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

Anyone familiar with the Polk Gulch corridor knows the area is short on parks, schools and other typical community gathering spaces. In response, community group Lower Polk Neighbors has worked for more than a decade to redesign and activate the six alleyways between Ellis and Pine and Van Ness and Larkin streets. 

One of the first alleys to be completed was Fern Alley, between Polk and Larkin streets. The alley no longer has any parking spaces, its sidewalks were widened significantly, and the pavement has been decorated with colorful prints.

With the redesign in place, the Lower Polk CBD has turned its attention to “implementing the city’s vision of created open space,” Darmawi told us. It provides tables and chairs, and has teamed up with partners like the SFUFF to activate the new space.

This week’s sidewalk screening will be an initial test to see how people react and whether people are willing to show up, Darmawi said. If it’s successful, LPN and other community partners, including SFUFF, will look for sponsorships and other fundraising opportunities to bring it back more regularly.

A quote from Toni Morrison set in the pavement in Fern Alley. | Photo: Lower Polk Neighbors/Twitter

The screenings are expensive, Darmawi said. To show films, her group needs to rent equipment and pay for both street closure and sidewalk encroachment permits. The Lower Polk CBD has helped with funding, alongside neighborhood businesses like LPN, Grubstake, and Martin Building Company. 

Darmawi has also gotten a lot of logistical help from from Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema co-founders Leslie Lombre and Anne Batmale, who've been hosting screenings in their neighborhood for the past 16 years.

If Wednesday’s screening is a success, Darmawi said, the organizers may try to coordinate with other neighborhood partners, and seek city funding through the Supervisor’s office or other departments.

Crowds at last year's Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema. | Photo: BH Outdoor Cinema/Facebook

Erica Waltemade, the arts and placemaking manager for the Lower Polk CBD, said the group has many other summer events planned for the neighborhood, including the July 27 Walk For Wellness in collaboration with the Tenderloin CBD and Saint Francis Foundation's Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership.

The walk, which connects the neighborhood’s limited open spaces, will highlight the ongoing renovations at Sgt. John Macaulay Park and the Turk & Hyde mini-park, ending at Boeddeker Park with a neighborhood health resource fair. 

After stewarding the pit-stop bathroom in front of Macaulay Park, the CBD has stepped in as the sponsor of the full park, Waltemade said. It's now hosting regular fitness classes there, such as Zumba, self-defense, tai chi, and meditation. 

The CBD is also working with La Voz Latina and other community partners to commission artwork for the renovated park's reopening, which is currently scheduled for the end of 2019. 

“It's our goal to have community members feel empowered to use the park as a gathering place for meetings, workouts [and] birthday parties,” Waltemade said. 

Renovations are underway at Sgt. John Macaulay Park. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

The CBD is also sponsoring the addition of another mural on Hemlock Alley, by artist Bryana Fleming. It will be installed on a new condo building that currently doesn’t have any artwork on it.

And in mid-September, the CBD will host its annual neighborhood block party, "Tender Bender," on Cedar Alley between Polk and Larkin. This year, proceeds will go towards La Cocina's new community food market, expected to open later this year in the old post office building at 101 Hyde St. (at Golden Gate).

In the meantime, locals are encouraged to drop by Fern Alley for tomorrow's Sidewalk Cinema event, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and is free to attend. Following the screening, nearby Lush Lounge (1221 Polk St.) will host an afterparty.

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