By Erin Bank
The Sunset District may have just created a new San Francisco tradition. While the future of the Upper Great Highway remains uncertain, it is the clear that the Halloween event on the roadway – renamed “The Great Hauntway” for the occasion – was a huge success.
For a few hours on Sunday, Oct. 31, the Upper Great Highway between Taraval Street and Sloat Boulevard was transformed into a Halloween festival for trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and dancing. This was the first event of its kind, following a year of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a few months of the Great Highway remaining closed to cars on the weekends.
Lucas Lux and Josh Kelly, Outer Sunset residents and volunteer organizers for Kid Safe SF and the Great Highway Park Initiative, were chatting about taking their kids to trick-or-treat. They usually had to drive them to other neighborhoods, where residents would organize handing out candy. They agreed that it would be great to find a way to have something in their own neighborhood.
“When Josh pointed out that Halloween fell on a weekend so the Great Highway Park would be open, the light bulb went off and we were off to the races!” Lux said.
“Halloween is the single most dangerous day of the year for youth pedestrians,” he said. “We wanted to give neighborhood kids a safe, fun and beautiful place to celebrate a holiday that should be fun, not dangerous.”
Lux and Kelly finally thought simpler would be better: ask neighbors to decorate trick-or-treat stations and invite neighborhood families to come.
Lux and Kelly started to pull together the people and permits to make such an event possible, even though Halloween was just weeks after their initial conversation. Kelly created a website to organize volunteers and attendees, and the pair worked with San Francisco Recreation and Park and the San Francisco Police Department to obtain permits. The event was advertised on social media, by word of mouth, and through partner organizations in the Sunset, including Sunset Youth Services, People of the Parkside Sunset and Sunset Mercantile.
Soon, more than 100 people signed up to host trick-or-treat stations, and more than 1,000 families RSVP’d to attend. Approximately 20 volunteers also helped to set up and tear down, clean up garbage and staff the welcome tables.
As families started arriving before the 3 p.m. start time, Lux and Kelly watched the sea of people in costumes flow into the event and knew it would surpass their expectations.
“Community surveys, like Sunset Forward, told us that folks want more park spaces and more sense of community. But nothing on paper prepared me for seeing thousands of neighbors show up in person,” Lux said.
Although an exact count was not taken due to the open nature of the event, it is estimated by organizers that more than 3,000 people came to the Great Hauntway throughout the day. So many more people than expected showed up that the trick-or-treat stations started running out of candy and had to rely on donations and mid-event grocery runs to restock.
One of these stations was hosted by Parkside residents Kara Bishop and Howard Miller. Bishop saw a post about the event on Nextdoor.com, and convinced her friend Miller that, since they didn’t get many trick-or-treaters on their street, they should set up a table.
“We thought it would be a fun little thing to do,” Bishop said. “As the date got closer, I decided we should take it up a notch and sketched out a cardboard Frankenstein’s Monster Candy Dispenser to add an element of fun. I was blown away by the amount of families that attended. It reinforced the small community feel I like about our neighborhood.”
“My favorite memory is seeing all the little happy kids in their adorable costumes, including a mini-monster who found us and posed with our monster just before the event started,” Miller said.
The response to the event was overwhelmingly positive.
“The comment that sticks out the most to me was one person saying their cheeks still hurt from smiling days after the event,” Lux said. “From parents, the overwhelming theme was joy in being able to let their kids trick or treat and play without worrying about their safety.”
For the most part, the underlying conflict about the long-term future of the Upper Great Highway didn’t cloud the sunny day. The event took advantage of a day the Great Highway was already closed and was not tied to formal advocacy for full-time closure.
“We received a couple emails that told us to leave the neighborhood, but the ‘my cheeks still hurt from smiling’ emails make those easy to forget,” Lux said.
Organizers and participants alike said they are looking forward to another gathering next year. They plan on taking what they learned from the event to make improvements, such as expanding the event area and finding business sponsors to donate candy to distribute to station hosts, so hosts aren’t responsible for buying their own candy.
“In the midst of the chaos, I got to briefly hold my two-month-old son and watch how much fun my neighborhood was having,” Lux said. “We want this to remain a neighborhood event that local kids look forward to, so we don’t think we need to change the fundamentals.”
“I never imagined we’d get three to five thousand people to show up. San Francisco loves Halloween, we all get to be creative and share our creativity with each other. We had multiple guests in wheelchairs and walkers. I heard every language you would hear in SF. I can’t wait to get started on next year’s Hauntway,” Kelly said.
“I started sketching next year’s ‘candy delivery’ system shortly after I got home,” Bishop said.
Categories: Upper Great Highway