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Downtown San Francisco carnival kicks off at Civic Center

Attendees enjoy the spinning teacups ride and Expo Ferris Wheel at the Civic Center Carnival in San Francisco on Aug. 24, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

In one of the most maligned pockets of Downtown San Francisco, visitors can now find funnel cake, a Ferris wheel and stomach-churning rides—at least for a few days.

Dozens of San Francisco children trickled through the gates in front of the Pioneer Monument on Fulton Street for the first day of a four-day carnival aiming to revitalize a part of the city—Civic Center and the Tenderloin—known more for its drug use than family-friendly festivities. 

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Mayor London Breed stopped by on opening day, joining children with youth-focused nonprofits United Playaz, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club of America to play games and ride the carnival swings.

Breed, dressed in teal, walked around the single block of fairground before speaking with the media in celebration of the event’s opening day.

Woman in blue enjoys a carnival ride.
Mayor London Breed swings around with Mercedes Phillips, 10, on the Ballistic ride at the Civic Center Carnival in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“A lot of times, especially after the pandemic, I didn’t see a lot of smiling kids or hear a lot of noise like how we are hearing today,” Breed said. “When we opened this today, we wanted to make sure we reached out to the kids in the Tenderloin and let them come in and enjoy themselves.

“I think we took some things for granted,” she said, “but now we want to bring a lot of those exciting activities back to the city.”

Daniel Espinoza, 51, who grew up in Downtown, echoed Breed’s sentiments.

“I remember we used to have stuff like this all of the time,” he said.

Nasiah Carpenter, 8, left, and DeBray Carpenter, 10, stand in front of the basketball game at the Civic Center Carnival on Thursday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Espinoza said he was pushing his two grandkids, aged 3 and 1, in a stroller when he saw the carnival being set up and decided to go on some rides with them.

“I think it’s cool, man,” he said. “I just wish we had it more often. I was worried it was going to be grimy, but it’s actually pretty chill.”

Attendees can choose between a number of different rides, a fun house and various midway games.

There is also a booth that sells typical carnival food, such as corn dogs, funnel cakes, nachos and shaved ice.

The view from atop the Ferris wheel offers a sky-high perspective of City Hall, Civic Center Plaza and Market Street.

City Librarian Michael Lambert makes an airplane motion on the Ballistic ride on Thursday. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The goal behind inviting the carnival to town, Breed said, is to find ways the city can liven up spots like Fulton Street.

“We want to be able to have these outdoor open spaces so that makers and businesses in San Francisco can be out here, in plazas like this, selling their goods, hosting events and having a good time,” she said.

Graziel Favila, 25, and Gifford Ramos, 24, both of San Francisco, came out to the event with Favila’s 1-year-old sister and were optimistic about the potential uses of the space.

“I feel like it’s definitely nice to see something like this around here because I feel like people don’t really like coming to this area,” she said, adding that the couple lives in a nearby apartment. “I think it’s a good way to bring the community out and feel like their family is safe.”

Attendees enjoy the spinning teacups ride and Expo Ferris Wheel at the Civic Center Carnival, which runs through Sunday on Fulton Street between the Main Library and Asian Art Museum. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Ramos said that although there has been much rightful criticism of the Tenderloin, the neighborhood is filled with residents who still have hope in the neighborhood.

“I feel like there’s a lot of negative portrayal in the media, and that’s a lot of what people see,” he said. “Then you see all of this, and you’re reminded of the representation of the good that this community can bring.”

According to San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, the city is spending approximately $22,000 to bring the event to Downtown.

General admission tickets cost $10 for anyone over 12 years old, according to the Mayor’s Office, with added costs for ride and game tickets.

Recreation and Parks General Manager Phil Ginsburg said he considers the area one of the more amazing spaces the city has to offer—has long been missing a focused plan to bring in people.

Sierra Crockett, center, watches her shot miss in a basketball game on the first of four days of the Civic Center Carnival. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

He hopes that infusing activities—like the carnival and the night market—into the neighborhood will not only breathe new life into the area but also support local businesses the city will partner with for the events.

“We are very focused on trying to collaborate with the local community to create these happy and safe spaces,” he said, adding the carnival company has previously worked with the city in previous years at Golden Gate Park. “This is the best way to make a neighborhood happy.”