It may seem strange to realize that San Francisco—judged by every tourist since 1900 to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world—is suddenly in need of beautification. How did that happen to the Paris of the West? Paris may be forced to sue for defamation.
Well, a few things happened. The city became world-headquarters for the homeless, downtown slowly turned grungy along with the Haight and the Tenderloin, Danielle Steel declared San Francisco uninhabitable and moved to Paris, and Market Street at long last was officially decreed a dump.
I suspect the self-absorbed citizenry have been in serious denial. For decades we’ve believed our own rave reviews until it gradually became clear that America’s beauty spot was a pretty mess—at least those areas that the tourists never get to, such as Ocean Avenue, Irving Street, or much of the Mission, places where San Franciscans actually live and litter.
Fisherman’s Wharf, which tourists do see, had gotten off the hook for 50 years because it was such a popular tourist mecca, even though the natives were rarely to be found there alive—except when showing off the city to cousins from Lansing and Utica. We would drive through, eyes averted, apologizing profusely for the wharf-to-wharf tourist joints before ducking into Scoma’s for clam chowder and crab Louis (which made up for the T-shirt shops and tacky art galleries). The Wharfing of tourist San Francisco seemed to be catching—The Cannery became run down, even Ghirardelli Square lost its luster.
Right now, the city’s target for beautification is mid-Market Street, a movement that has been inspired, or so City Hall hopes, by Twitter’s move into the Furniture Mart on 9th and Market Streets—an area that grew so dreary that even my barber was forced to move to a better locale at Polk and Ellis Streets, not exactly a garden spot, either.
All of this used to be called urban decay, then “urban blight,” but whatever you call it, the city doesn’t look much like the San Francisco found on all those “Painted Ladies” postcards of handsome restored Victorians, adorable shops on Union Street, and grand Nob Hill hotels, which look like urban palaces where Downton Abbey might be set.
Turning mid-Market Street into an area where you’ll want to spend more than two minutes is going to call for some major creative thinking, thus far in short supply since the Mid-Market Street Project was launched in 2005, eight scuzzy years ago.
A.C.T. will take over the old Strand Theatre, and Twitter might attract a few diehard tweeters who can’t wait to behold Twitter central, but I’ll be surprised if these new developments will entice people to picnic on Market & 6th Streets. Maybe a volleyball court next to Arby’s would do it. How about an all-night merry-go-round on 10th Street? A few lagoons near Zuni might help, or possibly a petting zoo next to the cable car turn-around.
A few areas have been forced to restore themselves, most famously Valencia Street, now a hotbed of gourmet bistros where the infighting among chefs is so intense that some residents feel it’s time to ban any more upscale arugula and polenta joints from ruining the neighborhood with copycat Delfinas and Luna Parks.
Food trucks, farmers markets, and pop-up restaurants have been making serious inroads into formerly forlorn blocks, drawing herds of famished foodies in search of the ultimate grilled-cheese dining experience. Yet people wary of wandering too far into the Mission, for fear of being caught in any gang war crossfire, will scoot eagerly to Valencia Street in quest of a fusion meal that subtly blends the cuisines of North Korea, Mexico, and Ethiopia.
The current pretty-up-SF hope is in so-called “parklets,” roughly defined as three patio chairs and a pair of potted shrubs. The noble idea, known as “Pavement to Parks,” is to spruce up the city one block at a time, but many parklets are so meager that you’re not always aware that you’re straddling one; some parklets are tinier than a bus shelter. Another problem is that parklets really require outdoor heating lamps to attract anyone, and then there’s the likelihood that parklets will become garden apartments for the homeless.
“Parklet” is a rather vague concept in need of refining. In New York they’re called “pocket parks” and often have patios, concession stands, even waterfalls. Maybe the movement would make speedier progress if parklets were endowed and you could name them after yourself or a departed loved one—“The Gerald W. Nachman West Portal Parklet” has a really nice ring to it.
Gerald Nachman is a former SF Chronicle columnist and critic, and the author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio, and Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America.