A New Mid-Market Street: Who is Left Behind?

All eyes seem to be on San Francisco’s Market Street these days. A long-stalled planning effort to redesign the street to improve conditions for transit, bicycling, and walking – dubbed the Better Market Street project – is at last progressing, with a final design concept being decided upon in the coming months. The many agencies involved in the project have struggled to create a unified vision for the corridor, since its character is so multifaceted and the street serves many competing roles. The backbone of San Francisco’s transportation network and its cultural center, Market Street is arguably the City’s most important street. Cutting diagonally from the waterfront on the edge of the Financial District all the way to the foot of Twin Peaks, Market Street is simultaneously a connector, a dividing line, and a place of its own.

Despite the slow progress of the Better Market Street project to reorganize mobility along the corridor, many land use and other place-based changes are already well underway. Along Market Street’s long-distressed Mid-Market / Civic Center section, high-profile technology firms like social networking giant Twitter are moving in, and their wealthy, well-educated workforce is following close behind. Such a rapid shift in demographics is changing the character of the area, leaving one asking: whose interests matter and who is being left behind?

Mid-Market has long been a place of concern – almost every Mayor in recent memory has made efforts to “clean up” the so-called blighted area. Directly adjacent to the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods, this middle section of Market Street is troubled by homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, and other quality-of-life issues. On some blocks, almost half of storefronts are vacant and many buildings are falling into disrepair. Attempts to spark vitality by reviving the area’s roots as a theatre and arts district have only been somewhat effective. Now, the new concept is to reorient Mid-Market into a technology hub, which means remaking the area to attract newcomers, largely to the detriment of current residents.

In 2011, San Francisco officials enacted a package of loans, grants, and tax breaks to lure investors to Mid-Market. Though controversial, the plan seems to be producing results. Twitter’s arrival last year was the subject of most headlines, and other big technology firms like Dolby Labs and mobile-payment service Square have also recently moved into the area. But the allure is not just tax breaks – younger workers are increasingly forgoing life in the suburbs for a more lively urban experience. The advent of corporate shuttle buses carrying thousands of workers who live in the City to their jobs south of San Francisco each morning makes this point very clear. Tech firms are realizing this and are beginning to move the center of gravity from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, situating themselves where their employees want to live and work. Retail businesses are correspondingly turning-over, with expensive coffee shops, gourmet restaurants, and boutique chocolatiers taking their place. Change is afoot.

By early next year, the 754-unit luxury apartment complex NeMa (standing for “New Market”) will be complete, bringing thousands of new affluent residents to the area. A good number will work in the burgeoning tech industry. Mid-Market’s revitalization involves a very real change in the area’s identity, as the City caters to those who stand to bring the most capital into the area, with little attention given to the thousands who live on the streets and in low-rent housing. Just last month, police shut down an over 30-year tradition of Tenderloin residents playing chess on Market Street’s sidewalk – one of the corridor’s only visible images of community. SFPD Capt. Michael Redmond said the games had “turned into a big public nuisance” and he suspected they were “a disguise for some other things that are going on,” such as drug dealing and gambling. This once-forgotten stretch of Market Street is suddenly valuable, and the last thing the City wants to do is scare affluent people away.

What will all these changes ultimately mean for the neighborhood? Market Street will surely continue to be a place where people of all walks of life come together, but a process of harsh gentrification is nevertheless occurring. As Mid-Market reorients itself to be attractive for a younger and more affluent demographic, current lower-income residents are viewed as a nuisance – an expendable population tolerated only until renewal takes-off. San Francisco needs to reflect on the type of city it wants to be. As things are going, there will need to be a big change in perspective, unless it wants to relegate itself to being a playground for the rich.

Mark Dreger is working towards his Masters in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, concentrating in transportation and urban design. He is a San Francisco native and interested in the nexus between systems of mobility and the public realm.

Eyes on the Street: CED Alum’s Film Finds an Audience

While a graduate student at the College of Environmental Design, Darryl Jones completed the short film This Is Market Street as a companion piece to his thesis in landscape architecture. The film, shot in 2012, spurs a dialogue about the future of Market Street, San Francisco’s most central street, and preserves an experience of the corridor before its transformation. This Is Market Street is screening for free at the San Francisco Public Library at 6:00pm on Wednesday, June 26, and at SPUR at 12:30pm on July 11. A panel discussion and Q+A will follow. Presented by Walk San Francisco and the Better Market Street project. For more information, go to http://www.walksf.org.

Why did you make this film? Why Market Street? Why a film?

I have been a hobby filmmaker since I was kid, but the landscape has always been my inspiration. I saw this as an opportunity to merge two of my interests: landscape architecture and filmmaking. For the past few years I have been thinking about how to do it, and it dawned on me that graduate school would be a good place to start. In fact, during a conference at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, a group of landscape architects deliberated on the idea of how film could be utilized to bring the landscape, and landscape architecture, into the cultural mainstream. Reading about their discussions inspired me to answer their call.

I chose Market Street in San Francisco because currently, there is a huge effort to study and eventually redesign the street. It intrigued me because it is a monumental design project, not the kind you see very often, and I knew it would be happening for several years, so hopefully, the film would have some traction. Also, it is my hope that my film will be an educational artifact, long after the street has changed.

How was making the film? How much time did you spend filming? How much time did you spend on Market Street?

The key to good film production is good pre-production, which I didn´t really do, I’m a little shy to admit. Like I said before, I grew up making films, but I learned how amateur I was as a result of this project. This realization has actually led me to pursue more of these projects. The historical footage is all from a website called www.archive.org, and if you haven´t used it, it is a great resource, even if you´re just curious about history! Some of the footage is from the Prelinger Archives, a Library of Congress collection, which is curated by Rick Prelinger, a Bay Area archivist and writer. He has compiled some amazing collections of archival footage of San Francisco and the Bay Area, including A Trip Down Market Street, which is the infamous film taken from the top of a streetcar on Market Street only days before the 1906 earthquake.

All in all, I spent 14 days shooting and usually was on Market Street an average of two-three hours each day. I complied 55 interviews, almost all of which are in the film. As is typical of documentary filmmaking, I discovered, it really comes together in the editing room. I spent probably triple the time editing than I did actually shooting on Market Street.

Why do you think will Market Street be redesigned and how will it be?

It’s still a little early in the process, and the Better Market Street team isn’t quite in the unique design phase yet. They have presented three options and are at the stage of getting feedback on those options. Part of the purpose of these screenings on June 26 and July 11 is to raise awareness about the upcoming public workshops, where everyone can go to be a part of the decision-making.

Personally, I think San Francisco is ready for a more pedestrian Market Street. That is the key to it becoming more livable, because it’s just a ghost town in some places, and unsafe in others. Since Market Street is so integral to all the other modes of transit and the flow of adjacent streets and spaces, it is going to take some bold experimentation and inspiring proposals to actualize this project.

How do you feel about Market Street? 

That’s a tough question. I think Market Street inspires me. It feels like the center of the city, and I believe that is a really important feeling for a city to have. Feeling like you’re at the heart of it all is one of the best feelings about cities; when you say to yourself "I’m really here right now—this is where the energy is". It’s no mistake that tourists come to Market Street. Obviously, they come for the cable cars a lot of the time, but I think they really come to experience the heart of the city. There is something monumental about its size and orientation that cannot be denied, and when you revisit history, you start to really root for Market Street.

Is the redesigning process on Market Street similar to what is happening in other cities?

I’m not sure I can answer that accurately, but from my experience I have definitely seen these projects in other cities. My hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, redesigned their two main streets in recent years, to much success. However, cities are always making plans to revitalize their streets, so it’s nothing new. But the scale of what is being proposed for Market Street may be very ambitious compared to other cities.

Do you think your film will make a difference?

I certainly hope so! If anything, I just hope it will encourage people to be excited about how design affects their lives, and that they can be a part of the conversation.

Is it home? [Watch the film to understand the significance of this question!].

Haha, good question. For me, truthfully, it isn’t. I live in Oakland, so that may be why. But I certainly feel a connection with Market Street, and the more time goes by, the more it becomes familiar to me and the more I admire it.


Darryl Jones is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Masters of Landscape Architecture. He is an active artist, designer and filmmaker whose work focuses on the relationship between people and their environment, specifically as a human being on foot. He currently works at a small architecture practice in San Francisco, CA. Darryl can be reached at DarrylJones@cal.berkeley.edu.