Market Forces

Apr 12, 2012 at 12am
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San Francisco is often called one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I wouldn’t really argue with that claim, but after having walked through the Tenderloin at sunrise I’d also have to temper it with a few notable exceptions. It’s true that our nice neighborhoods are really nice. But we also have big chunks of urban wasteland that City Hall seems to have forgotten.

The stretch of Market between Fifth Street and the bottom of Van Ness is one such enigma. Once San Francisco’s theater district, the Mid-Market area used to be bustling with shops and shoppers, glowing with marquee lights and humming with activity. Now that same vital artery — and its seedy collection of adult theaters – stands out like a tawdry stain along San Francisco’s most prominent boulevard.

But soon that could all change. A few big-name anchor tenants are moving into the area, and City Hall is making a serious push to clean things up. And everyone from artists to architects seem interested in lending their creative brainpower to help make the neighborhood awesome again. Which is great. San Francisco is full of brilliant, enterprising people, and they probably have some kick-ass ideas for our city planners.

One of the best ways to get the ball rolling is to start a conversation. So I asked a wide-ranging group of the city’s big thinkers to offer up their epic blue sky ideas for Mid-Market’s improvement. I expected they would advocate for quirky things like naked vegan Full Moon dance parties or the world’s biggest dog park. Instead, I got a bunch of thoughtful, surprisingly elegant suggestions.

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Seth is part of a group of architects who hosted a series of design charrettes to brainstorm ways to revitalize Mid-Market. One of the group’s best ideas is to build public art installations that are participatory in nature, and that engage the area’s residents.

It turns out the adjacent Tenderloin area has the highest concentration of children in the city, so one idea is to create a series of kinetic art follies along Market to act as play structures for children of all ages. They could also serve as wind shelters on chilly nights, or as acoustically tuned performance spaces for street musicians.

The group would also like to see a series of games along the street. “The chess players could use a permanent home,” Seth says. “Why couldn’t seating for them double as a life-sized chess set?”

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The Bay Bridged is SF’s preeminent indie music site, so it should come as no surprise that when Ben thinks of the future of Mid-Market, he thinks about music. Specifically, he’d like to see a sustainable, all-ages space on Market Street. “The city's lack of dedicated all-ages rock venues fails both the talented bands that make up our vibrant music scene and the city's young people who want to support local music,” says Ben.

In Ben’s view, the city should develop a venue for young people to support local bands, rather than leaving minors to hustle for fake IDs or nag their parents to drop them off at sketchy warehouse shows. And by keeping costs low and relaxing the permit process, the city could help some ambitious volunteers transform a run-down, boarded-up storefront or theater into a space for local musicians. “It wouldn't require a major facelift to transform what's now nothing into something that’s vital to the SF scene,” he says.

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Speaking of venues, the owner of one of the city’s biggest and best is actively involved in bringing a very visible change to the neighborhood. David Addington has put forth a ballot measure to restore some of the glamour to Market Street.

“In the late 1960s,” David says, “the city made the bad decision to remove all the signs and marquees from the Mid-Market area. We want to put them back.” David and his cohort are looking to add 1,800 feet of marquee lighting along Market between Fifth and Seventh Streets, the blocks that connect Yerba Buena and Civic Center.

David feels that brightening up the area literally will also brighten it up figuratively. “This area was once the heart of the city's arts and entertainment district,” he says, “but it has been stripped of its outward manifestation: signage. It needs to be put back in a way that is both striking to the eye and relevant to the current time.

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Ellyn Parker is one of San Francisco city government’s greatest secret weapons. An artist and creative thinker who somehow found herself in a bureaucratic post, Ellyn uses her charisma and tireless work ethic to make great things happen. She’s the one responsible for the food trucks in UN Plaza, as well as the arts fair. When I asked her about catalytic projects to improve Mid-Market, she responded with a torrent of inspiring left-field ideas, starting with the area right outside her office window: UN Plaza.

“UN Plaza is nearby one of the most sadly under-utilized pieces of architecture – the abandoned Hibernia Bank Building,” Parker says. She would like to see some visionary investor(s) come and turn the empty building into an arts destination. The interior is big enough to house performance and gallery space, as well as dining and retail. She’s already gotten started on permit streamlining for outdoor lighting displays that would use the building’s exterior as a glowing canvas. The reimagined space would drive more foot traffic into the area at night, bringing new life to the neighborhood.

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Rebecca Ahrens is already working on a transformative project for the neighborhood. She collaborates with grad students at the San Francisco Art Institute who are working on the Mid-Market Art Project, an endeavor that will produce site-specific art installations with an element of neighborhood intervention and critical reflection.

Several artists and collectives have already gotten started. One of the teams, Network of Daily Experience (NODE), will be creating a “memory shop,” an interactive, inside-out store where patrons will exchange ideas instead of money. The design group Warmbaby will be constructing a series of dioramas, visible through tiny peepholes built into abandoned storefronts. The themes stem from interviews conducted with local residents and organizations, and range from the practical to the absurdist.

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As for me, I would like to see a large and eclectic night market, something on par with the Place Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh or the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. I know some might say it’s crass to suggest that simple commerce can make a difference, but the fact is that shopping means lots of people, lots of people means activity, and activity means the opportunity for other things to happen.

Look at the Place Djemaa el-Fna, for example. Yes, there are vendors selling food and clothing and trinkets, and yes, there are restaurants where well-heeled tourists overpay for nice views and mediocre tagines. But there are also storytellers and snake charmers and fire-eaters. There are painters painting and old Berbers bickering and negotiating. Most importantly, there is a large central location where everyone can gather. Everyone goes there precisely because everyone goes there.

Right now there’s nothing like that in San Francisco. We are a geographically disconnected city, with people and cultures drawing lines along neighborhood borders. It’s true that some of us may venture into other neighborhoods for food or for the chance to hit on somebody outside of our social circle, but there’s no place where we can all come together as San Franciscans. A large night market that offered food, art, shopping, and informal entertainment right in the center of downtown could be just such a place.

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There are a bunch of ways to get involved with what’s going on at Mid-Market, especially if you live or work in the area. Check SPUR.org or BetterMarketStreet.org for projects in the works, or contact the city directly via the Office of Civic Innovation or the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. To get involved with the Mid-Market Art Project, visit midmarketartproject.org.

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