Arriving at Market Street: how San Francisco's grand boulevard came to be
Market Street begins, or ends – depending on how you see it – down by the bay. There’s a plaza here, Justin Herman, where Market almost hits the Embarcadero.
At 4:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, streams of people pass through this public space. Many of them carry briefcases and look like they’re in a hurry. Nick Gaffney, who’s on his way to the ferries, says his commute to the Financial District puts him on Market Street more often than he would like.
“I don’t understand why people drive down it quite frankly, because all you can do is take a right,” says Gaffney.
Of course, people do drive on Market Street. They also walk, ride their bikes and take the bus or streetcar. One third of all Muni lines operate on or under Market Street and about a quarter-million people board these lines each day. That’s according to Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with San Francisco-based transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard.
“Market Street is unique in many ways unique in the world and how important it is in the functional aspect of the transportation network,” says Tumlin.
Tumlin looked into the history on behalf of the Better Market Street project, a joint effort of some city planning agencies. One of the things he found was that efforts to improve Market Street are nothing new.
“About every 10 years or so there has been an effort to do a major redo of the street. And about every 50 years, someone has succeeded in a major effort,” says Tumlin.
One of Better Market’s goals is to turn a street that people use to get places into a street that people want to get to. Tumlin says it’s not there yet: “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place.”
Back in 1847, around the time Market Street was first imagined, San Francisco looked a little different.
“Pretty much the entire downtown was blowing sand and some scrub,” explains Tumlin. “If you go up to Point Reyes Station, up in Marin, that’s about what San Francisco looked like in 1847.”
San Francisco hadn’t even been called San Francisco for very long. The port town was known as Yerba Buena up until 1846, when American Captain John Montgomery showed up and seized it from Mexico.
Also in 1847, everywhere from the Embarcadero to Montgomery Street didn’t exist yet. It was all water.
“And so the beach, the bay, came all the way into Montgomery and Market and made what was sort of a gentle curve,” Tumlin continues.
There were two major settlements camped out beside the Bay. The total population of the remote and developing town was about 500 people.
“And even then, the arriving Americans had such ambitions for this scruffy little settlement that they knew they needed a plan,” says Tumlin. “And so the job of laying out the plan for San Francisco was given to a hard-drinking Irishman named Jasper O'Farrell who was 26 years old at the time.”
O’Farrell had a vision. The street would run directly between the two camps. He picked the most prominent landmark west of the settlements, Twin Peaks, and imagined the street pointing directly toward it. Tumlin explains what happened next:
“And in a town of 500 people with no source of fresh water, no overland connections to anywhere else in the world, six months to any point of civilization, [O’Farrell] decides to make the street 120 feet wide. And he names Market Street after Market Street in Philadelphia. And Market Street in Philadelphia is only 100 feet wide, but because San Francisco is going to be even more amazing than Philly, Jasper O'Farrell says, ‘No. We're going to make this one of the grandest boulevards in the world.’”
And so it is – at least size-wise. And over the years all the city’s public transportation came together on this one boulevard.
A little more history: The 1906 earthquake and fire tore down most of the buildings on Market Street, but the street had mostly recovered by the 1920’s.
“Between the 1920s and World War II, big chunks of Market Street were kind of a small-scale equivalent of Broadway in New York,” says Tumlin. “All of the theaters were there. It was the place that people went out to at night. It was the place for large-scale entertainment and very much the place to see and be seen.”
Most of those theaters were located here, in the Mid-Market district.
Today, this part of town is not so much a place to see or be seen or so says local resident Joe Robinson.
“I think it's crazy. I think it's wild. I think everything goes on Market Street. I mean if you really had a magnifying glass to see what was really going on, you'd be amazed,” says Robinson.
Tumlin actually traces the trouble to the creation of San Francisco’s subway system in 1967: “The final decision to do the Muni Metro subway and to do the BART subway created dramatic change in the street. One impact was very negative, which was that for four years, Market Street was a big hole in the ground.”
And that, Tumlin, says wasn’t good for business. But then, he adds, Market’s never been quite the draw Jasper O’Farrell thought it would be: “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place. And part of that has had to do with thinking about the accommodation of the automobile in the third quarter of the 20th century, but I think more fundamental to that is its width.”
It’s just one theory, but Tumlin says city planners have learned over time that people prefer smaller, more intimate streets over grand boulevards.
“And so streets that work as a single space are generally not wider than 80 feet. And, in fact, 30 feet is a heck of a lot better. So that’s one of the challenges we face. Like how do we create a street that people do want to linger on?” Tumlin asks.
That’s a question the city’s been trying to answer for about 50 years. Which makes now just about the right time for a solution.