Musing at Union Square


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on May 6, 2007

After breakfast at Canteen, I head east and circle the Union Square area for an hour or so. I walked up Powell the day before after taking the BART from SFO; it was challenging to maneuver through Saturday afternoon’s wall-to-wall crowds with a suitcase.

This is the central shopping district of San Francisco, and my trek reminds me of a morning walk in Chicago this January—it’s somewhat like the Magnificent Mile, but larger and two-dimensional. Each storefront is a major ‘brand’, and the area that was 100% occupied yesterday when I arrived is now sparsely peopled at best. Rust Never Sleeps, but maybe—thankfully—commerce does.

I’m struck by the variety of architecture, all in use and preserved, unlike other cities (in both respects). Victorian, Art Deco, 1960s and 21st century co-exist nicely side-by-side. The architectural details of the older buildings are lovingly cared for, and seem more evident here than other places.

Union Square is a welcome open space among the vertical urban corridors, and lively at 9:15. A modest plant sale is on, but most people are like me—apparently tourists, posing in front of the oversized stainless steel heart in the southeast corner, or calling or photographing with their cell phones. An urban version of quiet still reigns, incorporating the operatic music from the outdoor café on the square’s east side (or could it possibly be a boom box?). Amid the palm trees and the wide mix of people, the large monument to Dewey’s victory emphasizes that this is firmly located on the Pacific. I’ve been tempted to see SF through a lens of NY, but it’s hard to imagine the East Coast oriented towards anything other than Europe. The coastal defenses I saw on my last trip, the people, and the early 20th century concern about Spain’s antics in the Pacific mark San Francisco as the first Pacific Rim city.

What clearly was a bank building with its massive Greek columns is now the Armani Emporium, an emporium of a different sort. The art deco building on the north skyline can’t be captured on film (disk? Flash drive?) without the Saks logo, an illustration of just where our culture seems focused now. The huge, block-filling Macy’s building forms the southern edge of Union Square, reminding me of the downtown Detroit Hudson’s Store of my youth, now sadly removed. I note with pride that (a) the block is smaller than Hudson's was, and (b) it obviously took three or more eras of construction to complete it.

Pigeons chase each other around the raised base of the Dewey monument, a large male seemingly content to remain a bird’s pace or two behind the female. Pigeons strutting alone are a comical sight, but in pairs, right beneath the faux-Roman engravings of two President's names, it makes me laugh. Before I can get a shot of them in front of McKinley’s name, they reverse tracks one last time, and the female takes flight, denying me a photographic record of the incongruity.
Union Square Plaza
Bordered by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton Streets
San Francisco, California

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