To Market, to Market

Exploring San Francisco's ritzy, raffish heart has never been more interesting
Lisa Taggart

Market Street is San Francisco's grand boulevard. It links a briefcase-toting lawyer at Justin Herman Plaza to tourists waiting for the cable car at Powell Street to a resident walking his terrier under the sycamores in the Castro District. Angling 4 1/2 miles across town from the Ferry Building to the slopes of Twin Peaks, Market is the one irreplaceable thread in the city's urban fabric.

Strangely, it's also taken for granted. Maybe Market Street is too long, too diverse, too obvious. Drivers searching for a left-turn lane curse it; pedestrians used to avoid it.

But over the last few years, Market has come into its own. Chic restaurants and hotels line its lower blocks; the Castro, at its upper end, remains the capital of kitsch and cool. Historic streetcars roll its length, and the Ferry Building is readying itself for a grand reopening. In short, Market Street has never looked better.

"On Market, you feel the history of the city," says San Francisco architect Earl Wilson. And he's right. For all its present-day bustle, Market is redolent of the past. Its pavement ties a journalist strolling its sidewalks in the 21st century to 1940s office workers in fedoras at the Flood Building to waterfront gamblers of the 1840s. It's where San Franciscans have always come to protest and parade.

"It's our celebratory street," says the Market Street Association's executive director, Carolyn Diamond.

An afternoon, a day, or a weekend spent exploring Market yields the fullest possible portrait of San Francisco. The street offers a 100-year tour of Western architecture and some of the city's best shopping and dining. Travel Market's length and you'll get a slice of the city, rich as a layer cake.

The path of gold

Start your Market Street day at the street's northeastern end― specifically, at the Ferry Building, the classical structure with a dramatic white clock tower that has been a city symbol for nearly 100 years. Take a look down the long, grand stretch of pavement ahead of you. The 120-foot-wide street has been called everything from the "Path of Gold," for the prospecting hopefuls that rushed in from the bay, to the "Pathway to Propinquity," for the streetwalkers who showed up a short time later.

From here, you can march into San Francisco history. Building names announce players of the city's past: Southern Pacific, one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad, which brought so many settlers here; Matson, the shipping company that connected San Franciscans to Hawaii and other Pacific destinations; Pacific Gas and Electric, the power empire that fueled the West.

When it was laid out by Jasper O'Farrell in 1847, Market was surrounded by 80-foot sand dunes― soon leveled and used to fill in the bay― but nonetheless was conceived as the main route from the docks to the city's original center near Mission Dolores. The diagonal route created a seam that zips together the city's two skewed grids, one tilted 45 degrees from the other. In 1860, Market's first steam train rolled down its tracks.

The post-earthquake fires of 1906 destroyed most of San Francisco's Victorian buildings, but the city was rebuilt amazingly fast. By August 1907, 6,000 buildings had been replaced― and 3,000 more were underway.

In the 1930s, two new bridges into the city meant that fewer people were using the Ferry Building, and, when combined with the effects of the Depression, Market went into decline. It was an indication of the street's fading prominence when designers of the 1959 Crown Zellerbach Building turned their back on Market, locating the main entrance on Bush Street.

Then, construction of a tunnel for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and San Francisco's Muni Metro virtually shut down the street. With Muni's light rail vehicles now running beneath Market for much of its length, some city officials wanted to rip out the streetcar tracks on its surface.