The End of the Innocence: Market Street, 1957
October 22, 2008
Few felt it, but a seismic shift in American culture had begun. Grandfatherly Ike was President, friendly dairyman George Christopher was Mayor, stalwart Republicans both. Most white, middle-class San Franciscans (the majority then) saw these as comfortable times, and change as not terribly threatening.
Now over there in North Beach, we're getting some weirdos: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, what was that Herb Caen dubbed them? Oh, yeah, beatniks, like Sputnik, that Russian satellite. Those Russians are getting a little scary with their nuclear weapons, but the kids took those 'duck and cover' lessons in school, so I guess we're ready.
Speaking of the kids, they might be going a little wild with that Elvis and those other rock-and-roll guys, but hey, the wife did the same with Sinatra when she was a kid. Meantime, we've got the best town in the world here, and to prove it, we're getting a major league baseball team next year. Took 'em away from New York City. Seals Stadium's not big enough, but it'll only be for a couple of years, because we're going to build the most modern stadium in the country out at Candlestick Point. With parking for 12,000 cars!
Whatever might be happening around the world, or in other parts of San Francisco, Market Street remained the spine of the city in 1957, as it had been since shortly after the Gold Rush. In retrospect, that era was the calm between two social storms. The bustle and mania of World War II was still a fresh memory. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors passing through town on their way to the Pacific theater. Tens of thousands of newcomers, many African-American, moving to the region to work in war industries. Thousands of Japanese-Americans ripped from their homes in the Western Addition and sent to internment camps. Underground, the rumblings of dissatisfied people, most but not all of them young, ready to rebel against conformity. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley was only seven years away, Vietnam protests and the Summer of Love in the Haight just a decade ahead.
Yet most adult San Franciscans, like most Americans of that era, sought serenity after the tumult of the Depression and the War. You can feel that in these great shots of Market Street in the late 1950s, snapped by Market Street Railway member Clark Frazier. No clamor, no rush. It was a time that ladies ('women' was a rather harsh term to use in conversation then) still wore hats and white gloves when they came Downtown to shop. Most of them were Caucasian. Black, Asian, and Hispanic San Franciscans generally felt more welcome in their own shopping districts.
With only two streetcar tracks left, Market Street was quieter, less cluttered than during the War, yet somehow still the same. Except for removing the outside tracks, the only big change in the western part of the street, from Castro to Van Ness, was the construction of the US Mint above Duboce, but that was twenty years before. Oh, they did recently finish a nice modern Safeway across from the Mint, where the reservoir used to be.
Downtown, there had really been no major high-rise construction for almost 30 years, when the Russ Building on Montgomery became the city's tallest. But suddenly, there was a hole in the ground at Market & Bush, where Crown-Zellerbach, the big paper company, was starting to build a modern headquarters. It's really up to date -- almost all glass -- but wait a minute, it's facing Bush and turning its back on Market. Never seen that happen.
Up and down Market, the mix of businesses hadn't changed much. Maybe some people had stopped taking the streetcar downtown to shop at the Emporium or the Grant Market now that Stonestown was open. And so what if the Fox and the other big movie palaces weren't drawing huge crowds anymore?
I can watch television in my own living room, so why go out? Especially in those ancient drafty rattletraps Muni's still running on some streetcar lines. They're 40 years old, some of them. That's World War I! What's columnist Dick Nolan call them? 'Iron Monsters'? That's a good description. But they'll be gone soon. Muni just got 66 more of those streamlined 'PCCs' from St. Louis -- second-hand, but I guess they don't make them anymore. They're better than the Iron Monsters, but still old fashioned ... I mean, have you seen the fins on the new Caddy? That's modern! Maybe one of these days they'll build that subway under Market like they've talked about all these years, connect up the Twin Peaks Tunnel and get some really modern trains.
The transit change came. The last old-fashioned Muni car ran on Market May 12, 1958 (for awhile, anyway). The BART bond issue of 1962 promised a subway the length of Market for Muni. The City widened the sidewalks downtown and paved them in brick, in anticipation of getting rid of streetcar tracks (and trolley bus wires too) to turn the street into "our own Champs-Elysées." High-rises proliferated along lower Market. The mainstream movie theaters on Market died. The serene pace was trampled by a faster, more crowded world.
But though they were to change in many ways during the decades to come, San Franciscans remained firm in their support of reliable surface transportation on their main street. And so the trolley buses remained, and the F-line has joined them, bringing Iron Monsters and PCCs to back to Market. Thanks to Clark Frazier for sharing these memories.