Waiting on Civility in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza

The lack of spatial programming at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza allows a binge/purge approach to civic engagement, encapsulating the best and worst of civilian behavior.

Brad Leibin and Flickr user eviloars

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A family eating fruit snacks on top of a Porta-Potty. A girl strapped to a light post by a belt. These were the privileged few at the San Francisco Giants’ victory rally on November 3rd. Of the tens of thousands of spectators who came out to celebrate the Giants’ World Series win, few had a view of the mayhem. From their elevated perches, I imagine Civic Center Plaza shook in all its frothy glory: the Plaza in a place of unusual prominence, as waves of fans in black and orange toasted and littered on its lawn.

This proud moment stands in stark contrast to Plaza’s usual, anemic existence. Visit the main green on a weekday afternoon and you will see the usual cast of characters: lonely sandwich eaters, tourists, aimless loiterers. While the grass is green and the trees well pruned, the Plaza remains un-peopled. The scale of the lawn comfortably accommodates thousands but is overwhelming at the scale of everyday life, in groups of two or three or ten.

Yet Civic Center is not without its occasional moments of brightness. On rare occasions, like the Giants rally, the plaza is activated. Given the sheer size of the lawn and Spartan landscaping, the Plaza offers up amble space for chaos. And chaos it invites. The lack of spatial programming allows a binge / purge approach to civic engagement, encapsulating the best and worst of civilian behavior. For years, the Plaza was home to San Francisco’s Lovefest until it was canceled indefinitely this fall. The event welcomed glittered leather daddies and high school sophomores alike to dance in a murky haze of drugs, techno and public permits.

The Plaza has also hosted more wholesome events, like Slow Food Nation of 2008. Booked as “the largest celebration of American food in history,” the four-day event ushered in 85,000 hungry participants. The event was an interesting hybrid of food advocacy, localism and conscientious design. Over 25 Bay Area architecture firms contributed to the design of the event, most via pro bono contributions. SMWM, now part of Perkins+Will, designed the masterplan for Civic Center Plaza, including a Victory Garden, outdoor food bazaar, and soap box for sharing stories. With amenities fit for individual participation, the Plaza was a relative bee hive of activity. The great tragedy of Slow Food Nation remains its singularity: the event has yet to be re-staged.

Despite its mediocre social life, Civic Center Plaza has a regal pedigree, as one of the City Beautiful projects of the renowned architect and planner, Daniel Burnham. Known primarily for his plans for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Washington Mall, Burnham had a hand in shaping the hearts of many of America’s major cities. Burnham’s masterplan for San Francisco coincided with the great earthquake and fire of 1906. With the city in ruin, the timing seemed perfect to enact a Burnham’s vision of an iconic city center. Nevertheless, idealism lost out to pragmatism as the city hurriedly reassembled itself. Of his plan, only Civic Center Plaza was realized.

It is perhaps the legacy of Burnham that damns any hope for a re-imagined Plaza, one that fits the habits and interests of its citizens. While the greater Civic Center/ Mid-Market corridor sees a new masterplan at least once every decade, that vast, green lifeless lawn remains untouched. Until we are ready to forfeit our place on Burnham’s roll-call, the Plaza will continue to be what it is: a blank slate for demonstrations, riots, and city-wide celebrations, never fully civil, never fully ours.

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Tags: san franciscobuilt environmentpublic space

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