Much of the past and present of San Francisco lies on Market Street. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of this lively thoroughfare of the city by the bay.
San Francisco’s biggest and widest street is 120 feet wide (36 m) and three miles (5 km) long. It ends at the bay.
You can see in this overview photo below the wide street vertically cutting a long and distinct swath through the center of the city landscape. That’s Market Street.
This vintage San Francisco map below shows how there are two grids facing different directions. It is Market Street that is the boundary of the two grids, cutting diagonally across the city.
Graded through sand dunes in the 1850s, Market Street quickly became a major thoroughfare in the Gold Rush days. Public transportation of all kinds has traversed this street over the decades.
Below is a link to an eight-minute video restored by the U.S. Library of Congress; it was filmed just days before the 1906 earthquake. It takes the viewer on a cable car ride down Market Street at about 10 mph, demonstrating a typical day in 1906.
Video Link: A Trip Down Market Street
Except for the Golden Gate Bridge photo, all photos in this essay reflect scenes on Market Street.
It has also hosted a plethora of events from presidential parades to pride parades; earthquake recovery sites to Super Bowl celebrations.
Below is an archival photo from 1903 of a parade on Market Street for the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt.
Over a century later: the same spot on Market Street, across the street at the cable car turnaround.
These two old photos of the Ferry Building, at the base of Market Street, are right after the 1906 earthquake and then six months later under renovation.
This is Market Street and the Ferry Building six months after the 1906 earthquake, in recovery mode.
A prominent old hotel on Market Street is the Palace Hotel. It was originally built in 1875, burned down (1906 earthquake), and was rebuilt and reopened in 1909. Today it is still an elegant hotel and restaurant, hosting a variety of notable guests. These two photos are the same room, 1904 and 2013.
Another landmark on Market Street is Lotta’s Fountain. It is a cast iron sculpture that became a meeting place for survivors after the 1906 earthquake.
Since that day, April 18, 1906, the city has hosted an annual celebration at the fountain. It takes place at dawn when the earthquake hit. Organizers dress in vintage clothing. The presiding mayor always gives a speech about earthquake safety and the strength of the community then and now.
There is always an interesting cast of characters and costumes at this festive dawn event.
On a normal day, there are parts of Market Street not advisable for pedestrians. From about Fifth Street west to Van Ness Avenue is a decaying array of homeless people, drug addicts and unsavory scenes.
Every new mayor promises to clean it up, but this section of Market remains stubbornly ugly and unsafe.
Here are some happy moments on Market Street at the Pride Parades over a span of many years.
One of my memorable moments on Market Street took place in 1983 soon after I had moved to San Francisco. My first job was on Market in an office building at the intersection of Kearney and Third. Early on I started noticing two women who looked exactly alike.
Not only did they look exactly alike, they walked alike and moved in synchrony.
They walked down Market Street at the same time every day, like clockwork. I learned they were prominent characters of San Francisco. The Brown Twins. They worked at different offices, but every day at the same time they met up and paraded down the street together wearing the exact same clothes, accessories, hair and make-up.
One day I brought in my camera. I had a plan. My co-worker and I walked down Market at the time they were expected. And we found them. We asked if we could pose for a photo with them. They were pleasant and obliging and friendly.
In the hustle of the downtown lunch hour, we found someone to snap a photo of the four of us. I am on the far right.
It’s an interesting and historic street, our Market Street. It’s so quirky that even the direction it takes is diagonal. But those of us who have spent any time in San Francisco, like this artery of our favorite city.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.