San Francisco’s Market Street

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.

SF map courtesy Wikipedia

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

Wikipedia 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.

At Market and Fifth Street, May 1903. Courtesy theodorerooseveltcenter.org

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.

courtesy https://thepalacehotel.org – Garden Court, 1904

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.

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55 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Market Street

    • Hi Wayne, yes the 1906 anniversary celebration is a unique festival. A bit early for most people, but a must-see at least once. I was there over one hundred years after the tradition started and there were over 100 people there. Many thanks, my friend, my night owl friend.

  1. I love this post, Jet. The history is amazing, the twins photo just wonderful (makes me smile even now as I type), and the unfortunate changes you mentioned reassure me that you are living in the real world. It’s so sad that some of the beauty is being eroded by modern decadence, but you’ve presented it in a reasonable perspective.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment, Anneli. It was fun sharing the Twins, as they were a very unique duo, great fun to see them all over the city. I did think about leaving out the unsavory part of Market St., but I didn’t want anyone unknowingly wandering the area without a heads-up. I appreciate your acknowledgement. I’m delighted you loved this post, Anneli, thank you.

  2. Been a long time since I’ve had a chance to go to San Francisco – most of my technical conferences used to be there (Moscone Center). When we got a break from the lectures, we would take a walk or streetcar and see the various sights. Appreciate the step back in time!

  3. It sounds like a great place to live, Jet. The anniversary event must be wonderful to witness. Was it on again this year after Covid? Those twins look very bubbly 🤗💗

    • Yes, the EQ anniversary event was resumed this year after the Covid hiatus, it’s a fun, easy and free thing to do if you don’t mind the dawn part. I am a morning person, so I liked the dawn, but it was also fascinating to be down there when it was still dark and quiet. Smell the fog, watch businesses opening, and the newspaper truck dropping big stacks of newspapers by the machines. And yes, the twins were indeed bubbly. They were like performance artists on the street, and also did commercials and other gigs like that. Thank you, Jo, always a delight to see you.

  4. Market Street has witnessed much! I’m glad you included the Brown Twins. They have always captured the essence of SF to me… like Market Street itself!!!

    • Oh so lovely to hear from you, Nan, for we have traversed this lively street together many times. The Brown Twins did indeed capture the essence of SF, I think that is a wonderful point. Thanks so very much, dear Nan.

    • That film is so much fun, I’m glad you took a few minutes to watch it, Belinda. I liked having the old and new aspects of Market St. here today, and I’m glad you did too…appreciated your input.

  5. I ran into the twins in North Beach – they were having a heck of a time. I worked near Market Street in the mid-80s. For a while it was fun. But then, I was young!

    • I loved hearing that you ran into the twins in North Beach, Jan. If anyone spent enough time in the 80s and 90s in SF, we were bound to see the twins. What a kick they were! I liked hearing they were having a good time when you saw them. They always were when I saw them, too. Many thanks.

  6. What a wonderful post. Looking at the view from Twin Peaks, I smiled to see that “other bridge.” While the Golden Gate Bridge is iconic, I traveled the Oakland Bay Bridge more often, and developed some affection for it. I’m surprised I never heard of the annual commemoration of the earthquake; it looks like fun, and an important way to remind people of what can happen.

    Best of all was your mention of Marian and Vivian Brown. I moved to the Bay Area in 1977, and there was a good bit of publicity when they moved into a place at intersection of Powell and Pine streets– I think in 1978. I was lucky enough to see them one afternoon, and I’ll say this: there was no mistaking them for anyone else!

    • Oh ho ho I just loved your comment on the Brown Twins, Linda. They were absolutely unmistakable, you are spot-on. From the high-rise where I worked I could see them waaayyyy down there on the sidewalk (about 11 flights or so) and there was no mistaking them even from that far up. I also appreciated that you looked at the Twin Peaks view and noticed the Bay Bridge, definitely one that most people have been on far more than the GGB. Many thanks, always a joy when you stop by, my friend.

  7. This was such an enjoyable trip, Jet! Loved the restored footage, and what a risky adventure traveling down Market Street appeared to be – pedestrians, cyclists, horse drawn carriages, trams, cable cars and automobiles all making tracks down the street – a wonderful film, so interesting.
    Enjoyed your portraits of the city in more recent times, too, and the photographs illustrating the text.
    What a great city, with the upsides outweighing the challenges.
    Thanks, Jet!

    • Thank you, pc. I’m glad you took the time to watch that video, it’s a fun one. It looks like constant chaos, and your long list of who was all dodging the cable car explains well how chaotic it was. I love this city, and you’re right, pc, the upsides definitely outweigh the challenges. I am so grateful you and I and Mrs. PC had time together in this city. Many thanks and cheers for a fun weekend ahead to both you two and Scout too.

  8. How nice to see the old City of San Francisco, and all the good things that used to have. Great City, when I was just about 10 years old, my father went to San Francisco and got so impressed by the beauty of the whole city. For long time after the trip, he told his friends and family of his trip to SF.
    How nice to see you with the Brown sisters. Thank you, Jet for the great post. 🙂

    • It was nice to hear how much your father appreciated the beauty of this city, H.J. And really fun to share it with you today, and the Brown Twins too. My warmest thanks for your visit.

    • Thanks so much Craig. You landed on the exact reason I write these essays about SF…to give readers a few insights from a local POV. It’s fun for me to write and share. My warmest thanks for your lovely visit and words today, my friend.

  9. Like with everywhere else ‘out’ west you talk about San Francisco is one of those towns I visited
    long ago. It was a little different back then but as you know nearly everywhere has changed
    in 50 years. Great seeing the ‘old’ photos and hearing about some of the current escapades.
    Love the all the costumes and wonderful folks who wear them! What great fun!
    hugs dear friend, Eddie

  10. The world needs more quirk and thankfully the Brown Twins offered us a little of that. Were they actually twins or found themselves as doppelgangers and went with it? I doubt there was another pair parading just like them anywhere else in the world. San Francisco is quite a colorful city in many ways.

    I’ve heard of Market Street but did not visit during my one trip west. 120 feet wide is wide indeed. We have a street in Springfield, MA that is 2.5 miles long and straight too. So almost but not quitte. 🙂

    • Yes, the Brown Twins were actual identical twins. They were born in Michigan, went to college together, moved out here together, did everything together. Neither of them married, but they dated some twins they met at the Twin Conference. The folks of SF really embraced them, we all loved seeing them at events or on the street, they were always smiling and engaging with others. I enjoyed your comment, Steve, thanks very much for your visit.

  11. Oh my dear Jet…. you brought back such delightful memories. I went to work on Market Street some 15 years ahead of you and had moved to the Sierras roughly five years later. Sadly we never had a chance to run into each other. I bet it would have been such fun! It’s such a crazy, marvelous city… one of a kind for sure. I bet it’s an experience you’ll never forget. The same applies to me!
    Wishing you joy in your new surroundings…

    • Isn’t it funny that you and I could’ve been passing each other on Market Street in SF, Gunta? So many years ago…and a different lifetime no doubt for both of us. I, like you, am grateful for having had the opportunity to live in this spirited city. Thanks so very much for your visit today, my friend, it has been a joy.

  12. Enjoyed every aspect of your post, Jet. I traveled Market Street only once & that was 50 years ago but the memory of it will not be erased. I loved your tour forward & backward in time, and the comfortable chaos of the pre-fire video romp adds real depth to the stream of history here. Thanks for another fine one!

    • Hi Walt, I enjoyed hearing about your Market St. visit of 50 years ago, adding to the intrigue of the past on this spirited street. I’m glad you had a chance to watch the video too. Thanks for joining me on this trip down Market Street, past and present, and for your lovely words today as well. I hope your day today is a fine one….

  13. What a fun read, Jet. It brought back memories of visiting San Francisco, once for pleasure, once on business, but both trips were fun. It is a special city. I loved the photo of you with the twins. I picked you out immediately. (I, too, had a big-hair perm around ’83. 🙂 )

    • It was great fun to have you stop by, LuAnne, and I enjoyed your comment…I am smiling. I’m happy you have good memories of SF, and I agree, it is a special city. Also fun that you picked me out immediately and had a big-hair perm then too. Many thanks and smiles.

  14. Loved every bit of this historic overview of Market Street, Jet. Great photos old and new. One of my favorite events is the Pride Parade…never heard of the Fountain celebration at dawn, and you were there! I am aware of the famous twins who lived in a friend’s building…how cool that you posed with them. Ooh, you make me miss SF. 🌁❤️

    • Lots of good times at the Pride Parade and all the festivities on Market Street. Wonderful that you have had so many good times in SF…wonderful for us, too, the recipients of your elegant photos. Thank you for your lovely visits today, a complete joy to “see” you.

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