The Financial District and Chinatown Walks
San Francisco architecture and shopping
Nowhere are the vivid contrasts of San Francisco’s tight-knit neighbourhoods better demonstrated than close to the eastern waterfront where the sleek, vertical towers of international high-finance cast their shadows across the painted balconies, food stands and century-old temples lining the bustling streets of Chinatown.
We suggest three walks in these districts, which cover an area of barely a square mile. The first joins the city’s power-dressed power-brokers and discovers the best (and the worst) of the city’s commercial architecture; the second explores the sights, sounds and smells of the city’s longest-established ethnic area; and the third is a shopping expedition that draws on the area’s diversity, passing from Chinatown herbalists to the high fashion department stores of Union Square.
For ease of description, the walks are described as if proceeding in one direction only, but you can use the maps to follow them in any direction.
Start: Ferry Building – see map. A midget when compared to the Financial District towers a few minutes’ walk away, the 235-ft Ferry Building – modelled on the Giralda in Seville – became the city’s tallest building on its completion in 1903, and also one of the busiest. The major entry point to the city prior to the 1937 opening of the Bay Bridge, up to 50 million people passed through the Ferry Building annually. Save for its pretty appearance and its historical significance, however, the Ferry Building holds little interest. Within its extended arcaded facade are the offices of the World Trade Centre, while its dock sees just a few ferries a day, carrying nostalgic day-trippers to and from Marin County. Directly opposite the Ferry Building, the much more recent Embarcadero Centre is approached by crossing Justin Herman Plaza, a concrete expanse softened by waterfalls, buskers, skateboarders and alfresco diners. The attractions of the Embarcadero are described in the Shopping Walk.
The Embarcadero Center stands on the junction of Market and California streets: walk up the latter into the heart of the Financial District. The city’s densest grouping of skyscrapers are gathered here, loved and loathed in varying degrees and collectively a symbol of what, in the 1980s, concerned San Franciscans saw as the “Manhattanization” of the city. For many, the chief aesthetic offender is 101 California Street, a Philip Johnson-designed semi-cylindrical tower, the harsh effect of which is only partly softened by the potted vegetation in its sunny atrium. By contrast, the Museum of Money of the American West, in the basement of the Bank of California, 400 California Street, provides an entertaining effort to place trans-global wheeling’s and dealings in a Californian historical context: gold nuggets of all shapes and sizes and early currency fill the display cases. Also on show is a pair of duelling pistols, fired in anger during a famed dispute between two rival political figures in 1859.
At 465 California Street, the Merchant Exchange Building was designed by the noted Willis Polk and completed in 1903. At that time, this area formed the San Francisco waterfront (when the city was a leader in Pacific sea trade) and a look-out posted on the roof of the Merchant Exchange would announce approaching ships to the traders and businessmen massed below in the building’s Grain Exchange Hall, now occupied by First Interstate Bank and entered by way of a grandly pillared lobby. Decorating the hall are immense and impressive marine paintings by Irish-born William Coulter; less appealing model ships grace the entrance hall.
Next door, the 1969 Bank of America Building is an imposing but not immediately likeable 52-storys of dark red carnelian marble, with a large slab of sculptured dark marble standing in its plaza, which looks uncannily like a giant tortoise shell.
Here you can make a swift detour along Lei-desdorff Street to the Pacific Stock Exchange, 301 Pine Street. Finished in 1930, the Stock Exchange’s ambitious but not entirely successful exterior mating of classical and modern motifs has been a feature of the Financial District for longer than most people realize.
Turn the corner to walk north on Montgomery Street, the Financial District’s major north-south artery. On the south side of the junction with California Street stands the elegant 1922 Security Pacific Bank Building. On the north side, the Wells Fargo Bank allocates a generous portion of its ground floor to the Wells Fargo Museum, charting the company’s rise from carrying mail across pioneer-period California to becoming one of the nation’s bastions of high finance. Besides a large assortment of postage stamps, gold-scales and coins, there is a simulated stagecoach ride and a tribute to the 19thC poet-bandit, Black Bart, said to have robbed so much from Wells Fargo stagecoaches that the company paid him to retire.
Further north along Montgomery Street, it is hard to resist being drawn to what, on its opening in 1972, became the city’s best-known modern landmark: the 853-ft Transamerica Pyramid, by the junction with Clay Street. The Pyramid is far more interesting from the outside than the inside, but so you can say you’ve entered this renowned structure, pop inside and glance at the artworks displayed around the lobby.
Start: Junction of Bush Street and Grant Avenue. The jade-coloured, dragon-topped Chinatown Gate, a gift from the Taiwanese government in 1970, at the junction of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, makes an inauspicious entry point to Chinatown: its manufactured neatness is at odds with the spontaneous street life of a compact 20-block area housing an incredible 40,000 people – the largest Asian community outside Asia.
Adjust your walking pace to suit the throng along Grant Street, Chinatown’s showcase street with numerous intriguing shops (see Shopping Walk) and continue to the corner with California Street, where the Old St. Mary’s Church has stood since 1854. Though the church’s interior is dull, look up at the clock tower and its inscription reading Son Observe the Time and Fly from Evil, a message aimed at customers arriving to use the numerous brothels in the area a century ago. The church survived the earthquake of 1906 but many of the brothels were destroyed, making room for the landscaped space that is now St. Mary’s Square, where a stainless-steel statue of Sun Yat-Sen – founder of the Republic of China – sits on a granite pedestal, helping to disguise the park’s function as the roof of an underground car-park.
Packing its exhibits into a single small room, the absorbing Chinese Historical Society of America (www.chsa.org), 650 Commercial Street, charts the massive influx of Chinese men into California during the gold-rush, their subsequent contribution to the building of the state – and the Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited further migration, causing the long-term separation of families and the ethnic hostility that led to the founding of self-contained Chinatown districts in many Californian towns.
Continuing north, step off Clay Street into Waverly Place, a tiny alley known as “the Street of Painted Balconies,” for reasons that are immediately obvious. Waverly Place also holds several temples. The temples occupy the top floors of several buildings and visitors who can clamber up enough stairs are welcome to look around them (a donation is appreciated). Temple opening hours are irregular but, with luck, the Tin How Temple, at number 125, founded in 1852, will reward a call with a chance to peek into its incense-charged inner sanctum.
From Waverly Place, walk down the hill to Portsmouth Square, named after the ship which brought Commander John Montgomery ashore in 1846 to wave the Stars and Stripes for the first time in San Francisco. Two years later, Sam Brannan stood here proclaiming the discovery of Californian gold; 30 years after that, Robert Louis Stevenson used the square as an open-air writing room – he is commemorated here by a sculptured ship on a granite plinth. The square is predominantly the domain of elderly Chinese engrossed in chess matches or going through the slow-motion routines of tai chi. Overlooking the square, the high-rise Hilton Hotel holds the Chinese Cultural Centre (www.c-c-c.org), where some strong temporary exhibitions are staged. On the north side of the square, Buddha’s Universal Church – serving the city’s growing Zen Buddhist community – was completed in the early 1960s after eight years of largely volunteer labour. The many bazaars held to raise money for its construction fuelled a myth that the church was funded on the proceeds of fortune cookie sales. The terrazzo floor, polished woods and top-floor lotus garden can only be seen on guided tours. (Second and fourth Sundays of the month; www.bucsf.com).
Start: Embarcadero Centre, at the junction of Market and California Streets. Facing the historic Ferry Building the Embarcadero Centre arose during the 1970s and 1980s, a combination of high-rise office towers and open-air walkways that wind through three tiers of diverse shops and restaurants. Better for browsing and snacking than actually buying anything, the Embarcadero’s shops are the kind found in most Californian shopping malls. What no other shopping mall can match, however, is the glorious view of San Francisco to be found from the 41st floor Embarcadero Skydeck. Reached by high-speed elevator, the skydeck complements the view with historical displays and a free guided tour.
Walk from the Embarcadero Centre through the Financial District to Jackson Square, just north of the Transamerica Pyramid. Jackson Square is a block of Victorian buildings; most dating from the 1850s, which survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. Along Jackson Street, several of the buildings form an “antiques row” of shops specializing in high-quality 17thC to 19thC European furniture, porcelain, ceramics, carpets and tapestries. Also in the Jackson Square area are a number of wholesale fabric, furniture and architectural supply centres – and William Stout Architectural Books, 804 Montgomery Street, which has a formidable stock of new and used tomes relating to building and design.
The subdued atmosphere that prevails in the antiques area is far removed from Chinatown’s vibrant Grant Avenue, a few blocks east. It is widely acknowledged that the Grant Avenue shops are aimed at tourists rather than Chinese, but that doesn’t diminish the fun and exhilaration of exploring them. The Canton Bazaar, number 616, and the China Trade Centre, number 838, are bustling emporiums where wood and jade carvings, vases, pottery, baskets, silk lingerie, and assorted inexpensive souvenirs are touted with glee (and where you’ll find the cheapest postcards in San Francisco).
Ingenious Chinese toys, such as puzzle boxes and finger traps, are the speciality of Gin Lang Arts, number 627. The most colourful collections of windsocks, silk dragons, and other types of kite – which, if you’re not planning to fly them, make excellent decorations – are found at the Chinatown Kite Shop, number 717. Anyone bemoaning the lack of quality tea in the U.S. won’t want to leave the Ten Ren Tea Company, number 949, which imports and sells many fine blends – and often has free samples steaming on the counter. If the Chinatown energy saps your strength, seek a pick-me-up from the rows of traditional Chinese herbal remedies lining the shelves of Yau Hing Co, number 831.
Leaving Chinatown, the Crocker Galleria, off Montgomery Street, allows the Financial District’s stressed executives to indulge in soothing bouts of consumption in 50 up-market shops. The Galleria’s walkways are lined by tempting food stands and wind up to rooftop gardens, but the shops themselves are a conservative and uninspiring bunch.
Exit the Galleria onto Post Street and you soon reach the two-block Maiden Lane, lined by stylish boutiques and imitation gas lamps. Chanel, number 156, has three floors laden with the French company’s finest products. More eye catching, however, is the Circle Gallery, number 140, a contemporary art showcase occupying a 1949 building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom it served as a model for the subsequent Guggenheim Museum in New York; the artworks are viewed from a spiral walkway.
Maiden Lane’s western exit leads on to Stockton Street, directly opposite Union Square and a cluster of distinguished department stores. Neiman-Marcus, 150 Stockton-Street, has more quality clothing and household goods, although the merchandise takes second place to the architecture – a stern but amusing post-modern work by Philip Johnson, which incorporates the delightful stained-glass rotunda of the City of Paris, a store that occupied the site from 1908.
Even if you don’t intend buying anything there, call into Nordstrom, inside the $145-million San Francisco Shopping Centre at 865 Market Street, and cruise between the eight floors on spiral escalators.
Before leaving the area, take a look at Gump’s, 250 Post Street, founded by two German brothers in 1861 and stocking a monumental collection of china, silver and crystal – and some world-class jades and pearls – all of it on offer at pulse-quickening prices.
Few of northern California’s 11,000-strong Japanese population actually lives in San Francisco’s Japantown, an artificially created “ethnic area” of minor appeal. Many come to buy Japanese goods and food from the Japan Center, bordered by Post and Webster streets, however, and to soak in a traditional Japanese mineral bath at Kabuki Hot Spring, 1750 Geary Boulevard.