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Yerba Buena Lane: San Francisco's Newest Street

by Lee Anne Spencer

Although open since 2002, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare named Yerba Buena Lane is finally coming into its own. With the recent opening of the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Jessie Square, many people are now taking notice of this lively and interesting area for the first time.

Yerba Buena Lane allows pedestrians to flow from the Union Square area north of Market Street to the museums and public landscapes of Yerba Buena Gardens south of Market (SoMa), without a long detour down to Third or Fourth Street. At 550 feet long, it is designed to provide a convenient corridor for over 5 million people annually, fulfilling a vision of urban planners over 50 years in the making.

Historically, this was not considered an attractive area of San Francisco. SoMa’s unique development dates back to 1847, when surveyor

when surveyor Jasper O’Farrell laid out the city blocks south of Market to be twice the size of the blocks north of Market. This larger lot size, combined with easy access to the ports and railroads, caused SoMa to first develop as an industrial area of factories, warehouses, and other businesses. The neigh-borhood became home to many manual laborers and migratory workers as well as recent immigrants, and by 1900 SoMa was the second most densely populated area of San Francisco (after Chinatown), containing one-fifth of the City’s total population.

The geographic and cultural differences were described in a short story called “South of the Slot,” written by Jack London in 1909, and referring to the cable car track on Market Street. “Old San Francisco… was divided midway by the Slot… North of the Slot were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district, the banks and the staid,

respectable business houses. South of the Slot were the factories, slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works, and the abodes of the working class. The Slot was the metaphor that expressed the class cleavage of Society.…”

The SoMa neighborhood continued its economic decline throughout the early 20th century, despite a period of prosperity during World War II when nearby shipyards were booming. After the war, San Francisco corporate and real estate leaders supported an “urban renewal” movement and targeted SoMa for redevelopment since the area had become very rundown, with a reputation for crime and violence. In the 1950s, a 19-block section was declared “blighted,” paving the way for the government to begin land acquisition and evictions (called “spot clearing”). Justin Herman, Executive Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959 to 1971, led the pro-development contingent and pushed forward with plans for a grand Yerba Buena Center, including a convention center, theater, sports arena, hotels, office buildings, shops, restaurants, pedestrian malls, and landscaped plazas.

Local forces organized and fought back, and in 1970 formed a group called Tenants & Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR). They filed several lawsuits showing that the proposed Yerba Buena Center made no real provisions for the 4,000 residents and 700 businesses that would be displaced. After multiple settlements and court orders, developers were required to provide more low-income housing, perform Environmental Impact reports, drop the sports arena, and have community / arts involvement in the project. While not addressing all community concerns, these compromises paved the way for development to begin in the 1980s, and helped create today’s pedestrian-friendly area mixing residential housing with numerous dining, shopping, and entertainment options for all ages.

If you find yourself near Market and Grant, take Yerba Buena Lane to explore San Francisco’s highest concentration of museums, including the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the California Historical Society, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the SF MOMA. You will see some of the City’s poshest hotels and newest dining spots, along with public gardens, unique art, free musical performances, a historic church, and a powerful memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The area is continuing to evolve at a rapid rate – the Contemporary Jewish Museum just opened in June – so even if you’ve been on the tour before, come again and find out what’s new. You will discover the hidden gems of this neighborhood and enjoy new vistas and unique locations.

Sources: • “South of Market District” - Report by Page & Turnbull, Inc., San Francisco-based Architecture, Historic Preservation, and Urban Design firm • “South of the Slot” by Jack London, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, Vol. 181, May 1909

When not leading the SoMa/Yerba Buena Gardens Tour, Lee Anne Spencer, Class of 2008, works at a consulting firm she helped co-found.

Contemporary photo of Yerba Buena Gardens courtesy of Lee Anne Spencer.

1985 photo courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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1985 photo of the parking lot that became Yerba Buena Gardens. In the background is St. Patrick’s Church, and to the right of it the PG&E power station building that today houses the new Contemporary Jewish Museum.

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Yerba Buena Gardens today, with St. Patrick's Church still visible in the background.

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