Sunday, September 25, 2011

San Francisco City Guides Walking Tour Review: Embarcadero South

Walking Embarcadero South in San Francisco, California
photos by Dianne Smith

Rincon Center
The walk along Embarcadero heading south from the Rincon Center to the corner of Delancey and Brannan lasts almost two hours, especially when Barbara Davis leads the tour. She brims with knowledge that struggles against brevity, but she is worth every minute of your time. City Guides offers a number of free walking tours around San Francisco, California, used by locals and tourists alike, and the Embarcadero South: Ruth Miller Ramble tour meets at the corner of Mission and Steuart Streets.

Rincon Center on Embarcadero Walking Tour

The tour is named after a woman who saw the potential beauty of this area when it consisted of shipyards and warehouses. Embracing the calm waters of the East Bay and having less fog, Ruth Miller visualized the Embarcadero with residences, a lively commercial district and tourists. Her hunch proved correct as shipping eventually moved to Oakland and the waterfront transitioned.

Ferry Building, San Francisco
The Rincon Center was originally a United States Post Office and is now a historic landmark. City officials wanted to incorporate artwork where there was a lot of foot traffic, so the Post Office was a natural choice to display a set of wall murals. Anton Refregier painted twenty-seven snapshots from  San Francisco's history, beginning with the original Indian natives through the mission period, statehood, gold rush and industrial eras. Many of the huge watercolors depicted controversial subjects, and the dismayed officials of his day forced Refregier to repaint several scenes.

During the 1950's, transit authorities commonly believed freeways were best built circling the major cities, so a double-decker Embarcadero Freeway was constructed along the waterfront. However, the rest of the freeway would slice the City off entirely from the Bay, so a huge outcry resulted and prevented it from ever being finished. Then to everyone's astonishment and pleasure, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 destroyed The Embarcadero Freeway, opening up the area to scenic views and development.
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An interesting footnote is that three months before the freeway's collapse, Kimpton Hotels contracted to build the Harbor Court Hotel next to the Army and Navy YMCA, one of many stories after Loma Prieta of riches acquired through timing and luck.

Public Art in San Francisco

In addition to the murals of the Rincon Center, several other public artworks grace the promenade. Ruth Asawa, a local artist known for her commitment to art education in the public schools and her pieces in the deYoung Museum, created a circular metallic fountain sculpture called Aurora in 1986. Also, Richard Serra designed "Charlie Brown," a massively tall artwork for The Gap headquarters, its metal forged in Germany. Don Fisher, founder and owner of The Gap, also commissioned another sculpture, a ridiculous, oversized bow and arrow, better suited for a children's playground than its high profile location overlooking the Bay. In an attempt to encourage appreciation, Ms. Davis suggested the group walk on the other side of the steet to view San Francisco through the artistic monstrosity. I did, but it didn't help.

Howard Street Plaque in Sidewalk
Interesting bronze plaques cemented in the sidewalk educate pedestrians about the people whom the streets are named after. Newspaper mogul San Brannan was the first millionaire in California and Beale brought news to Washington, D.C. that gold had been discovered at Sutter's Fort. The walking tour continues to the old Hills Brothers Coffee factory built in 1924, with a statue of their trademark Turk drinking a cup of joe. The company's claim to fame was their creative packaging and innovative method of vacuum packing their beans. It took ten years before anyone else adopted their system.

Hills Brothers Coffee Building
The tour ends at Brannan and Delancey Streets, where the Oriental Warehouse, one of the oldest buildings in San Francisco, still stands. Most of the warehouses and industrial buildings have been renovated into condos or apartments. Nearby is the Delancey Center, a non-profit that helps at-risk individuals develop skills and get back on their feet. The Center acquired their property from the City of San Francisco for just a dollar, built an impressive facility which included a friendly restaurant, and has become a model of success.

Ferry Building Farmers Market
Those taking the walking tour may want to enjoy a meal at the Delancey Center or walk back toward the Ferry Building. Saturday mornings offer a farmer's market and a myriad of sidewalk vendors bearing jewelry and art. The area teems with people enjoying the markets, cuisine and scenery of this lively, historic part of San Francisco, and the City Guides walking tour is a great way to experience it.

Hills Brothers Turk Statue

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