One and a Half Parking Lot Booths

If it’s parking lot booths you’re after, San Francisco’s Market Street isn’t a great place to look. On the whole length of the street, I only found one and a half.

There are a handful of places to park. But few have booths.

If you’re staying at the Travelodge at Market and Valencia there’s a spot for you.


Sometimes the booths have lots of personality. And although they invite graffiti, they can also host street art.

This piece, just half a block off Market Street, seems to be by the British artist Banksy (

There’s something poignant about parking lot booths. They’re a dying piece of the urban landscape. There’s really no reason any longer for parking lots to have human concierges.

A machine can do the job.


And the lots themselves are mostly doomed. They need to be in places where people want to go – to shop or eat or visit. But nobody wants to just go to a parking lot. So the popularity of their neighbors creates the pressure to get rid of them. One by one they disappear and with them their booths.

I got rid of one myself, though there wasn’t a booth: just parking meters. Now on the site there’s a grocery store, library, and housing (see my article for the Urbanist Magazine: How to Turn a Parking Lot into Apartments, a library, and a Grocery Store the Hard Way:

The whole length of Market Street there are only one and a half booths.

This one has a sign to say that it’s lost its lease.


Farther up Market, this half booth.

It’s only there on weekends, in the parking lot of Sullivan’s Funeral Home. Weekdays it gets rolled away. The clients aren’t grieving friends and relatives; they’re kids going clubbing.


It measures only 2.25 feet by 5 feet. The attendant’s review:

“It’s got my desk. It’s got my television. It works for me.”


“[It is] one of the most marvelous books of contemporary art in the 20th Century. There are many works of art in the 20th Century, and I am an artist and I project only the work of art. These 280 pages are a work of art, with the nature, with the people, with the traffic, with the birds, with the ocean, and with the sky.”


You probably know Christo as the artist who (in collaboration with his wife, Jeanne-Claude) hung The Gates in Central Park -after 25 years of public review. They wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris. For two weeks in 1975, he ran a fabric fence through Marin and Sonoma, from Highway 101 into the sea.

The book he’s reviewing above is the “Final Environmental Impact Report, Running Fence” by Environmental Science Associates. In two volumes the EIR describes the Fence and what it might do to the environment. It lays out impacts on archeology, traffic, air quality, energy use, soils, water, noise, and wildlife.

The Fence is described in the EIR as

“18 feet high and more than 24 miles long. The structure would be essentially an assembly of 18-foot by 62- foot white nylon panels, supported by cables and poles, the latter anchored in soil or rock.”


In reality, there were two aspects of the work.

Obviously, there was the material object, which Christo, in the EIR, describes like this:

“The physical reality of the Running Fence will be a beautiful one. The fabric is a fragile material, like clothing or skin. And, like the structures the nomads built in the desert, it will have the special beauty of impermanence. The fabric is a light-conductor for the sunlight, and it will give shape to the wind. It will go over the hills and into the sea, like a ribbon of light.”


The other part, also described by Christo:

“Three years of teamwork, three years of study with engineers, surveyors, botanists, geologists. The Running Fence project also involves politicians and businessmen, supervisors and artists, students and – especially – the local ranchers and landowners.”

Running Fence was fiercely debated and this debate was an important part of the art work.

Pro: “Running Fence will depict the evolution of man from the sea, his enormous efforts to survive and build on the land, and the ultimate destruction of that for which he has strived with such intensity for so very long.”

Con: “It will bring tourists into the county and make it a crummy Coney Island.”


Those of us involved in planning and development usually view this process as an unfortunate series of steps on the way to a building or a plan. But there is an art to it and theatre too.

The Running Fence Environmental Impact Report is also an important part of the work.

I looked for a long time for a copy of the Report and found only one: for $750, listed by an antiquarian bookseller in La Jolla. But I got a copy, and you can too, by downloading it from the Smithsonian’s website, at





On the six block stretch of 16th Street between Mission and Market Streets there’s a font for every taste: wacky, retro, vintage, homemade, Hebrew and Arabic, clean and funky. They tell us all we need to know about the attitude of the enterprises.

These photos were taken with an iphone and hooked up with an app called What the Font, which pretends to read a picture and guess the font. The guesses seem pretty random, but I like the names.

Check these out:


Rhodaelian Ligatures


Farnham Display Bold


CC Sticky Fingers Italic




Geodec Fog


Euphonia Roman


Viscosity Regular


Churchward Samoa Bold


Lithia Off Kilter


Baby Mine Fat


Sailors Tattoo Pro Xmas


Mostra Nuova




Lady Starlight


Foldron Italic




Minimala-Medium Italic

Saul Steinberg: Dottore in Architettura

Kitchen Street, 1954

Colored pencil, gouache, and ink on photograph, 11 x 14″Private collection© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are a lot of architecture critics out there. Just about everybody is one. Some of the best, like Saul Steinberg, never designed a building.

If you know of Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), it’s most likely for his iconic View of the World from 9th Avenue.

Saul Steinberg, View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1976

Ink, pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, 28 x 19 in. (71.1 x 48.3 cm) Private collection Cover drawing for The New Yorker, March 29, 1976 © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s a shame that most people who’ve heard of Steinberg are familiar with only this image.

My favorite works of his deal with buildings, towns, and cities.

He graduated as Dottore in Architettura from the Milan Politecnico in 1940 but as a Jew he was not allowed to practice.


Anyway, he said “The study of architecture is a marvelous training for anything but architecture.”

Architecture Magazine did a cover story on Steinberg after his death and here is some of what Peter Blake wrote:

“Almost everything that has been said and written about architecture during the past forty years was said much better, much more clearly, much more amusingly, much more incisively and much earlier by this extraordinary artist, and without the use of a single word…Saul was by far the most brilliant architecture critic in the United States in the past half century…When Saul wanted to tell you that a building looked silly, he would draw it to look silly. When he wanted to tell you that a building looked sexy, he would make it look sexy. When he wanted to make it look “postmodern” he would make it look goofy.

He never built any of his architectural projects, alas, but everyone else did – whether they realized it or not.”


Check out some of his buildings:


Cincinatti Greyhound, c. 1980Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 ¾ x 14 in.Private collection© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Untitled, c. 1970 Ink on paper© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Seattle Projects, 1981Watercolor, ink, colored pencil and foil on paper, 22 x 30″Private collection © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Untitled, 1951-52

Ink on paper Originally published in The New Yorker, January 26, 1952 © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bauhaus Street, 1982

Ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, 19 ½ x 25″ Private collection © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Thank you to the Saul Steinberg Foundation for kind permission to show these to you.

Four ways to look at skyscrapers


1.Head on.

This morning I was in a meeting in a conference room on the 30th floor of a high rise office building downtown, looking out at the Bank of America building, the tallest building in San Francisco. It looked different.

In fact, it looked pretty good, tall and slender and elegant. It was as if I’d never seen it. I realized it looked so good because I was seeing it, for the first time, head on.

But when do you get to see a building head on? You have to be up in the air yourself or way far away.

2.From above.

Why is this view so popular? I don’t get it. Hardly anybody ever sees buildings like this.

3.How we really see them.

4. On a table.

Everybody likes to look at building models. But they make a high rise look like a Brancusi sculpture.

Here are some other fans (identities listed at the end):

Donald Trump

Adolph Hitler

Charles de Gaulle

Le Corbusier

Johnny Depp

Divided Cities

On a Saturday afternoon this summer, I walked from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem. West Jerusalem was a ghost town, everyone celebrating the Sabbath with their families: no cars, few pedestrians, shops and restaurants closed. Buses don’t run. Really, it was spooky. You cross a street and come to East Jerusalem: a bustling city with teeming crowds, shops spilling out onto the sidewalks, traffic jams. There’s no wall or sign, but suddenly it’s a different world.

Jerusalem is a divided city within a divided country (or two countries, depending on who you ask) and there’s even a divided city within it: the Old City, which has four quarters; the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Moslem Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.

A week later we were in Berlin, which of course did have a wall, and where hundreds of people were shot trying to get from East to West. Today, twenty years after the wall came down, the city is seamless. When they merged, the East lost its identity, except for the Ampleman, the beloved traffic crossing figure which they fought to save.

There are “Places Where People Like Me Live” and “Places Where People Who Aren’t Like Me Live”.

There are places where we go and where we don’t, as shown on this fold-out map of Paris. The colors show “where I go” and ‘where I don’t go” (“J’y vais, J’y vais pas.”)

You don’t have to travel far to find a divided city. Check out these beautiful but sad maps, produced by Eric Fischer, showing the racial distribution of US cities (White population shown in red, Black population shown in blue):

San Francisco Bay Area

New York Metropolitan Area




New Orleans


A couple of times a week I walk from my house to my office at Second and Market Streets and of course there’s only one way to go: down Market Street.

You could write a little essay about the hidden erotic aspects of Market Street, but why be coy? There’s nothing hidden about it. It’s right out there.

That’s what Market Street is about. From the Castro to the spike of the Ferry Building filling the canyon between the highrises, with the neon of mid-Market and the hustle of the financial district in between, Market Street is sexy.

All it needs is barkers like the strip clubs on Broadway yelling “Check it out!”

Sometimes it’s the advertising signs, or the statues, or the names, or even elements of the architecture. Today it’s gaudy and commercial, but topless men and women were at one time heroes – stuck on or holding up buildings.

Whatever you’re into, come find it on Market Street.

And on Market Street there is the loyal opposition, too:

2 Buildings About Power and 1 About Love

“It might be more romantic to say “I love you” in French than it is in Cantonese; nevertheless, it is still possible to say it. It might be more touching to say it in song than in design, but saying it in design should be achievable, too.

And it is possible to say “I love you” even in architecture, as the Taj Mahal proves.”

Stefan Sagmeister, “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far”



Some buildings have something to say. It might be a bank building saying “your money is safe in here” or a highrise saying ‘we mean business”. A house could telegraph modest comfort or shout out wealth.

Here are two buildings that tell you about different kinds of power.

Here’s the Federal office building in San Francisco.

I think it says “I’m in charge here. You are nothing.”

This is the power plant at Kennedy Airport. It glows at night and usually there’s steam coming out of the pipes.

These are buildings with clear messages. They’re like words. String buildings together on a block and you might get a sentence, in a neighborhood maybe a paragraph. And when they click it’s poetry.



Something Happened Here

Everyone knows there are invisible cities. Sure, there are the obvious one with street corners and steps and shopfronts. But then there are the spots and the patterns only some people know.

Somehow drug people know that the corner of Church St. and Market St. works well for them.

Johns know where to find hookers to their particular tastes.

Gang members know where they can safely go and where they can’t.

Cops know where they can pick off speeders.

And there are the cities that live only in memory. When I go to neighborhoods I lived in I can feel the ghosts, remember the parties.

Out my office window now I overlook where I flew off a motorcycle and broke my collarbone, about 25 years ago. Nobody would know but me.

In front of my old apartment in North Beach an old man, Peter Macchiarini, once showed me where he was standing when he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and he told me the curse he’d said. To this day when I walk by that spot I too remember Pearl Harbor and I remember Peter.

Here’s a spot with a past: A banal parking lot for a banal apartment complex in Berlin.

Underneath: the site of the bunker where Adolph Hitler hid for the last two weeks of the war before marrying Eva Braun and killing himself.

Under our feet, a world of wonders.

“Is it possible, after all, that in spite of bricks and shaven faces this world we live in is brimmed with wonders, and I and all mankind, beneath our garbs of commonplaceness, conceal enigmas that the stars themselves, and perhaps the seraphim, cannot resolve?”

Herman Melville, Pierre, 1852

Remembering the International Hotel

The International Hotel stood at the corner of Kearny and Jackson and it was the center of a community that no longer exists: Manilatown. Manilatown came down with the Hotel, after the Sheriff cleared the building’s elderly Filipino tenants in a dawn raid on August 4, 1977. I was there, inside the Hotel, representing the City’s Human Rights Commission.

We lost that battle. But it couldn’t happen today.

Here’s what I said about it in a recent KALW radio show on the International Hotel:

I think we’re a more compassionate city as a result of what happened there. I think the boundaries of discussion of what property owners can do has really shifted. And we’re much more comfortable requiring developers to include affordable housing, saying you have to save residential hotels. And understanding, I think, the value of preserving Chinatown, preserving parts of South of Market, preserving parts of the Western Addition, and not just letting private or public redevelopment run roughshod.

Obviously we didn’t succeed in our goal of preventing the eviction and saving the building, but the legacy of the International Hotel is that it couldn’t happen again. And maybe it took that kind of shock, the image of elderly people being let out at dawn. The sheriff smashing down their doors. The cops on horseback charging into the crowds. Maybe it took those images to really understand what was at stake here. We lost the hotel, we lost the battle, but it’s not going to happen again.

If you’d like to hear the show, or just read the transcript, you could click here.

%d bloggers like this: