Mid-Market Street was once known as “The Great White Way of San Francisco.” According to historian Jack Tillmany, it won this description “because of the non-stop stream of lights that flooded the street from dusk to midnight, many of them provided by the array of movie theaters that held court for six incredible blocks.” But the closure of most of these theaters removed these bright lights, and along with it Mid-Market’s economic vitality and identity as a place for evening pedestrian strolls. To restore Mid-Market’s luster, the Mayor’s Central Market Partnership, a comprehensive, public-private effort to revitalize Central Market through the arts, has initiated a number of new activities funded through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Last night, the San Francisco Arts Commission turned on three site-specific art installations in the Central Market corridor in front 1119 Market Street, across from UN Plaza. The Lights on Market Street installations are part of The ARTery Project, which itself is part of the city’s broader strategy to improve UN Plaza and revive historic Mid-Market.

San Francisco’s Mid-Market Street needs to give people more reasons to visit the area in the evening. The installation of three new projects created by internationally recognized light artists serves this goal, and is hopefully the first of what will be ongoing light installations in the area.

All of the installations focus on the critical area of 7th and Market.

Paul Notzold’s installation shines a different poem each night on the large blank wall of the Renoir Hotel facing UN Plaza; ideally, the Renoir wall will be constantly lit by a kaleidoscope of colors and art installations so that residents and tourists alike feel they must come to see it. Think how much it would change perceptions of Mid-Market for those coming out of the Civic Center transit stations to immediately see brightly lit public art.

Jim Campbell's artworks shining on 1119 Market project moving images of
pedestrians and traffic, and Notzold also has an animated cartoon on 10 UN Plaza that, like his other installation, includes poems by the San Francisco Arts Commission WritersCorps students. Theo Watson's installation at 1017 Market transforms images of pedestrians into graphic portraits.

In a good sign for those concerned about economic revitalizing the Central City area, District 6 Supervisor-elect Jane Kim attended last night’s opening event. Since winning the election Kim has reaffirmed her commitment to help the area’s small businesses, and those in the Mid-Market, Sixth Street, and Uptown Tenderloin will all benefit from improving UN Plaza and the surrounding area.

The Broader Strategy

Many innovative strategies for the critical 7th and Market area moved forward in 2010. In addition to the lighting installations, the launching of a Thursday arts market, and the broader cultural program, Supervisor Dufty’s recently sponsored legislation will facilitate quality food carts in UN Plaza (the Off the Grid carts appear Thursdays from 11am-2pm but existing health laws made it difficult).

And let’s not forget the critical but largely overlooked move by the Art Institute of California, San Francisco to 10 UN Plaza, and the repainting of that long depressing looking building. In early 2011 an art in storefronts program will commence in the area, and planning has begun for a public art project by Burning Man, and arts receptions/programming by the Luggage Store Gallery and Gray Area Gallery.

It’s a start, and perhaps even more than we could expect at a time when public entities are badly strapped for funding cultural projects.

The bottom line is that we are ending 2010 with greater hopes for Mid-Market and UN Plaza then when the year began. In light of broader political trends, that’s something to cheer.

Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century offers hope and inspiration in these trying times.