San Francisco’s Secret Gardens

A confession: No matter what city I’m in, I find I feel incredibly uncomfortable walking around its business district. After years of working 9 to 5 in New York’s Midtown East, a neighborhood of bank headquarters and skyscrapers, I feel I’ve come by this aversion honestly. To me, Midtown always felt slick and soulless, an environment even its office-dwelling daytime denizens couldn’t wait to leave as soon as they clocked out. There’s just something unsettling about a neighborhood made entirely of concrete and shadows, a place where the sunlight can’t get in, streets that only see human activity during rush hour and lunch hour. And today I tend to carry that image with me wherever I go: the second I see high-rises and suits and Blackberrys, I cringe.

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Midtown Manhattan (yes, I may have played with the color settings a bit)

But I should have known better than to cling to presumptions when it came to San Francisco. Apparently local officials there feel the same way I do, and have been putting measures into place for decades to ensure their financial district stays brightly atypical.

How are they doing it? Privately Owned Public Open Spaces, or POPOS. As I understand it, local officials have, over the years, forced or coerced downtown property developers into setting aside portions of their lots for  public use. And once, say, a bank moves in, the property owner becomes responsible for maintaining the public space from there on out. Today the city has over 50 POPOS. And while no small number are apparently of the lackluster, “We’re only doing this because we have to” variety,  there are plenty of others offering stellar plazas, gardens, atriums, and public art spaces downtown .

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A few downtown POPOS. Clockwise from top left: 525 Market Street, 425 Market Street, 343 Sansome Street, 1 Sansome Street (at Sutter Street)

Though there’s new legislation aimed at making POPOS easier to find, many are still pretty hidden away or poorly marked. Some can even involve a bit of “walking with confidence” to get into: ducking through narrow gaps between buildings; striding through the lobby of an office building like you own the place. Which means that for now, the coolest thing about POPOS is also the biggest problem with POPOS: no one, including several local friends I talked to, seems to know about them. This is fantastic if you actually do know about them, because it means they’re still uncrowded and peaceful. But it also means that the urbanites POPOS are supposed to serve aren’t taking full advantage of them.

POPO garden

575 Market Street

There’s a non-profit organization called SPUR that’s set on remedying this problem, and they’ve released a pretty comprehensive guide to the city’s best POPOS, as well as an interactive iPhone app, to help people find them. Next time I’m in the city I’ll be trying out the app. But on a sunny morning during my recent SF visit, I just used a Xeroxed neighborhood map with some hastily scribbled Xs marking half a dozen of SPUR’s highest-rated spots.

At 101 California Street, there’s a mini granite Machu Picchu where passersby can relax and and office workers can gobble take-out sushi in the sunshine. But I hesitated for a moment at the sight of the place: as with several of the POPOS I visited, at first glance this spot seemed reserved for the sole use of the surrounding buildings’ tenants. I needn’t have worried, though. It quickly became obvious how intentionally the pyramids had been set up to encourage lounging: there were cushions to make seating more comfortable, and each seating area was secluded by oversized planters on either side. A handful of people were reading magazines and drinking take-out coffee and wearing jeans. This was a good sign. I proceeded with confidence.

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101 California Street

At the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, there’s an honest-to-God pint-sized redwood forest. This, I’m only recently starting to realize, is a big deal. See, I grew up with a redwood in my backyard, and when I was little I’d sing along to Woody Guthrie knowing that his  “redwood forests” line was about my state. So I’ve always taken these trees for granted. But a few Christmases ago, my family went for a hike in Muir Woods. The park, near San Francisco, is densely packed with both redwoods and tourists. And we were all shocked by the fact that none of the tourists we ran into were American. Instead, they were people from all over the world — Germany, Japan, France — who’d made redwoods a must-see on their tours of America. So the fact that visitors can get up close and personal with these giants right in the middle of the city seems somehow both obvious and too good to be true.

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Redwood Park, at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid

My favorite POPOS of the day was also the one I felt the cheekiest visiting. It’s on the roof of an office building at 343 Sansome Street, which means that in order to get to it, you’ve got to waltz into the lobby like you belong there and hit the elevator button. Then you ride up 15 floors with a bunch of suits discussing the business meeting they’ve just come from. Finally, the elevator doors slide open, and you half-expect a guy with a black suit and a headset to ask for your building ID card. But instead, you just step out of the elevator and follow the light coming from a nearby doorway and, before you know it, you’re standing in the middle of a sunny rooftop garden. There’s a little grove of olive trees shading circular benches. There are tables and chairs set up alongside beds of irises. And from way up there, amid the muted sounds of traffic below, there’s the kind of exclusive view people fork over huge monthly rent checks to get. It almost feels as if you’re cheating the system somehow, but it’s even better than that because you’re supposed to be there.

PicMonkey Collage

343 Sansome, 15th floor sun terrace

And that belonging, that sense that a city could want you to be out enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air and the local flora, even in the middle of the financial district — that’s a pretty great revelation to have.

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4 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Secret Gardens

    • Thanks, Sean! Hope you get a chance to go check some of the POPOS out when you make it up north; I’m sure your pictures would be much nicer than mine!

  1. New York has public spaces too! I’ve spent many a lunch hour in beautiful plazas or lobbies with grand pianos playing. But nothing beats the redwood forest at the Transamerica Pyramid. I used to work right across the street and sunbathe on those benches, not realizing just how amazing it was until I moved away.

    • That’s a great point — I actually have spent some time in a few public open spaces in NYC’s midtown. But I never found them as beautiful, creative, relaxing, or numerous as the ones in San Francisco. Then again, it was probably harder for me to enjoy the New York ones on a lunch break than it was for me to enjoy the SF ones at my own pace 🙂

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