As a young child, and through high school, a trip from my small hometown into downtown San Francisco was a special treat. I’m old enough to remember that in the very early days I had to wear my “Sunday best”, including gloves, and my mother always wore a hat. The twenty-two-mile trip to The City landed us in a foreign land of glamour and sophistication. We would wander by the storefronts, my mother drooling over the dresses in the windows at I. Magnin and the City of Paris, while I patiently waited for the moment we could go to Blum’s. Blum’s was a restaurant adjacent to I. Magnin, famous for its confectionery. A sundae from Blum’s was a sight to behold. Portending my future relationship with desserts, my eyes were never bigger than my stomach. Not a drop of ice cream or fudge ever went to waste.
In 1978 I began working in the financial district of The City. When time permitted, I would walk up to Union Square at lunch, and found myself as mesmerized by the shop windows as when I was a child. This was especially true at Christmas, when the City of Paris erected their giant Christmas tree under their rotunda and Gump’s was a treasure trove of exotic (and expensive) gifts from around the world. I loved working in The City, and considered myself lucky to work in an environment that was both professionally and personally rewarding. In 1988 a new shopping experience was added to downtown San Francisco when Nordstrom opened a five-story, flagship store on Market Street. To enter the store, one had to navigate a series of escalators that wound through the center of the building. If you were going to the top floor, you were treated the whole way up to lavish displays on each floor, designed to make you stop and buy. Or at least gawk. I worked for a woman who was obsessed by Nordstrom – it was not unusual on any given day to see her wander back into the office clutching one of their signature silver boxes. She performed more than one of my performance reviews in the Nordstrom Cafe, which was fine with me except there was no wine.
So, with this backdrop I hope you can appreciate how disappointed I was to read of Nordstrom’s decision to close their Market Street location. They cited the “dynamics of the downtown San Francisco market” as factors that contributed to the decision. In other words, there is too much crime and not enough foot traffic to justify keeping the store open. Nordstrom is not alone. In April, Whole Foods announced the closure of its downtown San Francisco location – a location that it opened just last year. But it isn’t only Whole Foods and Nordstrom that are closing shop. A slew of other big brand stores are closing due to the street conditions and rampant crime. In fact, 20 retailers have announced closures in the Union Square area just since 2020. The companies that have chosen to stay (for now) have taken almost absurd precautions to protect staff and inventory. The Target store in the Mission District has locked down entire sections due to rampant shoplifting. Imagine having to find a store clerk to unlock the toothpaste. I read an observation that I fear may come true – that the hassle of having to get everyday items unlocked before you can purchase them may lead to more store closures, as people will find it easier to have items delivered by Amazon.
I believe this is a problem that will not go away soon, as there is no simple answer. The tech exodus certainly has hurt the downtown area, as has the trend toward online shopping. San Francisco also enacted a law that allows minor crimes to go unpunished, which has led to an escalating level of more serious offenses. Add in the homeless and drug problems, which have garnered so much publicity of late, and the result is the average visitor is reluctant to stroll downtown.
Many of the people who work in the financial district don’t remember when the heart of The City was glorious and safe. They now see walking downtown, maybe from Montgomery Street up to Union Square, as an obstacle course to be endured, with a destination that has been decimated. I feel sorry for them, for there was a time when that walk, and the city itself, was truly magical. I hope it can regain its former glory.