Introduction: Civic Center Stories

Civic Center Stories
Civic Center is deliberately designed to host San Francisco’s greatest historical moments. Its ornate buildings and grand public spaces are the setting for gatherings of protest, performance, and celebration. For over one hundred years Civic Center has served this role.

But Civic Center is much more than a place for grand moments in history. It is also one of the biggest stages for the everyday pageant of San Francisco’s public life. It’s a place where young couples dressed in their wedding outfits pose for photos on the same patch of lawn where seniors from nearby residential hotels lie alone on the grass; where children visiting one of the local cultural institutions shout with delight in the playground while homeless individuals huddle with their belongings on the other side of the playground fence; where Symphony patrons walking to a concert at Davies Symphony Hall cross paths with teenagers ready to dance the night away at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium; where tourists from around the world gaze at the area’s landmark structures while workers rush by on their way to jobs in the very same buildings.

Countless scenes like these take place every day in Civic Center. But while people of diverse backgrounds may physically occupy the same space, actual interactions may be fleeting or non-existent. We often know very little about the people with whom we share this public realm. By sharing the stories and portraits of individuals who spend time in the “Heart of the City,” Civic Center Stories aims to bring a human face to the public sentiments, criticisms, desires, and relationships to Civic Center.

Civic Center Stories was developed through the San Francisco Planning Department’s Summer 2016 Internship Program as part of efforts to increase awareness and dialog in anticipation of the Civic Center Public Realm Plan—a new long-term plan for improvements to Civic Center’s public spaces. Over thirty stories were collected through curated and impromptu interviews with people who use Civic Center. This booklet will hopefully be the first of multiple editions of Civic Center Stories.

The stories touch on numerous subjects, from memories of the past to concerns for the future. They offer insight into what brings people to Civic Center and what entices them to stay. They include ideas on how to make Civic Center more successful and aspirations for what its public spaces might become. Across the board, one thing is abundantly clear—in Civic Center, people make the space what it is today, and their insights have and will continue to shape its future.


Author's Message

Flipping through the pages of this small, albeit very personal, storybook, I am taken back to the summer of 2016 when I was lucky enough to work as an intern at the San Francisco Planning Department. As part of my work under the Civic Center Public Realm Plan, I set out on a mission to get to get to know Civic Center–its past, its present, and its people.

I dug through old planning documents, read about the movers and shakers who influenced what Civic Center has come to be, and browsed black and white photos of numerous historical events–but something still seemed to be missing. While I had gotten a sense of the history through one-time events and decisions, the everyday happenings of Civic Center were almost impossible to find.

What about the stories of people just passing through?

What about memories and day-to-day encounters?

What about this history in the making that we rarely stop to reflect upon?

With these contemplations, what started off as an exploration of the history of Civic Center turned into a search for people’s Civic Center Stories.

Judgments packed away and curiosity in tow, I decided to collect people’s stories and start untangling the social tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings that have piled up as San Francisco changed over the years. The random strangers I approached quickly became familiar faces and friendly acquaintances. The conversations were raw, unscripted, unedited, controversial, and at times deeply personal. And while it was no surprise that I was hearing the stories about Civic Center from Civic Center, what I hadn’t anticipated was to end up with a collective story about the whole of the City, straight from the Heart of the City.

A stage for national civil rights, a place of contradictions, and a rapidly changing urban scene, Civic Center is not only the heart of San Francisco, but the epitome of the City. And surely in a place that holds so much meaning and value, every person passing through has a story worth sharing and hearing.

These stories are only a fraction of lessons learned in a matter of eleven days. Let these stories be a reminder to look up from your phone more often, say hi to that person you see every morning on the bus, sit down every once in a while on that corner you usually rush by, and get to know the remarkable and diverse people with whom you share the City.

A new chapter in Civic Center’s history is about to unfold as the City prepares to update the long-term vision for its public spaces via the Civic Center Public Realm Plan. Don’t let that happen without you –and don’t forget to bring along that new friend you just met.

With all my gratitude to the people who took the time to share a little part of themselves with me, and with a heartfelt request to everyone who reads this storybook to do so with an open heart and questioning mind, I leave you with Civic Center Stories.

Ru’a Al-Abweh. Civic Center Stories author and San Francisco Planning Department intern 2016.

Ru’a Al-Abweh

Civic Center Stories author and San Francisco Planning Department intern 2016