Not So Noir Anymore: San Francisco’s Waterfront


Above: Labor Leader Harry Bridges Firing Up His San Francisco Longshoremen’s Rebellion , 1934

Waterfront is more than a geographical designation. Think noir. Think Bogart. Think drunken sailors Shanghaied to a slow boat to…Shanghai. The San Francisco waterfront has suffered its share of noir. The best known dark moment was Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, when striking members of the International Longshoremen’s Association, under the leadership of Harry Bridges, were charged by mounted police who fired teargas and shotguns. Two men were killed and many injured. This, and the parade and general strike that followed, were credited with spurring the revitalization of America’s labor movement. Injured strikers were carried to the ILA’s union hall, which, since 2017, has been headquarters for San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The Commonwealth Club was founded in 1903 as a non-partisan forum for “discussing problems and their solutions”. It has featured thousands of speakers, from presidents to Pulitzer Prize winners, since Theodore Roosevelt addressed the body in 1911. Now there are now about 400 speakers per year with membership and events open to the public. And it offers tours of San Francisco’s waterfront, by architectural historian Rick Evans.

San Francisco Gold Rush Waterfront

Evans begins by holding up a map showing that today’s waterfront was mostly bay water at the time of the Gold Rush. Ships delivering miners and supplies docked at its edge and were often abandoned. San Francisco’s waterfront was extended into the bay on a foundation of landfill and the bones of dead ships, some of which still turn up in excavations. The area went from riches, during the Gold Rush era, to a seedy port and industrial district, sliced in two in 1959 by the ragged-edged dagger of the Embarcadero Freeway, and returned to riches after San Francisco’s “freeway to nowhere” was torn down following the 1989 earthquake. The waterfront came out of the shadows. Now, some would suggest, it has gone beyond mere riches.

Jeanne Gang Skyscraper San Francisco
MIRA Building, San Francisco ©2020 Russell Johnson

I really had to use my imagination to see what this waterfront once looked like. I gazed up at the new Facebook headquarters and architect Jeanne Gang’s twisty MIRA skyscraper, the design, the architect says, inspired by San Francisco’s iconic bay windows. All under imperious eye of the Salesforce Tower, which now commands the San Francisco skyline, and the teetering Millennium Tower. Oh, look over there! Coming soon, Uber headquarters.

Chase Center Basketball CourtChase Center San Francisco
Chase Center, San Francisco ©2020 Russell Johnson

San Francisco’s new waterfront runs 7½ miles from Fisherman’s Wharf to India Basin. On the other end is the newly opened Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors basketball team. There are urban legends that you can score a ticket for as little as $25 here, but hundreds is more the reality (thousands during playoffs). But this is not your rust-belt uncle’s arena. It is filled with art, including a Calder mobile, and offers treats ranging from hot dogs to designer whiskies.

UCSF Lobby Statues
UCSF Lobby Statues ©2020 Russell Johnson

Nearby, the University of California Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente have built massive campuses. This is a new world and new kind of community, far from quaint romance and tatty charm of old San Francisco. Will this neighborhood of sometimes-brilliant architecture in a field of Lego apartment blocks find its place in San Francisco lore? In the pages of Architectural Digest and Forbes, maybe, but Tony Bennett would never sing about it.

Cabrillo Mural San Francisco
 Cabrillo Mural, San Francisco’s Rincon Post Office

Back at the historic waterfront, the mail sorting room of the old Rincon Post office is now an open courtyard surrounded by steel and glass offices and apartments. Look closely, however, and there is still much history to be seen. The lobby is ringed by a 27 WPA murals depicting California and San Francisco’s past from the original Native Americans, to Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo displaying his blood-tipped sword and longshoreman Harry Bridges firing up his workers’ rebellion.

Audiffred Building
Audiffred Building, San Francisco ©2020 Russell Johnson

Back on the Embarcadero, Evans tells the story of the Audiffred Building. Just in front of it, police fired their shots into the crowd on Bloody Thursday. It is the oldest surviving building on the waterfront because, as Evans tells us, the bar on its main floor was a favorite of firemen, who saved it from being bulldozed into a firebreak following the 1906 earthquake after a bartender bribed them with two quarts of whiskey apiece and a fire cart full of bottles of wine.

Now, that’s a real San Francisco story.

Rick and the Commonwealth Club also offer Neighborhood Adventures in “the back alleys” of Chinatown, Nob Hill, and the steep slopes of Russian Hill, which he calls his cardio tour. The tours are available to members and non-members and can be found in the events section of