Ruth Asawa’s “San Francisco Fountain” owes Apple big time. Before the tech behemoth announced its plans to plop a slick, glassy Apple Store where Levi’s and the fountain plaza reside, many locals were blithely unaware of the bronze landmark. Mayor Ed Lee apparently forgot about it when he cozied up to Apple execs announcing their plans to bulldoze (in effect) and build over the northeast corner of San Francisco’s Union Square.
The fountain — which features iconic Ess Eff landmarks molded by school children and other city folk in baker’s clay, then memorialized in bronze — is in an ugly red brick plaza off Stockton Street. The plaza and fountain were built in tandem, but in 1973, when people thought avocado-colored appliances were classy. There’s a typo in the first sentence of the fountain’s plaque. (“Visitor’s come,” it begins.)
Only after Chronicle urban design critic John King wrote that the new Apple box would “displace one of downtown’s friendliest works of public art” did Lee address the fountain’s future.
There’s always a knee-jerk uproar at the prospect of replacing or moving any relic of San Francisco’s specialness — even a dough-inspired cabbage-patch fount fitted into a soulless brick-staired backdrop. Valued Chronicle letter writers and 14 Facebook fans hopped onto the crusade to keep the Asawa fountain “in its home.” Methinks the fountain would be better off someplace else, where people are likely to see it.
King critiqued the new Apple digs as “a box that would look at home in Anymall, USA” and “has nothing to do with its setting.”
But I think some locals object to the plan because Apple gets kid-glove treatment. Small business owners have to jump through many hoops to accommodate the Special City’s sensibilities — or else. There’s an ordinance, for example, that prohibits chain stores in certain neighborhoods.
Yet when the high-tech money knocks, the door is wide open.
Until King inserted the fountain into Apple’s christening, City Hall seemed to consider the loss of a fountain and open space to be inconsequential. Lee told King he raised concerns about the windowless wall fronting Stockton Street, but not to worry, Apple was “very receptive.”
Internet don Sean Parker wanted to get married in Big Sur, but in a Big Sur that looked like a set for “Lord of the Rings.” When the California Coastal Commission got wise to this construction, rather than stop the project as it has stopped low-tech developers, it reached a $2.5.million settlement that allowed Parker’s wedding.
Good liberals look at Lee’s embrace of the Apple store and Parker’s big fat wedding and see mega-money greasing its way around rules that should apply to all. Good conservatives look at the green lights given to Apple and Parker and wonder why the government isn’t that accommodating to every taxpayer.
The travesty here isn’t that Apple might build a store over a 1973 plaza. The million-dollar Parker wedding, with its incongruous custom-made fake ruins and cottages, was a tasteless exercise in the mega-rich pretending to be poor folk, but my guess is that Big Sur and its steelhead trout will survive. The real travesty is that Bay Area politicians don’t treat everyone with the welcome mat they roll out for Big Apple.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org