Urban Sociology research. The Geary Street in San Francisco - From Financial District to Little Russia

The Geary
From Financial District To Little Russia
Taisiya Teslya
Robert Goldie
Work Cited
day walking around the beautiful buildings,
the large stores and shopping centers that
surround Union Square, and observing
people hopping on the trolley at the
turnaround. We had a lunch at the
cheesecake factory on the rooftop of Macy’s.
I still remember eating a salted caramel
cheesecake with a view of the Square, with
the graceful monument right in its center.
I first came to San Francisco with my parents
about four years ago. We wanted to explore
the city and visit all the most popular places
before I moved here for my first year of
college. I was planning to go to the
University of San Francisco (USF) at the time,
which was located in the Inner Richmond
District, but before going to see the
campus, we decided to stay in the
downtown area and visit one of the most
famous tourist attractions in San Francisco —
the Union Square. We spent the whole first
I lived in the city for the past four years, and
many things have changed during this time.
I transferred to Academy of Art University
(AAU) after living on campus of USF in my
freshman year, and now my campus is
located in the downtown area, very close to
the hotel that we stayed in during those first
days in San Francisco. The Financial District,
being one of the first places that I saw in the
city, is now a place that I visit on a regular
basis for school. But I still love walking
through the Union Square after my classes
sometimes, and feeling like a tourist once
again, in the city where I have already
become a local.
in business attires, while also like a windowshopping tourist, when I walk around the
Union Square and past the beautifullydecorated store fronts, among the upperclass visitors and city dwellers.
I am originally from Moscow, Russia, and
what I didn't quite know when I just moved
to San Francisco, was that it is home to a
large Russian community. Richmond District,
in particular, is a Russian enclave. The Geary
Blvd that runs throughout the whole city,
starting from the Financial District, and
going all the way almost to the water at the
Pacific Ocean, is the center of the Little
Russia neighborhood in the Central
Richmond. It features a number of cultural
businesses, including restaurants and food
stores, where I now go to get the taste of
Every person has a unique interpretation of
the city they live in, based on their life
experiences and associations with certain
places. This psychological concept is called
a mental construct. For me, the Financial
District is a place, where I feel like a
professional, walking around all the people
home. Living with my Russian fiancé just
outside San Francisco, we love to go to the
Little Russia area and buy some Russian
dumplings and some beer, to occasionally
bring the feeling of Russia into our home. As
I mentioned earlier, during the first year of
college, I lived on USF campus in the Inner
Richmond area, not too far from the Geary
Blvd. My fellow college students and I used
to go to the Geary to hang out in the local
restaurants and stores, so Richmond District
is very close to my heart in many different
ways. That is why I decided to compare
Richmond with the Financial District,
particularly focusing on the Geary Blvd.
Symbolic Interaction — theory that people
are constantly interpreting and reacting to
symbols around them — and the technique
of Sympathetic Introspection — trying to
imagine the backgrounds and experiences
of people I observed to better understand
how they are interacting with each other
and with their surroundings.
During my research and fieldwork, my main
goals were to understand how different the
symbols are, what are their primary
purposes, as well as the meaning of physical
design and upkeep of the Geary Blvd,
depending on the intersecting
neighborhood. I also wanted to understand
how people of different socioeconomic and
cultural backgrounds interpret and respond
to the symbols in these areas.
I researched the history and the primary
functions of the Geary Blvd as a whole, as
well as the history of the most significant
artifacts of the Financial District and the
Little Russia neighborhood — the Union
Square and the Orthodox Church.
In my opinion, these artifacts are the
symbols that define the two districts and
connect the past with the present the most.
They represent the people who live in the
areas, their values and beliefs, and the
activities that are common in the areas. I
also researched the demographics of
people living in these areas to better
understand the differences between their
cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, ages,
socio-economic classes, and common daily
Geary Blvd was named after John W. Geary,
the first mayor of San Francisco. The Geary
Blvd was originally called the Point Lobos
Avenue on its western side, the name which
still exists as an extension of the Geary,
approaching the Sutro Heights. ("History of
Geary Blvd.”)
The Geary begins in the downtown at the
Market Street, near the intersection of
Market and Kearny Streets, and runs west
through downtown, the Civic Center, the
Japan Town in the Fillmore District, and then
runs most of its length through the
Richmond District, and terminates near the
Pacific Ocean.
To even better understand the values of
people living in and visiting the two areas,
as well as their perceptions of the symbols
around them, I visited both neighborhoods
as a flaneur, and observed people’s
behaviors and their perceptions of the
physical symbols around them. During my
fieldwork, I kept in mind the paradigm of
The transit on the Geary started with a cable
car rather than street cars, and the line
running from Market to Presidio Avenue
along the Geary Boulevard was the first
cable car route in San Francisco, and began
its service in 1880. The route started at the
turnaround at the intersection of Market and
Kearny and then ran west through the Geary
Blvd. The earthquake and fire of 1906
terminated the operation of many cable car
lines, although the Geary cable car
continued to operate well after. When the
city was being rebuilt after the earthquake, it
was saturated with streetcar lines. In
December 1912, the service began along
Geary Street, and marked the birth of MUNI
— the San Francisco Municipal Railway. (Eric
The Geary Blvd serves as a passageway
between the Financial District and the
Richmond. It is lined with more than seventy
restaurants, many of which cater to the
various immigrant groups, such as Russian
and Chinese, as well as a number of stores,
hair salons, real estate brokers, dentists,
automotive shops, a hospital and a church.
("History of Geary Blvd.")
became the center of a residential district.
The square remained undeveloped
throughout the decade, and was used by
squatters and for occasional baseball
games. It was named the Union Square
during the Civil War because of the proUnion rallied that were held there in
celebration of Union victories. It was first
designed as a park between the 1870 and
1880. (Nuno 1993)
The Geary begins at The Financial District of
San Francisco, which is the main central
business district of the city, with a
concentration of various financial
institutions. It is the location of corporate
headquarters, law firms, insurance
companies, real estate firms, and banks.
There are also plenty of hotels, restaurants,
and stores, and the Union Square is known
as the main shopping destination in San
The Square went through a major redesign
after the Spanish American War of 1898, in
preparation for the Dewey Monument,
which was erected to commemorate the
destruction of the Spanish Fleet by
Commodore Dewey on May 1, 1898,
serving as a symbol of victory. The
monument was designed by sculptor Robert
I. Aitken and architect Newton J. Tharp, and
was dedicated by President Theodore
Roosevelt on May 14, 1903. (Nuno 1993)
The Financial District has a population of
16,540 people, with a median age of 38
years old, mostly unmarried. The majority of
the Financial District population, 32%, is
Asian, 59% is white, and only 3% is Black or
African American, with 41% foreign-born.
88% of Financial District population has
some College Degree education or higher.
(American Community Survey)
Before 1900, the area around the Square
included churches, residences and shops, as
well as the Cathedral Monument in the
center of the Square (Nuno 1993). Today,
the previously popular residential area
around the Union Square is filled with highend stores, including Apple, Saks Fifth
Avenue, Macy’s, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, as
well as four- to five-star hotels, including The
Westin St Francis, Kimpton Sir Francis Drake
and Grand Hyatt San Francisco. The Dewey
Monument is still standing in the center of
the Union Square.
The Union Square that is located right in the
center of San Francisco downtown, between
the Geary, Powell, Post, and Stockton
Streets, is one of the most notable artifacts
on the Geary Street. The Union Square
became a public space when Colonel John
Geary, the mayor of San Francisco, donated
the land to the city in 1850 for park
purposes. The area around the square soon
became in demand for home sites and
---------Between 1920 and 1930, the population of
San Francisco increased drastically, due to
the expanding economy. More and more
skyscrapers were built, and new
transportation hubs were opened, including
San Francisco International Airport being
built in 1927. The Bay Bridge was build in
1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge was
opened in 1937, causing a shift in
transportation in the bay area. More and
more people moved into the city, and new
economies became available in
surrounding areas. The isolation of the
water became a thing of the past, and the
ferryboats were replaced by the new rapid
transit that allowed more people to travel to
the downtown area. (SF Urban Planning)
built for people to have yet another way of
accessing the downtown area by car. That
meant that a lot of people left the city and
moved to the suburbs and new
demographics were attracted to arrive to
the city.
During the World War II, the population
increased even more, as workers were
moving into the city to work in the war
industry, and the city could not keep up with
the amount of people. Many new houses
were build during that period of time. (SF
Urban Planning)
---------As I already mentioned, Richmond is the
home of a Russian enclave. This community
used to be centered around Clement Street
in the past, but as people moved to the
suburbs or became more acculturated, it
has disappeared and grew again around the
Geary Blvd as more and more Russian
Because so many new people were coming
into the city, the urban renewal project in
San Francisco teared some areas of the city
down and dislocated many people and
even entire communities of people from
certain neighborhoods, and highways were
The first most noticeable symbols that I
spotted were the high end stores, such as
Jimmy Choo, Evesant Laurent, Chanel, Louis
Vuitton, Gucci, Vera Wang, and Bvlgari.
Because I went on a weekday, these stores
did not have many people inside, and the
atmosphere was very luxurious and peaceful
inside these stores. When I visited these
stores during the holidays or weekends,
there have usually been more people
walking into the stores. When I walked into
the Louis Vuitton store, I immediately felt a
shift in people’s behavior, including my own.
I felt like I have to blend in and behave like a
richer person when I am inside the store.
According to Dramaturgical Perspective
theory, a term coined by Erving Goffman,
people’s actions and behaviors depend on
the current situation and the audience that
they have. Like actors, we put on different
masks depending on the physical and social
environment. When walking around these
high end stores, I felt like I had to behave
like a person of upper-class. I noticed that
many people who walked past did not look
into these store windows. However, when
the store was a little less expensive and
luxury, more people were interested in
looking at the objects in the windows and in
walking into the stores.
people started to immigrate into San
Francisco during the break up of the Soviet
Union, escaping the economic hardships
that it caused. Various Russian service
businesses, including restaurants and food
markets have been opened on the Geary
Blvd in the Richmond, and the area also
became the home of the Russian Orthodox
Christ the Savior Church. The majority of
Richmond population is Jewish or Orthodox
Christians. ("FoundSF")
The total population of Outer Richmond is
44,980, with a median age of 42 years old.
45% of Outer Richmond population is Asian,
45% white, and only 2% Black or African
American, with 41% being foreign-born.
76% of Richmond District population has
some College Degree education or higher.
(American Community Survey)
I also observed a difference in behavior
among the people who were visiting the
area for shopping and the people who work
in the area. These locals were easy to spot,
because they were all middle-aged white
men wearing suits, and usually talking pretty
loudly either to a colleague or on the
phone. They had a more confident
presentation of themselves, and they were
walking faster than everybody else. On the
other hand, tourists or locals visiting the
area for leisure, were more relaxed, and they
I started my journey at the intersection of
Geary and Market St, walked through the
Union Square and along the Geary towards
the Van Ness St.
were walking more slowly and talking more
quietly, many of them talking in other
them, and discussing what their next
destination would be. The majority of
people walking by had shopping bags in
their hands, mostly H&M, Uniqlo, and
Macy’s, which are the largest, more
affordable, and most popular stores around
the Union Square. Some people were
relaxing on the benches in the Square or at
the cafe tables, drinking coffee, reading
books or staring at their phones. Overall the
atmosphere was more relaxing on the Union
Square compared to the streets that
surround it. People were coming into that
space to relax after their shopping, and
enjoying their vacations with their families.
The overall atmosphere of the Union Square
area was festive due to all the decorations,
the ice rink in the center of the Square, the
Christmas tree next to the Dewey
monument, and the decorations on the
Macy’s building. There was also a temporary
leisure area separated by the fake grass
floor, featuring food trucks and pop-up
booths that were promoting some kinds of
products. People were walking more slowly
in that area, many people standing next to
the food trucks waiting for their food, and
When I walked west down the Geary St, the
contrast was obvious. There were almost no
people, it was quiet, and there were no
stores around — mostly art galleries, hotels,
and restaurants. Some buildings had graffiti
on them, which made the area feel more
dirty and less desirable to walk through.
Graffiti is considered a formal deviance — it
is a behavior that contradicts social rules
and is punishable by law. Therefore, it is a
symbol of lack of control in the
When walking through the Union Square, I
noticed a similar tendency for slower
walking speed, more socializing and taking
photos with and of the Christmas tree.
However some people were simply walking
through the Square, using it to cut their
route to their destination. Their walking
speed was a lot faster.
An old married couple was standing at the
stairs at the entrance to the Square,
observing the life and architecture around
neighborhood. According to Broken
Windows theory, things like this signal that
no one cares and no action is taken against
any kind of deviant behavior. This theory
was used by Wilson and Kelling to
describe how unfixed vandalism attracts
more vandalism, and essentially,
informal and formal deviance are linked
— crime being a developmental outcome
of social disorder.
I saw a couple homeless men on the
sidewalk, and a Walgreens store had a
security guard standing at the entrance.
That made the area feel like it was more
dominated by the lower class, even
though it was a bit more obvious when
walking there during the night time. It
definitely felt less safe than the area
around Union Square, where there was
more light and more people at all times.
According to Environmental Psychology, a
term coined by Winifred Gallaghor, people’s
behavior is affected by the look and feel of
the surrounding area, and people tend to
next to it. I would say that it is not
considered a vandalism act, but rather a
message to the people who are buying
food in the food market that it was written
on. It is also a symbol that represents the
religious belief of the area — as I mentioned
behave better in clean and well-kept
environments. Therefore, the
beautiful stores and galleries that are
located on the Geary St, where the
look and feel is very luxurious and
rich, as well as on the Union Square,
where the area is maintained clean
and everything is designed in a way
that invites socializing, people seem
more relaxed and happy, whereas on
the rest of the street in the Financial
District, people are more cautious
about their surroundings, there are
more people of lower class, and less
---------in the research section, the majority of
Richmond population is Orthodox Christian.
The Orthodox Church placed in the heart of
Little Russia neighborhood is the main
symbol that represents this religious belief
of Richmond population.
When walking down the Geary Blvd in the
Richmond District, I noticed that the upkeep
was generally better compared to the
Financial District, it was a lot quieter and
more peaceful, and there was no graffiti,
with an exception of one that said “Feed the
Homeless. -Jesus” and had a heart drawn
Another symbol that stood out to me in the
area was the diversity of the neighborhood,
represented by the different languages
used for signs on the stores and restaurants,
particularly Russian and Chinese. This
symbol is a representation of the Richmond
population, as there are 45% Asian and 41%
foreign-born people living in the area.
service businesses are located, catering to
the people that live in the neighborhood.
When walking around the Geary Blvd, I
noticed a lot of insurance and law firms, hair
salons, dentist offices, and Russian or Polish
food markets that always have a stack of
Russian newspapers, various brochures and
business cards at the front for people to
pick up. There was also a funeral service
located next to the Orthodox church. All of
these places had signs in Russian language,
and the church had signs about Russian
The Richmond District overall is strictly
residential, where middle class foreign-born
families live. The Geary Blvd is where are the
language classes. All of these symbols
represent the Richmond District as an
enclave, where Russian people can use
mentioned services while talking in Russian
language. Many immigrants who do not
speak English well or don’t have a work
permit choose to work in these firms, stores,
and restaurants, or choose to use their
services over other companies when
possible. Based on my personal
experiences, I can say that Russian
immigrants feel safer and generally more
confident when using Russian-speaking
example of well-designed public space,
because it is not too closed off, so it doesn’t
signal to anybody that they are not welcome
there, and it constantly has social events,
including art sales and ice rink during the
winter time. Based on environmental
psychology, people behave according to
their surroundings, therefore, a well-kept
park that creates opportunities for
socializing and relaxing is a well-designed
public space. Union Square has multiple
cafes with tables and chairs, along with a
number of benches and steps for sitting that
are inviting for people to relax on during
their shopping trip.
Because I always go to this area to buy
Russian food, I remember this street by the
location of the Russian stores as well as by
the church, because it is so prominent.
These physical symbols help me form a
mental construct of the Richmond district,
and I remember them because I actually use
them. This is called use significance, a term
coined by Gary Moore, which explains the
importance that physical objects have for an
individual based on their lifestyle and
usefulness of the place. I would imagine that
people from Asian countries that live in the
area don’t use the Orthodox Church or go
to the Russian stores as often as people who
were born in Russia. There are many
Chinese restaurants and other services in
the area as well, and I would think that they
would remember the area by these symbols.
On the other hand, the of the Geary St
further away from the park is not as
well-kept, and doesn’t feel safe because
of the lack of people and storefronts for
people to look at. That area doesn’t have
storefronts and cafes where people
constantly have eyes on the street. And
because there are not many people on the
street, there is no one for people to
“people-watch”. According to Jane Jacobs
and her theory of safe side walks, people
attract other people, and therefore, the area
that doesn’t have a lot of businesses that
attract human activity, is less safe and
inviting for people. Large buildings that
have no windows facing the sidewalk is also
a physical symbol that is unattractive for
people, and tourists that are shopping
around the Union Square are less likely to
go towards the empty street with no stores
or windows.
Design of public spaces has to be open and
inclusive - attracting people and
consequently discouraging deviance,
according to Whilliam Whyte’s theory of
public spaces. Union Square is a good
According to Looking-Glass Self theory,
people base their perception of themselves
on the way other people react to them.
When you are walking into a high end store
near the Union Square, and the man at the
front opens the door for you and asks you if
you need help finding something in the
store, you automatically feel like you need
to behave appropriately, maybe a bit more
rich and educated than you are in reality.
This atmosphere creates an upper class area
where people behave well, respect each
other, and enjoy their experiences. In the
area of Richmond District, where people talk
in Russian language in the Russian food
market, you are treated as if you are in
Russia, and you start feeling yourself more
like a part of a larger community and a bit
more patriotic of your home country.
Therefore, when walking through the Union
Square, I feel like I am having a vacation,
and when I am in Richmond, I feel like I am a
Russian immigrant.
That also comes with certain expectations
from other people, and you unintentionally
start to alter your behavior based on the
social occasion and environment. People
feel like they have to blend in and behave
appropriately to the situation — walking
around the shopping area of downtown,
people feel like they have to go into the
stores and look for things to buy, or in
Richmond, you feel like you have to be
more diverse and speak Russian to
temporarily conform to the norm of that
situation. This is called situational
determinism. Different situations determine
people’s behavior, and the two
neighborhoods that I’ve discussed are a
representation of this theory.
Overall, the Geary Blvd has different
environments depending on which district it
is intersecting. When walking around Union
Square in the Financial District, people feel
like they have to conform to the norms of
middle-upper class, go shopping and
respect each other. People come to the area
with families during the holidays or
weekends, and a lot of visitors of the city are
attracted to the Square. It is designed in a
way that attracts social behavior and
relaxation. On the other hand, the
Richmond District, being a Russian enclave,
has a contrasting impact on its visitors.
People walking around the Little Russia
neighborhood can experience some
cultural Russian food and engage in Russian
social situations.
Depending on the upkeep of the area,
people traveling along the Geary can feel
like they are either in a safe place, or in a
place of deviance. Richmond District
overall feels more quiet and safe than the
area in the Financial District, but the Union
Square feels more inviting than the
Richmond, if you are on vacation or looking
to have a fun and adventurous shopping.
Walking along the Geary in the Financial
District has some symbols of poor upkeep
and crime, which is visible through some
graffiti and by security guards at the shop
entrances. But regardless, there are
occasional coffee shops and restaurants
where people can have their eyes on the
sidewalk at all times.
Work Cited
Eric. “A Tale of Geary Street.” Transbay Blog, 5 May 2009, transbayblog.com/2008/08/20/atale-of-geary-street/
“History of Geary Blvd.” Geary Blvd. Merchants Association, www.gearyblvd.org/history/
Nuno, Gregory J. “A History of Union Square.” FoundSF, www.foundsf.org/index.php?
title=A_HISTORY_OF_UNION_SQUARE. originally appeared in The Argonaut, Summer 1993,
Vol. 4, No. 1
American Community Survey 2010–2014. “San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic
Profiles.” Index of /publications_reports, default.sfplanning.org/publications_reports/.
“FoundSF.” Chinese Telephone Exchange - FoundSF, www.foundsf.org/index.php?
Index of /publications_reports, American Community Survey 2010–2014,
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