Heart Of It All Union Square Cultural Studies Essay

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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to two cities connected by a bridge, two cities with reputations that are sometimes deserved and sometimes not. Both cities have a central square in their downtown area which serve as fascinating places for sociological observation: Union Square and Jack London Square. These squares both currently have a huge christmas tree in their center, both have interesting shops or restaurants where people mingle, and both are rich in history.

Union Square is technically the park in the center, but the label has come to be associated with the diverse shopping available in the area. This is one of San Francisco's biggest tourist draws, with slick, beautifully arranged spaces that contribute to the area's imageability[1], and it is also an area where the city's locals shop, play, and interact with each other. It could be seen as the heart of San Francisco in some ways, because it is a place that connects the diverse elements of the city. An ordinary day wandering down Union Square might bring you face to face with a gay tourist couple from Sweden, an elderly local walking her dog, or a fundamentalist Christian holding a controversial (one might say hateful) sign. Herbert Blumer's concepts of symbolic interaction[2] hardly more visible anywhere else in the world. Tourists might gawk at these contradictions, but most locals are as immune to them as they are to the slick perfection covering the thousands of billboards around them.

An endless barrage of advertising covers Union Square, making it impossible to take a step without seeing a perfect face. How does this affect the sidewalk's users? Union Square is a great place to watch for beautiful clothes and gorgeous people, and it can't be a coincidence that they're surrounded by reminders that perfection is something to strive for. The many people who dress to be seen by others can certainly be said to be affected by looking glass theory[3], with the symbols presented by the billboards giving them a norm[4] to conform to. The power of these symbols works to enforce social determinism[5] in this society. This can be depressing for some, but for me it's wonderful to study the art and design of advertising as I wander those streets. Either way the area is bright and colorful, active and stimulating, and it makes the pace of its people faster and louder, attracting the people in the greatest position to buy the things advertised to them. Attractive, well-groomed, wealthy people aren't an uncommon sight in Union Square, but then neither are their opposites.

The other side of Union Square's permanent community is so far removed from the glitter of the window displays that it might as well belong to another planet. The homeless of Union Square are unique in many ways. With so much else to see and do, they blend in with the concrete for most of the sidewalk's users, so some become louder and more aggressive as a result. These persistent 'undesireables' become an attraction unto themselves due to their colorful approach to survival: brightly dyed hair to show off their missing limbs, filthy, mismatched drag outfits, and gimicky signs asking for beer and drugs - a perfect example of Herbert Spencer's ideas of social darwinism[6]. This gets them attention from tourists, but locals still manage to look through them most of the time.

Standing in the square itself I got to see cultural relativism[7] at work, when I spotted a well-dressed man in his twenties standing at the edge of the square, playing with his IPad. A barefoot homeless man approached him for money, but he seemed not to hear. The beggar ventured to touch his arm, and the man shrugged away without so much as glancing up. He wandered a few paces away, oblivious to the other man's stricken reaction, or that of the women in the tourist's uniform of a camera and a San Francisco jacket. To the hoards of tourists that pass through every day, he and many others seem hopelessly cruel, but living there for any length of time makes the reason for this callousness clear: how can one possibly help every person who asks? How do you then decide whom to help?

Downtown San Francisco has always been a place where 'undesirables' saught refuge. In the 1980s, in response to a growing number of displaced Vietnam vets and readily available drugs, the homeless population began to thrive, and the problem of exclusion[8] has plagued San Francisco ever since. In the 1850s Union Square was a dumping ground, used primarily by "squatters" who were dealt with by passing laws that encouraged development of the land. It went through many phases of development, housing mechanical fairs, dances, and lectures, as well as the crowds of church-goers that surrounded it before the earthquake of 1906. Today it's a beautifully maintaned park with cafes in the center, an ice rink at Christmas, and art and entertainment. But the roots of downtown as a skid row seem to linger, no matter how aggressively the city keeps it clean.

Just across the water is Jack London Square, another public square whose name has come to apply to the areas around it as well. The square itself is similar to San Francisco's, a clean, lovely space with restaurants and clubs to spend time in, but the surrounding areas that are a part of it are puzzling in many ways.

Jack London is at the end of Broadway, and directly surrounding it are the Oakland jail, bail bond locations, and a porn superstore. Scatterered between these seedier places are nice restaurants, trendy bars, a movie theater, an Amtrak station, and a few family-friendly chains like Domino's and BevMo. These places bring a very eclectic range of people together, from the different subcultures[9] of punks and hipsters at Souley Vegan, to mothers with babies at Bed & Bath, to the far more subdued homeless of the area. They hang out outside of nicer restaurants like The Fat Lady, and they use sympathy as a means of getting money instead of zany behavior. I saw a woman walking up to a couple leaving the restaurant, praising them before launching into her pitch: "I'm pregnant, can I have some money, please?" the couple politely said no and she walked away. I asked them what they thought of her, and the girl smirked. "They always say they're pregnant. It's never true, is it?" This huge change in her attitude from talking to the woman and talking to me is a great example of dramaturgical theory[10], and this seems to be consistent with the attitude towards the homeless in Jack London as a whole.

Despite this apparent cynisism towards the homeless, they seem far more relaxed in Oakland than in Union Square. The pace is slower, advertising is far more local and less pervasive, and the atmosphere seems to be focused more on eating and having a good time than buying things. Some of the few people who seem to be less relaxed are the patrons of Secrets, the adult superstore and theater sandwiched between Dolma's Deli and Duke's Bar. Dolma's has huge windows that look into the long corridor that leads to Secrets, and it's a great place to watch the comings and goings there. Secrets' main clientele appears to be men, mainly middle-aged, some sporting wedding rings. Their expressions vary from proud to indifferent to ashamed - some so ashamed that they try to enter through Dolma's, only to find that the door has been sealed off. The manager wearily rolls his eyes and informs each one that he'll have to enter through the front. The employees chatter away in Spanish behind the grill: "I hate working next to these old perverts. I gotta find another job."

It's easy to label[11] Secrets' customers that way, as old perverts. But it's not all (or even mostly) men in dirty trenchcoats. At night when hipsters stop by Beer Revolution, young couples of all orientations can be spotted walking in unashamed, with none of the baggage associated with these places. In all the years it's been in business, the old clientele has had a chance to be slowly replaced by their kids. The new customers will have their own values that allow for trips to such places without secrets at all, and that's interesting to see.

Both locations function as the heart of their respective cities, and they're both a fair reflection into the pace and diversity of their cities. Oakland's heart is a little bit dirtier and confusing compared to the exacting, pristine layout of Union Square, but it is certainly more personal. It's like Oakland itself: rough, with a bad reputation, but charming if you know where to look. San Francisco's heart is big, glittery, exciting, like walking into a movie - but it's a little less likely to take on your character rather than the other way around.

Glossary of Terms:

[1] Imageability:

The capacity of an object to create memorable images in an individual's mind that helps them navigate their surroundings. Attributed to Kevin Lynch.

[2] Symbolic Interaction:

The way that people interpret symbols and draw conclusions about each other, themselves, and the world around them based on these symbols.

[3] Looking-Glass Theory:

The concept that we form our image of ourselves based on how we think other people see us.

[4] Norms:

The rules defined by a culture that inform and guide social interaction.

[5] Social Determinism:

The theory that our behaviors are a product of our environment, not our biology.

[6] Social Darwinism:

The theory that better people will thrive while less motivated or emotionally successful people will fail to find opportunity.

[7] Cultural Relativism:

The idea that 'right' and 'wrong' are subjective, depending only on the values of the individual's society.

[8] Exclusion:

Laws or rules that serve to take the basic rights needed for survival away from certain parts of the population.

[9] Subcultures:

A part of the larger culture that has branched off because of disagreement about certain beliefs or behaviors, but remains connected to that culture.

[10] Dramaturgical Theory:

The belief that we modify our identity based on the values of the people who we interact with, and that there may be many different versions of our personalities as a result.

[11] Labeling:

The assumptions that we make about people based on their appearance, behavior, and our own experiences. Can sometimes be the cause of negative stereotyping.

Important Thinkers:

Herbert Blumer:

An important American thinker who was responsible for the inclusion of symbolic interaction in sociology.

Herbert Spencer:

An English philosopher and sociologist who introduced the concept of social darwinism to sociology.