Design for Good: SF’s Mid-Market Neighborhood and Culver City Transformed Into Opportunities for Interactive Art


As budgets are slashed across the state, the time is ripe for finding alternative ways to revitalize struggling neighborhoods that don’t depend on government dollars. Instead of looking to tax breaks for billion-dollar stadiums and luxury condos, a growing number of people—from nonprofits in  San Francisco to private developers in Los Angeles—believe the true key to remaking neighborhoods lies with the arts.

Art on Mid-Market, San Francisco

During the 1950s, the stretch of San Francisco’s Market Street between Fifth and Ninth streets was known as the “Great White Way,” or the Broadway of the West Coast, for the bright lights that set the theaters ablaze along the city’s major artery. Over the past 30 years, the area—now known simply as Mid-Market—has slipped into the shadows, its grand theaters mostly shut down, its storefronts sitting empty and its once lively streets becoming a popular place for the homeless to sleep. But a recent spate of projects spearheaded by groups including the National Endowment for the Arts, city-sponsored organizations, nonprofits and building owners are poised to do what decades of mayoral declarations couldn’t: bring Mid-Market back to life.

During the summer of 2010, vacant storefronts began to fill up with video installations, murals and dioramas created by local artists. Sponsored by the SF Arts Commission—a city agency that advocates for art to be part of the urban fabric—“Art in Storefronts” brought foot-traffic, neighborhood celebrations and creativity to the streets. Works ranged from an entire commercial space filled with crumpled white paper to a display of video monitors looping a grainy black-and-white video of Market Street taken in 1906. Last September, the “24 Days of Central Market Arts” festival descended on the area for three weeks (as it will again this year) with free performances and workshops from Alonzo King’s LINES Dance Center, aerialists from Project Bandaloop and the SF Conservatory of Dance, among others. “This area is right in the center of the city, so there is critical mass. We just needed to give people an incentive to get out of their homes and participate,” says Mary Alice Fry, project manager of the newly formed nonprofit Central Market Arts. A second, larger installation of “Art in Storefronts” will open in May, 2011.

A “Faces” projection

The camera in “Faces” by Theodore Watson

More recently, and perhaps symbolically, the lights of the “Great White Way” have been turned on again. “Lights on Market Street” launched on December 9, 2010, with a series of temporary, interactive light exhibitions, a project of the SF Arts Commission, Public Architecture and the NEA, which put up $250,000 to support various artistic endeavors on Mid-Market. “Faces” by local artist Theodore Watson includes a facial-recognition camera set up in a formerly vacant storefront window that snaps pictures of pedestrians and projects huge wheat paste–style portraits of them on the side of a building four-stories up. “We didn’t want to create just pretty art, but something that spoke of the culture, the challenges and the beauty of this street,” says Amy Ress of Public Architecture. “It’s all part of a collaborative effort to transform the area into a cultural arts district. And that’s something that will benefit not just the neighborhood, but the entire city.”

“Lights on Market Street”

Samitaur Tower, Culver City

A year ago, the corner of National Boulevard and Hayden Avenue in Culver City looked like any other industrial office-park intersection—cars zooming by low-slung, nondescript buildings, with nary a pedestrian in sight. Today, a 72-foot-tall twisting tower of steel rises from the land like a billboard for fine art, its large wraparound screens displaying the works of Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Rothko. An even rarer sight for this corner: people are out of their cars, climbing the tower’s stairs to open-air viewing platforms or eating lunch in the shade of concrete bleachers cut into the foundation. This is a venue that can seat up to 200 and where concerts and other events are planned for the future (a complete exhibition schedule is currently being created by a curatorial team).

The Samitaur Tower is the passion project of Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith, deep-pocketed developers who believe that art and experimental architecture can transform neighborhoods. “Our developments are social projects,” says Frederick, who, with his wife, heads Samitaur Constructs, a company that has developed more than one million square feet of architecturally significant buildings (primarily commercial real estate) throughout Los Angeles over the past 35 years. “This tower is a way to bring art to people who need it,” he says.

The tower was designed by Eric Owen Moss Architects, who have been collaborating with the Samitaur Smiths for 25 years on avant-garde buildings that dot the landscape of Culver City like expressionist paintings hung along a trash-strewn alley. The trio has been credited with jump-starting the formation of an arts district in the area and a steady rise—up to 700 percent in some places—in property values. “I support the idea that art really belongs to the street and to the people, as opposed to only behind the walls of a museum,” says Moss, who explains paid advertisements will never be displayed on the screens, and most events and exhibitions will be free to the public. The Samitaur Smiths believe that through public art, conversations will be sparked, jobs will be created and communities will thrive.

Published in the March 2011 issue of California Home+Design. Subscribe for free here!


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