Gance’s Neighborhood: The Corner of Real and Illusion

Mel Gance lives at Bush and Taylor, right in the Union Square neighborhood of San Francisco. Though I invented two fictional buildings in which Gance lives and works, I wanted to place him strategically in a district that embodies the temporary quality of the city that I described in a previous post, while also providing a contrast in the stability of being a landmark that’s considered permanent.

Christmas Cone, 1940

Christmas Cone, 1940

Union Square was a dune. Then it was the site of pro-Union rallies during the Civil War. Then it was a monument to Navy sailors. Then it was a monument to President McKinley. Then they built a parking garage under it. And then, some years later, Christian Slater conducted an interview with Brad Pitt nearby and I decided that vampires are cool and I want to visit San Francisco.

Remember when I told you about the prevalence of the streetcar and the population boom following WWII? Well, those two things didn’t gel together as idealistically as you might have thought. Such influx put a strain on the city, causing problems in housing, employment, and crime. Mayor Roger Lapham proposed eliminating the streetcar, considering them obsolete and seeing the possibility for revenue and savings in replacing them with modern busses. Though Lapham succeeded in replacing many streetcars, in raising fares from 7 to 10 cents, Lapham had the good fortune to be the first mayor to be recalled in the city’s history. Mobility is incredibly important, particularly in urban environments where Gance lives.

Historic San Francisco: Streetcar Traffic along Market Street | March 20, 1940

Historic San Francisco: Streetcar Traffic along Market Street | March 20, 1940

The Union Square neighborhood I think really captures the bustling quality of the new American city, and demonstrates, along with the immediately surrounding districts, that mobility I described. Now we shop there, we eat and drink there, and we visit on vacation. Living in that neighborhood has to be a surreal experience. You have the illusion of history, the intensity of a marketplace, and the immediacy of tourism and renting.

The "New Look" (1947) That 'new look' came to Union Square today when O'Connor, Moffat staged an outdoor fashion show for a noon throng of fashion-conscious women. There were some men there, too. They came to see the comely models displaying the controversial 1947 fashions in dresses, and the controversial 1647 fashions worn by Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber.' There was a band, a floral display, and pigeons - of course. (via the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

The “New Look” (1947) That ‘new look’ came to Union Square today when O’Connor, Moffat staged an outdoor fashion show for a noon throng of fashion-conscious women.  (via the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Sam Spade lived at 891 Post Street. He had to negotiate the same environment and methods of mobility as Gance, just west of Union Square. It’s a center of theatricality, a center of entertainment and art and culture intermingled with the immediately consumable. I also positioned Gance between the Tenderloin and Chinatown rather purposefully.

As I described, the Chinese presence in San Francisco is one integral to understanding the origin of the city as it is. Chinatown is a cultural home-base for the history of the Chinese community in the city. Without the Chinese, San Francisco wouldn’t exist. The complexity of its influence on Gance is rather unknown by the detective, but it’s unavoidable.

Chinatown, SF 1940s

Chinatown, SF 1940s

Then, there’s the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin, by virtue of its sort of lawless context, also boasts a great history of theater, music, and devil-may-care attitudes. The temporary quality of the Tenderloin in its hostels, and the fact that being poor forces people to live in the moment, is ironic in a very interesting way. The Tenderloin, geographically, boasted settlers of the most ancient civilizations. In the 1960s, while excavating for Civic Center BART, the remains of a woman were discovered and proven to be approximately 5,000 years old.

tenderloin crash

Combine the historical Tenderloin with the history of the exoticized Chinatown and the metropolitan presentation of the Union Square neighborhood, and you’ve got a swirling community of performance, the heart of which is home to Mel Gance,  a savvy Private Detective.