Today's public squares have become remnants of the city beautiful movement, home to landscaped areas in a picturesque setting. They offer a nice place to sit for lunch, but little more. The purpose of the public square in history is rooted in government interaction and democracy. One that represents this and continues to function as such today is the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, California.
The Civic Center Plaza is located at the heart of the city and is surrounded by government buildings and arts, educational and cultural institutions. The purpose of the district was to instill civic pride and personal development in the citizens of the city when it was formed in the early 1900's. The founders hoped to achieve this through their use of neoclassical building designs which are now the largest collection of this type of architecture outside of Washington, D.C.
The Center was only made possible by a catastrophic event in 1906 which nearly leveled the city. The most devastating earthquake in American history struck, causing incredible death and destruction. Two years after the event, city leaders hoped to rebuild with a design long in the making. They used Daniel Burnham's design for a plaza created for the city prior to the earthquake. A bond ballot was issued, but swiftly defeated. A newspaper article summed up the reason: "the city should spend their money rebuilding roads, sewers, and schools, not for fancy public buildings".
The opinion on the plaza need changed by 1912 and the renewed bond ballot was passed. Construction began on the new City Hall and Exhibition Hall in 1913. The Exhibition Hall opened in 1915 in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and City Hall was finished at the end of the year. In 1917 the Public Library (now the Asian Art Museum) was completed. The early 1930's saw the completion of three more significant buildings: the Veteran's Building, the Opera House, and the War Memorial Court.
The beginning of social history on the plaza dates to the 1930's during the San Francisco General Strike. Worker strikes began throughout the city, culminating in the plaza. This was the center for government, therefore the logical point to demand change. The plaza was also home to Cold War/nuclear disarmament demonstrations, civil rights demonstrations, several free speech protests, Vietnam War rallies and the gay rights movement.
For decades, San Franciscan's have used the Civic Center Plaza as a place for civic engagement and debate. When government was not acting in the best interests of the city, citizens marched to this spot to demand a response. They gathered together to fight for what was right. The plaza served as a symbol of progress and change. A place where residents could be seen and heard. Even to this day, the Civic Center Plaza is home to rallies and debates, protests and marches.
Every democratic city needs their own version of the Civic Center Plaza to provide space for residents to speak out without taking over public streets or private property. A place that is welcoming to all to participate in our democracy. A truly civic space, designed for the masses to demand change.