Do this, Don't do Thatů

Can't you read the sign? Our resident muckraker Guy Span casts his jaundiced eye on the crazy quilt of signs that vex the uninitiated trying to find their way around San Francisco's foot of Market area.

By Guy Span, S.D. 
Published: November, 2002

With the new economy steaming right down the toilet and the old one looking a little down at the heels, we have to look elsewhere for signs of a recovery. And where else to look, but in San Francisco, where there are plenty of signs of life. For the sign makers, that is. Newly arrived at the south end of the Ferry Building, we find a brand new sign telling us, as we stand in the shadow of Ferry Building’s trademark clock tower, that we are at 1 Ferry Plaza. This incredibly useful and informative sign also sports a compass, perhaps relating to the World Trade Club which relocated to the former Gabbiano’s, just above the BART ventilation tubes. But it doesn’t say so.

This new arrival raises the question of just where the Ferry Plaza is located (and guess what? It’s not where the sign is.). New signs in the area and colorful, illuminated maps depict the Ferry Plaza as the space behind the Ferry Building, where one boards the Golden Gate Ferry. These same new, useful and up-to-date signs show direct service to Angel Island from Vallejo and direct ferry service to the preserved aircraft carrier, the Hornet over in Alameda. This awarded the island city the triple crown for ferry services (although, in reality the three different services quickly reduced to two as ferry service to the Hornet ceased over two years ago).

So, if the home to the statue of the celebrity ferry supporter, Mahatma Gandhi and the unattractive staging area for the Golden Gate Ferry is the Ferry Plaza and is behind the Ferry Building, what is the name of the cold and sterile plaza in FRONT of the Ferry Building? Well, consulting the same maps near “Gate E”, we find that the plaza in front is named after the famous longshoreman labor leader, Harry Bridges. But is there a sign in the plaza to tell you this? Nope. The only signs are at the unattractive streetcar stops and they advise that this stop is the “Ferry Terminal.” For some reason, the stop couldn’t be known as what everyone calls it: the Ferry Building.

But interestingly enough, the Ferry Building wasn’t always known by that name. When built, it was known as the Union Ferry Depot, where most ferry lines to San Francisco landed. It kept that name until some time after the Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915, when the name Ferry Building came into more general usage. By 1923, according to old post cards, everyone was calling it the Ferry Building.

But our sign meisters, whoever they are, have decided to completely discard eighty years of history and give the area yet another name. And as a result, we find loads of “Ferry Terminal” signs, just about everywhere except in the Ferry Plaza. Surprisingly enough, the Ferry Plaza is the only place, according to a different sign, where there actually was a ferry terminal. Golden Gate bestowed this name and thus we find the “Stephen Leonoudakis Ferry Terminal” at the Ferry Plaza. But don’t look for the other “Ferry Terminal” signs in this plaza.

These ubiquitous terminal signs depict a stylized single-hull ferry whooshing at speed across the Bay and are located all over the Harry Bridges Plaza and at two of the three landings. So who would suspect that the Ferry Building (a logo unto itself) would need a new logo? Only the sign meisters who, just for the anarchy of it, left us with the organized landings called “Gate B” (Vallejo, Tiburon), the “Stephen Leonoudakis Ferry Terminal” (Sausalito, Larkspur) and “Gate E” (Alameda – Oakland, Harbor Bay).

And out in front of the Ferry Building (when will it get a sign?) there is a temporary wall with old photos and a bit of heavily sanitized history. The one covering the most recent era advises that the Loma Prieta earthquake occurred on October 19, 1989 (although some outraged local used a black marker to make a correction to the 17th). That same sign also advises that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in 1990, a surprise to all of us who, in the rain, watched Mayor Agnos at the commencement of the demolition on February 27, 1991.

Another sign in the same group advises that in the heyday of ferries in 1920, some 22,657,418 persons were carried into the ferry terminal. It’s a very specific number of people. It sounds correct. But it’s not. That oft-repeated number comes from a 1958 promotional handout that Southern Pacific created for the last run of the last surviving ferry line. The fact is, that was the number of people carried by SP in 1920. That same year, the Monticello Steamship Company, the Santa Fe Railway, Western Pacific Railway and the Key Route also served the Ferry Building. And they had riders, too.

But San Francisco is not alone in its bizarre and inaccurate signs. Excellent company is found on board the plucky little Alameda Oakland Ferryboat, the Peralta. The Peralta was named after the ill-starred Key Route ferry, which caused the largest number of deaths in a ferry accident on San Francisco Bay and later, perhaps to hide her shame, lost most of her superstructure to a fire at the Key System Mole. But ours (which will hopefully fare better) is loaded with modern signage, which in sort of reverse McCluen speak is apparently designed to mystify the message.

Topside, on the back deck, there is a pictograph which shows a mother and father and three children in the center, with what appears to be a running child in each of the four corners. Oddly enough, the number 3 appears along side of it. Ferry riders have been puzzling out the meaning of this for quite some time and have concluded that it says: “In event of damage, collision, danger or all three, run to your mother and father.” Always sage advice.

Also on the back deck, there is another pictograph that appears to be a Mexican Sombrero floating in the water. It is located next to the ladder that accesses the topside of the ferry. The translation? “In the event of a threatened sinking, climb the ladder and put on the Mexican Thinking Hat…” The short version is “Don’t panic!.”

Dropping down to the main deck, port side, there appears a picture of a ladder, water and an arrow pointing down. The riders are more confident of this one: “Ladders are found under water.” And finally, just for the sheer randomness of it all, evacuation instructions for this ferry are found in English and French. Although the French instructions are probably less comforting, as they begin, “To Evacuate the Building…”

Hayward also has an offering, once nominated by Herb Caen for the “Least Informative Road Sign in America.” That sign lets you know that the next exit is: “A Street Downtown.” Entering the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, we still find signs that say “Toll Crossing Direction.” Even the Embarcadero (the street with the least signs telling you its name) is not immune. There are signs that call it “Herb Caen Way (but this is supposed to refer to the sidewalk only) and also signs that call it Route 5, which is apparently some sort of bicycle designation, but don’t look for it on a map.
Signs used to be simple declarative statements, offering sensible advice or providing useful information; sometimes just a place name, so you would know where you are. Our own Bay Bridge is home to what has to be the oldest road sign in America still in use on the Interstate Highway system (this one needs a historical marker!). It offers advice in rusting porcelain enamel, while reminding us the bridge is now very different from when it opened in 1937.

Located on the right hand side of the top deck, midway in the first span from Treasure Island is a sign that says, “No Stopping or Turning on Bridge.” It takes us back to the days when both decks were bi-directional and electric trains ran on the lower one.

So were the times really simpler back then?

There are signs that seem to indicate that they were.

Note: The correct Peralta sign translations are found in tiny print on an architectural drawing, located on the main deck. The family sign means “Muster Station,“ where you report in the event of emergency (there are three stations on board). The Sombrero indicates the location of a life raft and a ladder is located in the bench under the arrow and is used for man overboard situations. Just in case you needed to know.