I’m standing in the middle of the street to take this photo. Why? Because I can.
By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.
On Tuesday, August 18, during morning rush hour, I walked through and around the Financial District of San Francisco and took photos to document the spookiness of it all. Pedestrians used to rush to work on crowded sidewalks, balling up at red lights, then stream across the intersection, and disappear into the entries of office towers as they went, and cars used to be stuck in traffic, and thick throngs of people would pour out of the Montgomery BART and Muni Metro station.
I started taking photos at Columbus Street where it ends at Montgomery Street, and then turned south into Montgomery Street and walked through the Financial District to the Montgomery Station at Market Street. Then I zigzagged back through the Financial District.
What you will see are streets and sidewalks and entrances into office towers that were eerily deserted during what used to be “rush hour,” with just a sprinkling of pedestrians, a few cars, the occasional skateboarder, some guys working on construction projects, and curiosities where you might be tempted to think, “only in San Francisco.”
With hindsight, it was the last beautiful sunny morning before the thick acrid smoke from the wildfires moved into San Francisco.
The data of how work-from-home impacts office patterns in a city like San Francisco are grim. According to Kastle Systems – which provides access systems for 3,600 buildings and 41,000 businesses in 47 states, and therefore has a large sample of how many people are entering offices during the Pandemic – office occupancy in San Francisco was still only at 13.6% of where it had been at the beginning of March, meaning it was still down by 86.4%, just above New York City:
What is staring at us now is the haunting shift brought about by work-from-home.
The Financial District is an area of office buildings. There are also shops, cafes, restaurants, and service establishments, such as bank branches and barbers, that workers go to before, during, or after work. There isn’t much else. Other parts of the City are busy, and restaurants that are open (outside seating only) are hard to get into. But this is what office life looks like….
On Columbus Street, looking at the intersection with Montgomery Street, with the Transamerica Pyramid in the background. I’m standing in the middle of the street to take this photo. Why? Because I can:
From the middle of Columbus Street — well, because I can — looking south on Montgomery Street. To the left, the sidewalk under the base of the Transamerica Pyramid:
On Montgomery, getting closer to Clay Street.
Desolate entrance to 456 Montgomery. Note the sign on the right wall. Detail in the next photo:
On the sign, note the “Retail for Lease.” The number of stores and restaurants that will likely never re-open and where landlords will need to find new tenants is astounding:
This is the office tower:
Intersection of Montgomery and California, another main drag, so to speak. The cable car rails have been unused since March, cables turned off. Looking south on Montgomery, across California:
San Francisco without cable cars takes some getting used to. I even miss the noise from the cables and pulleys, which I’d always thought of as somewhat unpleasant — they normally run 24-7. But I get it. There are few tourists, and it’s not worth operating the cable cars for a few stragglers. Looking west on California, and there’s just hardly anyone around:
Desolate entrance to 515 Montgomery:
Montgomery and Pine Street. Where is everyone?
But some people are working because, with the kinds of jobs they have, they can’t work from home:
Montgomery looking toward the intersection with Bush Street. Finally, a few people walking:
Montgomery and Bush, looking west on Bush Street. A crowd of 1 people balling up at the red light, intently studying her smartphone:
Desolate entrance of 100 Montgomery, with our newfangled, solar-powered, wireless-connected “smart meter” in front (amount varies based on demand for parking, and you can pay by credit card because that fistful of quarters doesn’t get you anywhere anymore):
This is the 100 Montgomery tower. It’s a big building, and there should be some people walking in during rush hour, but there are not:
Across the street, 101 Montgomery. Some staff of the building hanging out in front. Otherwise dead.
This is the 101 Montgomery tower, nearly all of it just wasted space:
Looking back (north) on Montgomery, and catching the early sun hitting some of the buildings. Glorious day. Looks like Sunday morning in the Financial District, but it was Tuesday morning during rush hour:
On Montgomery, looking across Sutter Street. Skateboarder waiting at the traffic light. A crowd of one. Catty-corner, another lonesome soul waiting at the light:
From Montgomery, looking east on Sutter:
From Montgomery, looking west on Sutter. Two folks near the intersection, one left, the other right:
Entrance to 44 Montgomery. Practically crowded, with four people visible, three walking by, and a guy in the foreground working-not-from-home, watering the plants. There’s a Starbucks just to the right of the First Republic Bank branch, not visible in the photo. It was open, but I only saw a couple of employees in it:
This is the 44 Montgomery tower. Imagine what it’s like to be at your desk, alone in a huge office, alone on the entire floor, and for all you know, alone in a huge office building, except for the people taking care of the building:
The flower stand at Montgomery and Post Street. Someone is working there, but there is no huge demand for flowers at the moment. By the way the woman on the left is dressed — bare shoulders and carrying her cardigan this early in the morning — you can tell how unusually warm of a morning this was. In fact, it was a heat wave, and Northern California was burning after a large storm of dry lightning had swept through the area, igniting hundreds of wildfires. The smoke just hadn’t arrived in San Francisco yet:
The Montgomery Station, at Market Street and Post. The Muni Metro is shut down, and the turnstiles to it are shut down too. Yellow tape tells you to keep out:
The other side of the Montgomery station, entrance to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). This is normally a beehive during rush hour. BART ridership on weekdays in July was still down 89%, according to BART data. The last thing people want to do right now, those who don’t work from home, is take mass transit:
Here’s finally a lonesome soul going through the turnstile. And there was an employee-guy sitting in the info booth to the right, reading manga or something. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it:
All mass-transit systems in the Bay Area are in a life-and-death struggle — with CalTrain, which goes from San Francisco down to San Jose and further, likely in deepest trouble of all. They just don’t have passengers.
Entrance to Post Montgomery Center, at Post, Montgomery, and Market. San Francisco has lots of these weird five-street and six-street intersections due to the diagonal streets someone decided to include into the street layout back when dirt was still young. Not a soul:
This is the Post Montgomery Center. So much wasted space:
Walgreens is open. They all look like this in San Francisco now, after they got looted one night, one after the other, by an organized roving group of people in vehicles, including the six Walgreens within 10 minutes’ walk from our place.
So now, I’m zigzagging back through the Financial District. View from Sutter near Market Street. No one:
Sutter and Sansome. If you look hard and hold your tongue just right, you can see on the left the cart and belongings, including two bicycles, of one or more homeless people, with one guy standing there:
Bush and Sansome. In the foreground, an astounding number of people (two, one left, one right):
The famous Ruru smoothies cart. Open for business. Guy doesn’t speak much English, but knew, when I asked him, how to say that business was “dead.” As we were trying to communicate, an apparently homeless guy walks by, pushing two bicycles — the left with the saddle missing, but with inline skates attached to the bike. You might be tempted to think: “Only in San Francisco”:
Here’s a closeup of the situation:
Looking across Market Street — dead, deader, deadest — into South of Market. In the background, the rounded glass corners of the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in the City:
The Battery, Bush, and Market triangle. Deserted:
But wait… Some guys are not working from home. They must not have gotten the invite to the Zoom meeting. It’s a relief to see people on a mission:
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