I was sad to read in the San Francisco Chronicle last week that an unnamed lender had foreclosed on The Cannery, a building near Fisherman’s Wharf housing a disparate collection of shops and restaurants. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you may have ambled through it. If not, you may have seen it in The Dead Pool, the last Dirty Harry movie and the one with the classiest cast. After dining in one of The Cannery’s restaurants, Clint Eastwood and Patricia Clarkson survive a shootout.
I won’t miss The Cannery itself. It’s been a tourist trap for as long as I can remember. I am sad about what The Cannery represented in my adolescence. That’s the funny thing about buildings. Sometimes our feelings for them relate to what they represented to the city where they are. But sometimes our feelings for them relate to who we were when we walked through them.
Long before it meant anything to me, The Cannery contributed mightily to the city’s economy. Just a block from the water on the western side of Fisherman’s Wharf, it was once the largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world, with the capacity of 200,000 cans per day and 2,500 workers, according to the Chronicle story. Fruits and vegetables grown in the fertile land that is now Silicon Valley were transported by rail to the wharf – you can still see the tracks in the roadway in some places – and then shipped around the world.
When agriculture was subsumed by electronics, the cannery (lower case) closed down. A real estate investor named Leonard Martin saved the building from demolition in 1963, and developed it into shops, restaurants, and a movie theatre. I actually worked across the street for three years in the ’80s, and I would sometimes go to the theatre just for the popcorn. That was its heyday as a retail location.
In the years following, The Cannery began to wither. It wasn’t necessarily the recession or, as the Chronicle noted, a fire in a building next door that damaged it. Perhaps it was too far from the actual Fisherman’s Wharf. Perhaps the development of Pier 39 – another retail development on the eastern side of the Wharf – lured people in the opposite direction. The last time I was there, years ago, most of the shops and restaurants I remembered were gone, as was the movie theatre. Ghirardelli Square, another block west from The Cannery, once the site where the famed chocolate was manufactured, is also a shadow of its former self.
But my feelings for that time and place hearken back to much earlier days. When I was in my early teens, my best friend Paul and I would ride our bicycles from our homes in Palo Alto to the train station and then take the Southern Pacific commuter line into the city. We rode over the same tracks that the fruits and vegetables had traveled. Somehow I find it hard to imagine parents letting their kids do this today. But Paul and I thought nothing of it.
We thought nothing, too, of taking the bus to Union Square and walking through Chinatown, and then further on through North Beach toward Fisherman’s Wharf. We would go to the delicatessen in The Cannery and eat poor-boy sandwiches. Then we would walk to Ghirardelli Square for sundaes. (The ice cream parlor, thankfully, is still there).
When I got home, my father, a child of the Depression, would excoriate me for wasting my allowance on the touristy stuff I bought. In retrospect, paying $12.99 for a plastic inflatable chair was probably a silly thing to do, but today I still use a 35-cent backscratcher I bought in Chinatown.
My father’s criticisms only touched me lightly. We were young, and we loved being so independent. I can’t help but think that wherever there were commuter rail lines or bus service connecting big cities and suburbs, before the cities started to deteriorate so horribly, young teen-age boys and girls would spend summer days playing tourist in their own urban playgrounds.
I won’t miss The Cannery itself. But I will mourn summer days spent with a friend, our whereabouts only generally known, and our delight in discovering the world when it was, for us, quite new.