S.G. Browne

San Francisco is a Ghost Town & Union Square is a Haunted Forest

A good friend of mine mentioned that a woman who lives in San Francisco called my friend a colorful euphemism for female genitalia that rhymes with “swat” for suggesting that San Francisco is a ghost town. Now, I don’t know who this woman is who lives in San Francisco, but if she doesn’t think that San Francisco is a ghost town, I’d like to know how she manages to get around the city with her head so far up her ass.

Last Friday at 5:00pm I walked from Telegraph Hill down Grant Avenue, across Columbus, and continued along Grant through Chinatown and into Union Square. This was during what should be the height of rush hour through North Beach, China Town, and Union Square. That’s Union Square up at the top right, taken from the corner of Powell and Geary. Below is another photo of Union Square from the opposite corner at Stockton and Post, along with a photo of Powell Street from Post looking south toward Geary.

On the bottom left is Grant Avenue in Chinatown, just past Clay, looking about two blocks south to California Street. On the bottom right is California at Grant, looking east all the way down to the Southern Pacific Building at One Market Plaza. And below them is a landscape photo of the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. At approximately 5:30pm on a Friday night. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not San Francisco is a ghost town.

But while San Francisco is on a virtual lockdown–with restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters, nail and hair salons, hotels, clothing stores, and  every type of business shuttered or boarded up–there are still signs of commerce in neighborhoods throughout the city as some restaurants and cafes remain open for limited business, providing meals and beverages to go. So even though foot and vehicle traffic in these neighborhoods has fallen to the point that prime shopping and dining hours resemble a Twilight Zone episode where it’s always Christmas morning in an alternate reality where Santa Claus is a mob boss, a sense of normalcy persists. Or at least the pretense of normalcy.

The same cannot be said for Union Square.

In Union Square, other than the Westin St. Francis, nothing is open. Not Saks Fifth Avenue. Not Sears Fine Food. Not DSW. Not Tiffany & Co. or Victoria’s Secret or Louis Vuitton. Not Starbucks or Nike or The Apple Store. Not Macy’s or Neiman Marcus or the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Where there should be tourists walking along the sidewalks and in and out of hotels and storefronts; where there should be customers enjoying the variety of world class fare provided by the restaurants and filling the outside tables on Belden Place; where there should be cable cars clanging their way up and down Powell Street and traffic flowing east and west along Geary and Sutter and Post there is, instead, only a smattering of residents and tourists wandering along the streets in wonder or in a dazed disbelief and a handful of cars passing through the intersections at every green light.

There is no sense of normalcy here.

Instead, there is a palpable sense of dread, as if the apocalypse has already happened and this is the inevitable result of what happens when the end of the world comes knocking. This apprehension is heightened by the dozen or so homeless people who have not shaken hands with sanity in quite some time and who shuffle along in silence or who stand upon the empty stage of Union Square and scream and shout unintelligible curses to an empty theater.

While Fisherman’s Wharf has a similar eerie vibe to it–lonely and melancholy, the streets deserted, the restaurants and souvenir shops and tourist attractions closed up, not a tourist or street performer to be found–Fisherman’s Wharf feels more as if it’s asleep, enchanted in a deep fairy tale slumber, waiting for the spell to be broken so that it can awaken and resume it’s story.

Union Square, conversely, feels more like a haunted forest where you’ve become lost and the crows have eaten the bread crumbs that you left along the trail to help you find your way out and eventually you expect to stumble upon the front door of a cannibalistic witch who invites you in for a nice warm meal.


Filed under: Coronavirus,San Francisco — Tags: , , , , — S.G. Browne @ 7:15 am


  1. What a wonderful post! It’s like an an anthropology study. This will become part of history. We’re you scared or at least apprehensive walking those empty streets?

    Comment by Sally Bosco — April 1, 2020 @ 6:29 am

  2. Yes, it’s very eerie. I’ve been to those places over the decades at all hours. Even in the years San Francisco basically rolled up the sidewalks at 8 pm and I’ve never seen it that deserted. But the weirdness isn’t bad, because it means that people are staying in and that’s all we have right now. California as of yesterday had 7,000 cases. New Jersey has 22,000. Keep on stayin’ in, y’all.

    Comment by Judith — April 1, 2020 @ 5:50 pm

  3. Hi Sally. I wouldn’t say I was scared but there was definitely a sense of unease or apprehension. And I was vigilant of where I was and who was around me so that I didn’t end up in an uncomfortable situation. But glad you enjoyed the post!

    Comment by S.G. Browne — April 1, 2020 @ 6:46 pm

  4. How cool is it that there would be a chance to run into an awesome writer walking the streets of SF! I recently re-discovered you (better late than never) in Where Nightmares Come From. Realizing I had read “A Zombie’s Lament” years ago, Thank you for the “inspiration”!

    Comment by Lisa Neal — July 12, 2020 @ 7:35 am

  5. Hi Lisa. Thanks for the comment and the kind words. And glad you rediscovered me in Where Nightmares Come From. That’s a great book on writing that I was privileged to be asked to participate in. I’m often out walking around the city. San Francisco is a great place to explore, even after 14 years of living here.

    Comment by S.G. Browne — July 12, 2020 @ 9:05 am

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