UN Plaza Fountain Now Surrounded by Ugly White Fence

An updated version of anti-homeless infrastructure now graces the city's central plaza.

It’s been more than seven months since the San Francisco Police Department began its occupation of UN Plaza, allegedly to deter crime. The oversized mobile command center, constant police patrol, and metal Public Works barriers surrounding the brutalist Lawrence Halprin fountain have almost become part of the plaza’s infrastructure, but this week, the plaza got an upgrade, of sorts. The Public Works fence was replaced Monday by a long, winding, white plastic behemoth that looks like it’s should be surrounding lambs at a county fair, not one of the city’s largest and most central public art pieces. 

The fountain, created in the 1970s in honor of the signing of the 1945 United Nations Charter,  is made of granite, with several blocks representing each of the earth’s continents. In between the blocks are seemingly-haphazard but very-carefully-designed water jets, that are meant to respond to the wind so as not to spray passersby. It’s brutalist and is frequented by loud, squawking seagulls that routinely crap all over it. On windy afternoons it also becomes a trash receptacle, as detritus blows through the Plaza and gets stuck in the cavernous hole. And, unhoused or marginally-housed residents of the city have long used it as a place to gather, which is presumably the reason for fencing it off. 

(Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

Regardless of how you feel about the fountain (does anyone in San Francisco even like it?) the new fence around the fountain creates a particularly awful clash of architectural styles. One resembles a Soviet-era block of buildings, the other a suburban yard in middle America. And, its presence implies something bigger: Is the fountain going to be permanently fenced off? How long is this thing expected to be there?

The city is being fairly vague on the matter.    

“We recently cleaned out the fountain and performed routine maintenance,” says Rachel Gordon of Public Works. “The fencing is intended to deter unwanted behavior in the fountain. We consider this fencing temporary.”

The San Francisco Arts Commission says the same thing. “There are no plans for a permanent fence,” confirms Kate Patterson-Murphy, director of communications.

Neither were clear about exactly how long the fence will last — but we’re going to guess that unless the black post supports are filled with sand, it’s only going to last until the next windy day. Saturday might be its next test, with 28 mile-per-hour winds predicted.  

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