Two Roads in Justin Herman Plaza

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

--Robert Frost


Last Saturday morning, two roads diverged in San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza: retail and revolution. Don and I chose retail. And yes, it made all the difference. The main thing is to realize that--at least here in America--we still have a choice.

We arrived in the late morning, parked our car in a lot next to a local TV station van. I'd worn my new white hoodie sweatshirt with China Ate My Jeans in small black letters across the front, stacked vertically in enormous block letters all down the back. Don wore his North Face (sorry, Made in Vietnam) black fleece jacket--zipped up to his chin in the chilled air--and a pair of All American Clothing 100% Made in the U.S.A jeans. Underneath his jacket was a grey-white All American Clothing t-shirt, worn from months of gym use. The front-of-the-shirt message, for now hidden by the jacket, in dark brown letters said:


one shirt at a time!

Are YOU helping?

We walked south along the Embarcadero, the Bay and historic Ferry Building Marketplace to our west, the financial district skyscrapers to our east. Our plan (we reminded ourselves, fighting the urge to veer off to the Ferry Building for a chocolate croissant) was to mingle with the protestors, hear some of their stories, engage them in a dialogue about CAMJ's Buy American project, see if we shared similar criticisms about multinational corporations offshoring American manufacturing jobs. The tents were just visible off in the distance. I sipped my oh-so-corporate Starbuck's latte. This was going to be fun, right?

Sure it was.

A few yards from the protest-encampment, construction crews worked away installing seating, fencing and white party tents around what would soon become an ice skating rink. It's an annual two-month transformation that attracts thousands of visitors to Justin Herman Plaza/ Embarcadero Center to shop, eat, and skate. But this year, Occupy SF's dark, definitely-not-festive tents share the Plaza. A huge sign over the entrance to the Holiday Ice Rink says it's sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines. I doubt Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Mark Dunkerely ever pictured this scenario playing out for families arriving to skate with their small children. No worries, Mr. Dunkerely. We in America call this a Teachable Moment: If you grow up to be a protestor and live in a tent like these people Mommy and Daddy will jump off the bridge we crossed to get here. Hot chocolate with marshmallows anyone?

Just outside the entrance to Occupy SF's tent city, about thirty artisans sell their wares. Over the years, these kiosks have become synonymous with Justin Herman Plaza, and provide individual artists and craftspeople the critically important opportunity to rent spaces in a densely-traveled, highly visible location.

Don and I walked past the colorful, art-filled kiosks and stood at the encampment's entrance. Scanning the gloom before us, I thought about the 1936 film My Man Godfrey. In one particularly effective scene, the camera pans a city dump during The Great Depression, where hobos (as homeless people were then called; some of whom were once powerful men who've lost their fortunes in the stock market crash) live in squalor in tents and cardboard boxes, desperate for food and clothing. In the film they are all lumped together into a single entity called "The Forgotten Man."

Occupy SF's tent city, too, looked like a scene from The Great Depression. Did these protestors truly represent the poor and desperate--society's forgotten one percent--or simply those who might've been able to find jobs but would rather not? Were they people who enjoyed a nomadic, unproductive life and thus attached themselves to any movement that allowed them to rage against corporate America? I'd hoped to find out.

But as Don and I stood there--my bright white sweatshirt now glowing in the otherwise dark scene--we felt, as my kids would say, awkward. We tried not to gawk (at the woman doing pretzel-like yoga poses, at the entwined couple in the middle of the encampment oblivious to the world around them, at the small children sitting outside their tents with nothing to do), and instead looked for anyone who might be interested in talking with us about The Movement. It suddenly dawned on us that we had invaded their home: a private--albeit public funded--space. Weird dynamic. "Let's go," I said. We turned around, took a couple of steps, and entered the kiosk area.

And here we found people who had truly chosen the road less traveled, people who--in my opinion--put the Occupy SF protestors to shame. We spoke to about ten retailers. All were frustrated by, some outright angry with, the Occupy SF movement. Over and over we heard: My business has really dropped since they arrived. It's bad.

We moved from booth to booth, each time discovering yet another unique, talented artisan. And yet all were kindred spirits. All sold products they'd made right here, in the U.S.A. Some had been in the corporate world and had chosen to leave. These sellers--and folks all across this country who choose to buy only products like theirs that are Made in the U.S.A.--represent a different kind of protest movement: a retail revolution.

Next up: We came, we saw, we bought at the retail revolution. More about the artisans at Justin Herman Plaza.