Comparative Analysis Of Two Neighborhoods In San Francisco: Nob Hill And The Financial District


San Francisco is a historic city that seems to be stuck in time between the past and the present. Out of the many historic districts in San Francisco, I chose to explore Nob Hill and the Financial District. Instead of choosing the familiar downtown areas or tourist spots, I think it would be more interesting to explore these two districts. I have been to these two areas but only passing by to get to other places. The streets of San Francisco are mostly parallel and perpendicular to each other. I decided to walk along California Street that is across both Nob Hill and the Financial District with Chinatown between them.

Nob Hill is mainly a residential area with a calm vibe. The places that I planned to visit in this neighborhood are Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park, and Pacific-Union Club. Financial District, just like its name, is a district for businesses and banks. I planned to visit Old St Mary’s Cathedral, Wells Fargo Museum, and Kohl Building (Alvinza Hayward Building). By visiting their historical sites and important architectures, I can compare and contrast these two neighborhoods. I hope to learn about the distinct differences with further investigation. I utilized action research, ethnography, and online research for this project. Walking down the streets, I was able to have interactions with the residents or workers in the neighborhoods. Going into the historical sites also helped me retrieve the data of the areas. Along the way, I took a lot of photos of the architecture, the environments, and people. This project allows me to explore more areas of the city and let me know even more about San Francisco even after living here for a couple of years.


On my way to California Street, I need to climb up a very steep hill from Pine Street. San Francisco is famous for having a lot of hills all over the city. According to McAvoy, Dave Schwelsguth, who is a San Francisco hill expert, stated that the seven hills of San Francisco are Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks, Mount Sutro, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, and Rincon Hill. The very first list of these seven hills could be found from the 1920s. It is not hard to tell that the Nob Hill neighborhood is named after Nob Hill of the seven hills. One of the main differences that can be seen between the two districts is the architecture. The Nob Hill area is filled with more classic buildings that are mainly residential. These buildings are usually no more than two stories high and feature the iconic bay windows that San Francisco is known for. However, on the other hand, the Financial District is full of modern architecture, skyscrapers, and plenty of businesses and banks. The surroundings of each area differ as well. Separated by Chinatown, the two districts contain very different atmospheres.

While the Financial District is filled with the hustle and bustle of business people, Nob Hill is more tranquil and quiet. Some of Nob Hill’s major sites to explore include Huntington Park. This park is not large; however, it features a quiet seating area, some classical looking fountains, and small fields where people can bring their dogs and play. There are also some old people exercising in the park. They are dressed casually and really friendly when I asked them about their dogs. Across from Huntington Park is the famous Grace Cathedral. This Cathedral features beautiful stained glass windows, an indoor museum featuring the history of the cathedral, as well as beautiful Gothic architecture. This cathedral, while a tourist attraction, still functions as a place where people can express and reflect on their faith. In Grace Cathedral, pictures are allowed, but it is asked that you stay quiet and turn your flash off.

Another cathedral in the Nob Hill District is Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. This cathedral is an important piece of San Francisco’s history and spans a lifetime of 160 years. Although this cathedral is smaller, it is clear that this cathedral is much older than Grace Cathedral and has been standing for much longer. Inside the cathedral, mass is still held, and at the entrance, there is a small museum dedicated to the history of this church. One of the main points within the museum’s exhibits is the documentation of the Great Earthquake of 1906. Although the church survived the initial quake, the fires that followed almost burned the church to the ground. During its restoration, the church has been outfitted with specially engineered supports that help make the church more earthquake and fire resistant, such as a stone interior, and better supports for the ceiling and the walls. The Financial District feels much more like a traditional city. With small inclines and towering skyscrapers, this section of the city truly embodies the modern and future side of San Francisco. Some notable buildings in the financial district include. The Transamerica building, which is the iconic pointy tower on the San Francisco skyline, as well as the famous Hilton Hotel. Another great place to visit in the Financial District is the Wells Fargo Museum which is a small museum featuring authentic banking instruments from the 19th century. This building, while large, is still a fully functioning bank. Among the museum’s artifacts is a replica stagecoach that would have been used by banks to transport gold in the 19th century, firearms that would have been used to both protect and rob the stagecoaches, and even a genuine adding and subtracting machine that was the predecessor to today’s electronic calculator. Pacific-Union Club in Nob Hill is not open so I was not able to observe further from the inside. Also, Kohl building in the Financial District is used by several banks, which I was not able to get in to disturb their private working areas.


A recognizable symbol in the Nob Hill District is Old St. Mary’s Church. Not only is it steeped in San Francisco’s history, it is a testament to the people of San Francisco, that they will always be standing. Whether it be a natural disaster or a fire, Old St. Maryl’s Church, like San Francisco’s people, will always come back stronger. It is also worthy to note, that since the church sits at the edge of chinatown, it promotes friendliness to all people, in particular, it caters heavily to Asian Americans. As a result, the people of Nob Hill are much more friendly than the people that you might find in the Tenderloin. This can be seen by the way they interact with each other in the parks outside of Grace Cathedral. I witnessed two complete strangers walk up to each other and strike up a friendly conversation as their dogs played with each other on the grass. I believe that people like them are a good representation of the people and the atmosphere of the Nob Hill District.

Contrariwise, the financial District is what most people who have never been, think of San Francisco. It is populated by the businessmen and women of San Francisco’s population. The people here seem to always be in a rush to get to their next meeting. It has a much more typical city vibe. However, the people here, although much more wealthy, are not snobbish as one would assume comes with wealth. They may be in much more of a hurry, but the people here are just as friendly and respectful with one another. The Financial District is filled with many landmarks, however none more iconic than the Transamerica Pyramid. Being the second largest skyscraper in San Francisco, this building is a symbol of San Francisco’s ability to rise ever higher. The interactions of the residents in Nob Hill makes me think about looking-glass self theory. It is a theory of thinking about how others will look at ourselves and appear through the identity negotiation. Thinking about how people will judge you through having the dogs play together might let the dog owner decided to strike up the conversation and made a new frienship for themselves and for their dogs.

In Financial District, I would think that broken window theory would not happen here. It is a theory for the raising crime rate if the neighborhood has visible signs of crime. In this neighborhood, the clean streets and skyscrapers make the neighborhood looks safe. It is different from the downtown area of San Francisco.


In Huntington Park, the people that are walking their dogs or exercising showed their sense of belonging to the neighborhood. It is about their mental constructs. Mental construct is how people perceive objects or behaviors. With different experiences, the mental construct for the same subject is different for each individual. As for the residents in the neighborhood, Huntington Park is a lovely place for them to relax. Actually, besides the park, I can also see a lot of people walking their dogs in the neighborhood casually in the early morning. It shows the calm vibe of the area and their sense of security to the neighborhood. As an outsider of the neighborhood, I can feel the pleasant atmosphere of the park and would like to bring my dog here to experience the calm and delightful morning of the neighborhood. As for Grace Cathedral, it is a very beautiful and significant building in the neighborhood. I would consider it one of the image of the neighborhood, which matches Lynch’s theory of imageability. Imageability is a term for a physical object which evokes a strong image to the viewer through their mental construct. When I went into Grace Cathedral, I only saw a few tourists on the stairs but not actually praying in the cathedral. It might be a wrong timing since I went on a weekday. However, even if there is indeed not a lot of people entering this Cathedral for prayers, it is still a significant site to the neighborhood.

The Old St Mary’s Cathedral is more of an environmental cognition. Environmental cognition is also an individual interpretation. It is how the person views the place through their memories and build up meanings for it. The second I walked in Old St Mary’s Cathedral, the history of the earthquake is laid out at the front. With the memories or the rebuilding of the cathedral, I believe it is an environmental cognition for lots of the families in this area. Since Old St Mary’s Cathedral is on the edge of Chinatown and Financial District, even though it is count as Financial District, it is decorated in Chinese. In the Cathedral, I can see the history of how the Cathedral is rebuilt after the earthquake. It was not fully rebuilt since part of the original Cathedral was still standing. I would say it is a mixed-use space. It is a term for the planning of modernism mix with traditional architecture. One aspect that stands out about the Financial District is the fact that there are little to no homeless people wandering the streets. In places like the Nob Hill, and the Tenderloin, it is almost guaranteed that one will run into a homeless person, but in the Financial District, there are almost no homeless people around. Perhaps since all of the major businesses are located in the financial district, then it is probable that all the increased security deters homeless people from venturing too deep into the Financial District. I think it might be because of urban renewal.

Urban renewal is a process of constructing new buildings and renewing the cities from the land redevelopment. The buildings in this neighborhood are relatively new. I believe the earthquake mentioned above would be one of the reasons that make the urban renewal push forward. Talking about urban renewal, the revitalization of the neighborhood can also be mentioned. Revitalization is to develop the improve the area with the coming in financial funds. As the Financial District grow bigger from the urban renewal, revitalization occurred and the whole area started to build up new buildings, which is why the neighborhood has the most skyscrapers than other places of San Francisco. However, the downside of all the development can also be seen in the neighborhood. Gentrification occurred with the replacement of the poor and lower class workers. When I went to the Wells Fargo Museum, there are workers holding up banners in front of the museum. It says “Wells Fargo hurts workers, hurts families, hurts community. Labor Dispute.” I did not know what exactly happened and why they are protesting. Nonetheless, the claims they are holding up show that they are protesting for the workers. With the higher financial class of businesses, the lower class workers are more easily to be neglected and oppressed. It definitely shows the potential problem within the neighborhood.


Although these two Districts are radically different in both atmosphere and architecture, they are an integral part to the city of San Francisco. While the Financial District keeps San Francisco with a firm foothold in the modern world, the Nob Hill District keeps San Francisco in touch with its historic roots. They are two parts to the much larger whole that is San Francisco. Nob Hill is a more of a calm place that we can see the significance of people’s interaction. The Financial District shows the urban planning of the modern society.

09 March 2021
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