Behind the scenes: Union Square workers maintain the luxurious district


Audrey Park

Despite often being overlooked, the landscapers, security guards and police officers are a fundamental piece to keeping the tourist-filled heart of San Francisco upscale. From keeping the grass trimmed to ensuring the streets are safe, these individuals are essential to the ambiance of Union Square.

Union Square, located in San Francisco, California, is lined with designer brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, bordering a lively plaza filled with trees wrapped in string lights and multi-colored flowers. However, behind the tourist-targeted exterior are San Francisco locals responsible for keeping up the busy ambiance.

With an increasing number of tourists filtering into the area following the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers have been especially necessary in recent years. 

When first traveling to Union Square, many tourists choose to park at Union Square Garage, where the garage manager, Charles Garon, ensures they have a smooth experience. Mr. Garon has been working in San Francisco for 36 years and does his best to make those traveling comfortable while in Union Square.

“I love San Francisco, I mean I grew up here. I love to interact with other people and this place here is the heart of San Francisco,” he said.

While many tourists owe their memorable experience in Union Square to the abundance of  shopping, vibrant art and lively social scene, it is the workers in the background that allow the plaza to run smoothly. 

Angela Alter, a worker for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, continually works to maintain visitor accessibility in Union Square and surrounding areas. She said the work is about making sure people are aware of the resources available to them.

“We want to be sure that navigating through the transportation system is easy for people whether they are native English speakers or not,” she said. “Signage and symbols help a lot, so that’s something we try to be very aware of when we are working in the city.”

Ms. Alter said Union Square is an example of how the city is trying to accommodate more people. Small, somewhat unnoticed things, such as a wheelchair button for a visitor, are what make the plaza welcoming and accessible.

“These things take money to install, but it’s part of being part of the community and making sure everyone has access,” she said.

Standing on the corner of Post and Stockton streets is officer Kathleen Borg, who patrols the area of Union Square. Ms. Borg, who has been with her department for three years, says the area is a center of the city, one that invites a range of various people. She sees her role as one part of a team and one contributing to a greater community.

“I feel like it’s very eclectic, right? You come to San Francisco, there’s people here from all over the world,” she said. With regard to the tourists she encounters, “They do feel safer when they see police presence and so that’s kind of what we’re trying to do is make sure everyone feels safe.”

Standing on the side of Post street and carrying boxes to be delivered to Union Square’s stores is United States Postal Service worker John Ng, who has been delivering in the area for 15 years. He said that it is the small jobs and tasks that contribute to the smooth running of the plaza.

“I would say that everything contributes to the community no matter how little,” he said. “There could be government officers around here that contribute or just by working here, they may be spending money on lunch or parking, things like that.”

One of the most notable aspects of Union Square is its beauty, where people can be seen taking part in events, like dance recitals, or simply just enjoying their lunch break. However, none of that would be possible without individuals maintaining the park’s appearance. 

People like Aaron Muraski and Justin Smith, contractors for San Francisco Holiday Lighting, wrap luminous string lights around each tree, adding to the visual appeal of the plaza.

“We basically just decorate the square,” Mr. Smith said. “I feel like it livens it up a bit, adds some joy.”

Gardener Michael McSweeney contributes to both the welcoming energy and the manicured appearance of the park. He said he enjoys the conversations he has with visitors throughout his day.

“Besides answering questions from tourists, people thank me for my service a lot,” he said. “I guess I make people more comfortable walking through the park.”


The history of Union Square 

  • Union Square was built in 1850 by San Francisco mayor Col. John Geary, with the stipulation that the land be used for park purposes.
  • City leaders began plans in early 1998 to renovate the park to make it a destination area and less of a place that attracted the homeless.
  • In late 2000, the park temporarily closed in order to add accommodations and assorted spaces to the park to make it more accessible for visitors. 
  • On July 25, 2002, the park reopened upon completion of its $25-million redevelopment, complete with newly paved walkways, more outdoor cafe space and additional parking garage levels.
  • Now, the square continues to welcome new retailers and businesses.