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The End of Uncanny Valley: Bronze Statues That Were a Bit Too Lifelike Disappear from the Fillmore 

Wednesday, May 21 2014

Spring brought death to the Fillmore, with the shuttering of San Francisco's historic black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books, whose owners decamped from their lavender-trimmed Victorian in May.

That end coincided with the quiet disappearance of a less venerable, but equally visible neighborhood staple. A small army of bronze statues — among them a hot dog vendor, a pair of sombrero-clad mariachis, and an old man playing the saxophone — recently vanished from the main artery of Fillmore Street, to be replaced by planters and tiled mosaics bearing the names of famous San Franciscans.

The statues have been shipped off to New Jersey, where their creator, Seward Johnson, is holding a career retrospective. Some will wind up in a gallery, others in a 47-acre sculpture park. Some will be reassigned to other exhibitions in other cities, where they'll likely conjure the same nostalgic sentiments they evoked in the Fillmore. (Not for nothing is Seward's series of statues called "Celebrating the Familiar.")

The point of the temporary installation, according to project manager Melonie Green, was to illustrate the neighborhood's legacy, enhance foot traffic, and see how residents responded to public art. For the most part, they relished it, she says. Children were always scampering on top of the bronze woman on a bench reading a butterfly book; tourists posed for photos alongside the creepily lifelike hot dog vendor.

Then again, some locals couldn't help but get a twinge of the uncanny valley — the eerie feeling imparted by a humanoid figure that's almost-but-not-quite lifelike — when they passed the statues. Dave Maass, who moved to the Fillmore from San Diego about a year ago, says part of San Francisco's appeal was that it didn't have Seward Johnson's 6,000 pound "Unconditional Surrender" statue — the replica of a WWII soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square — that drew mixed reactions when it came to his hometown.

"For public art connoisseurs, 'Unconditional Surrender' was just aesthetically offensive," he says, explaining that little kids (and men) were always standing at the statue's base, trying to peek up the woman's skirt. "And then I get to San Francisco, and suddenly they've installed a whole platoon of these statues in my neighborhood."

But Maass says the statues eventually grew on him. When friends came to visit, he'd give impromptu neighborhood tours that highlighted old landmarks, like the old classic ice cream shop, and new ones, like the statue of a leering janitor, or the bronze businessman who was defaced when someone decided to prettify him with makeup.

"That part I kind of miss," Maass says. Still, he's happy the city planted a new succulent garden where some of the statues had been. It's less showy — but at least it's alive.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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