In the theater of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where diplomats convened in April 1945 to draft a Charter for the United Nations, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy flank the stage. As I was reminded during a visit this week, the Opera House was a suitably impressive venue for the enormous and somber task of creating a new world organization to secure a peaceful future. But those masks also seem symbolic of the difficulties the UN encountered with such a mundane task as selecting a place for its permanent home. With the tragedy of war still unfolding in 1945, civic boosters from Philadelphia and the Black Hills of South Dakota showed up in San Francisco to push their interests in becoming the Capital of the World even before the United Nations officially existed. And San Francisco’s boosters aimed to show how suitable their city could be.
I thought of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, too, as I walked through United Nations Plaza, the commemorative space near the San Francisco Public Library. The flag of the United Nations flag flies there, and pillars topped by symbolic globes bear the names of all of the member nations. Amid inscriptions of human rights and dignity, the plaza on this day was populated by apparently homeless people, bundled against the cold whipping wind, sleeping, and safeguarding shopping carts of belonging. One had a boom box tuned to a radio station blaring a commercial for easy credit. At one end of the plaza, vendors offered a miscellany of goods for sale: sunglasses, jewelry, colorful scarves. As offices began to empty in the late afternoon, commuters dashed through all of this for the Civic Center transit station and seemed unaware–or numbed–to it all. For those who notice, United Nations Plaza is far from the hopes and dreams of the boosters of 1945 who sought to make San Francisco the Capital of the World.