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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

The Sands of San Francisco

The fifth article in a series highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . San Francisco

by Richard Walker, Department of Geography, University of California-Berkeley

A visitor to San Francisco, as to any city, takes in the scene and accepts it at face value. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. This, like any other, is a city of realms: specialized business districts, racialized neighborhoods, rich and poor, manufacture and finance. It has a certain order, built up over time and fixed in large buildings, streets, and transit lines. On the left is the Montgomery Street financial district, on the right the Union Square shopping district. Just beyond lies the Tenderloin, a classic area of cheap hotels, and beyond that the Civic Center. To the north you’ll find the Nob and Russian hill high rent districts, and below them to the east Chinatown and North Beach with its Italian cafes. All seemingly permanent and immutable.

But the human eye can be fooled. Cities are anything but permanent; they are constantly in motion and upheaval, thanks to the dynamism of capital investment, shifting foundations of technology and markets, and the struggle over urban space by class, race, and interest. San Francisco is no exception. Indeed, given its position at the crossroads of the Pacific, as the historical center of finance in the western United States, and near the world center of high tech, one can expect that it would be rather more prone to change than many other places. And given its density and its restless populace, with a justifiable reputation for political moxie, it is no surprise that this is a fiercely contested city.

Spanish/Mexican Grid

The city you see around you is the sixth major iteration of urbanism on the San Francisco peninsula. A Spanish/Mexican town, with requisite plaza, was erased by the Gold Rush, but not entirely; Portsmouth Plaza is still there, the lot sizes are of Spanish dimensions; the street grid breaks at Market Street to try to integrate the town and the Mission Delores out by Twin Peaks. The Gold Rush city, a jackstraw city of wooden buildings looking like any mining town, was draped at the feet of Telegraph, Nob, and Rincon Hills—the latter now barely visible under the weight of the Bay Bridge and approaching freeways. One legacy of that era was to fill in Yerba Buena cove, so that anywhere you walk east of Kearny Street is over the graves of abandoned ships and wharves. The center of that city is still visible in the small brick buildings now called Jackson Square, just north of the Transamerica Pyramid. Later, this was the notorious Barbary Coast, the playground of America’s most sinful and second most cosmopolitan city—two other legacies of the great migrations of the 49ers.

Victorian Commerce, Finance

A proper Victorian city took shape after the Civil War, as San Francisco became a regular center of commerce and finance for the Pacific slope. A business district took shape along Montgomery Street, south of the Barbary Coast. A shopping district for fine ladies and gentlemen opened up along Bush and Sutter streets and later filled in around Union Square. The streets and blocks were regularized, and the city extended through the Western Addition and out to the Mission district. A great park was begun on the dunes that still blew sand in drifts all the way to where the Civic Center now sits solidly paved. Proper city houses were constructed by the thousands in stately rows all the way to the Haight, with false fronts to make them look higher and more urbane. But all was not orderly. Industry grew along the bay waterfront from North Point to Potrero Point, and rough and tumble Irish and German working-class neighborhoods sprang up behind. The South of Market was an especially dense warren of boarding houses and small homes for large families. A volatile working-class challenged the city burghers in the Workingmen’s Party of the 1870s and again in the Union Labor Party of 1900-1906, and got a new Constitution for California in 1881; but their most notorious legacy was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

From the Ashes of 1906 Shakeup

When the city shook and fell down in the 8.9 earthquake of 1906, many of those working-class people met quick deaths—which were hushed up by the city fathers so as not to further besmirch the good name of the city by the Golden Gate. Two-thirds of the city was lost to the fires that burned for days, leaving a necklace of Victorian districts to the west and nothing in the heart of the city. The great mansions of the Silver Kings and railroad barons on Nob Hill were erased as surely as the humble dwellings of Chinese, Italians, and Irish workers. San Francisco was rebuilt as fast as possible. It was a new and different city that rose from the ashes. Most of the San Francisco beloved of tourists is not the Victorian city, but the Edwardian city (if we must use English royals) reconstructed 1906-1915. That was a city of mid-rise apartments and residential hotels, which still prevails east of Van Ness Avenue—Dashiell Hammett’s haunts. San Francisco ended up with more such rental units per capita than any other city in the United States. The prosperous working-class got small homes to the south in the Mission, on Potrero Hill, and out beyond Bernal Heights, and in North Beach. The rich moved west along the ridge tops of Pacific Heights, and into new suburban enclaves on Twin Peaks, near the Presidio, down the Peninsula and over in Marin. The city celebrated its rebirth in a world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific Exposition, built on bay fill along the northern shore—then turned over to real estate developers to become the Marina District.

Edwardian Heritage

The Edwardian city was rounded out in the 1920s, then stagnated in the Great Depression. But World War II turned everything on its head again. San Francisco prospered from the Pacific War, and its leading capitalists were poised to remake the city as a postwar gateway to the American century. Urban renewal was to be the vanguard of an expanded corporate downtown, with feeder lines of freeways and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to bring in business commuters from the burgeoning suburbs. The Yerba Buena project broke across the barrier of Market Street to take out the Third Street skid row, Embarcadero Center replaced the wholesale produce market, and the Western Addition’s thousands of Victorians were leveled—chiefly to remove the city’s first ghetto, created by wartime shipyard workers in the Fillmore, after Japanese removal. Corporate towers in the International Style soared to new heights, led by Bank of America, the world’s largest; a new downtown took shape. Manufacturing and the working-class city fell back to the south. But revolt broke out, stopping the freeways, saving Chinatown, Jackson Square, and the Tenderloin, and halting Yerba Buena for years. San Francisco was not torn down as completely as many U.S. cities, and remained a redoubt for Beats, Hippies, and Queers as well as banks.

Consumer, Tech Culture

By the 1980s, the urban world was on the move again. Popular struggles were blunted (not least by the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1977) and the counterculture was transformed into consumer culture in the era of the Yuppie. San Francisco looked richer and sleeker than ever, restaurants and hotels sprouted everywhere, and the tourists and global shoppers poured in. Skyscrapers sprouting South of Market sported Post-modern jackets and commercial design grew flashier. The wheels of commerce were greased by immigration, especially Chinese, Filipinos, and Central Americans, who formed the new class of workers and small business owners. But San Francisco’s old-line banks and corporations were stumbling. The financial district was moving into a new era of securities trading, investment banking, and venture capital—led by the likes of Charles Schwab—and was growing more tied to East Asia. But the real earthquake was the rise of Silicon Valley and its companies to preeminence within the Bay Area and the international world of high tech, leaving San Francisco more of a cultural museum and tourist destination than the heart of the regional economy.

In the great boom of the 1990s, propelled by the NASDAQ stock bubble, San Francisco suddenly joined the high tech party, with investment bankers like Montgomery Securities and its dot-com startups like Webvan being touted as the vanguard of the New Economy. The transformation begun in the 1980s roared across the urban landscape, changing forever the South of Market into a place of loft living and high-rise condominiums for the young and well paid. The dot-coms seized all available warehouse space, transforming it into hip offices and driving out artists and working families. At the peak of the boom, San Francisco office space briefly topped Manhattan as the priciest in the land, at over $100 per square foot. The wave crashed against the Mission District, grabbed the old rail yards of Mission Bay, and shook the city to its boots. Battles over land and space in the city broke out once more, after a decade of quiescence, as Latinos, artists, renters, and others made common cause against developers and Mayor Willie Brown.

Before the dust had settled, however, the war machines of the NASDAQ fell silent in 2000, killed by their own speculative excesses. The dot-coms disappeared, the investment banks folded, commercial rents collapsed, and the New Economy breathed its last. San Franciscans got a reprieve. But not really. The worst recession in 50 years struck the Bay Area, which suffered 10 percent of all jobs lost in the country, in 2001-2003. Homelessness swelled by thousands. In a bitter irony, however, the Federal Reserve Bank’s draconian cuts in interest rates to save the national economy led to a speculative housing boom that made San Francisco homes unaffordable to 90 percent of its populace and triggered further high-rise condo construction all around. If great cities never sleep, neither does the restless flux of capital, and you can see it at work all around you in San Francisco, turning the hardscape of the city back into sand.