An Appetite for the City

The Battle to Save San Francisco, 1960-1990

Richard A. Walker

Professor of Geography
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720

Working Paper
February 1997

The published version appeared in
James Brook, Chris Carlsson and Nancy Peters, eds.,
Reclaiming San Francisco, (San Francisco: City Lights Books)

San Francisco is widely renown as a beautiful, vibrant, livable city. But it was not always so: 19th century San Francisco was excoriated as a “woodyard of unusual extent” and, later, as a scene of vulgar display by the newly rich. And it would be less admirable today were it not for an extraordinary popular upheaval against the wrecking ball and new construction. Nowhere else in America was such opposition as successful as in postwar San Francisco, and this revolt conserved much of what makes the city livable. I want to retell that story as one of pitched battle over civic space, a war of position between the titans of capital in the Downtown and people from many neighborhoods and many walks of urban life. But more than that I want to tell it as a struggle for the soul of the city, in which an unlikely configuration of people from many points on the social compass came to defend the city they lived in and loved from destruction by the forces of progress.

This is not what one would expect in a country in which Progress is the watchword. Not in a country always profoundly ill at ease with cities, whose urban landscapes have been pulled down and built over without a second thought. Not in a state with impeccable Republican credentials for most of its history, and not at a time when urban renewal and suburban flight gutted city cores from San Jose to San Diego. Nor even in San Francisco, whose present image as a comely dowager belies a history as the ‘cannibal city’ of the west (as Mike Davis calls Los Angeles), devouring the resources of the Pacific Coast and its own little peninsula with aggressive callousness (Davis 19xx, Brechin 1997). How did this rapacious polis become a bit more civilized over time?

Such cultivated urbanity rests on political economy and political culture more than natural scenery or urban design. It does not arise naturally from affluence or maturity (Potter 1954). Consider the eagerness with which the local burghers tried to pull down the city after the Second World War. A politics of resistance and preservation derives from a vision of the city as a good place, informed by an aesthetics of urbanism and a sense of popular entitlement to urban spaces. Moreover, it must be driven by a civil society breathing life into oppositional words, having the political capacity to take on the powerful, and providing the armies of the night to rebuild the everyday city again and again out of the fragments of stone and memory lying all about.

Saving the City

A simple political geography of the city places Downtown business at the center, a hodge-podge of neighborhoods east of Twin Peaks as the heart of opposition, and the outer realms as conservative minions of order (DeLeon 1992). The business class, led by the biggest banks, industrial corporations and property owners, initiated the battle for the city after World War II by their plans to expand the Downtown through better transit, clearance of nearby areas, and more and taller buildings. They were met on every side by popular revolt, much of it telling. Although the city’s core was recast dramatically over the next thirty years, resistance nevertheless achieved a great deal. The skyscrapers were prevented from going west and north, saving Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, and the old retail district. The Tenderloin is still alive with hotels and poor working people. The freeways were stopped before they could desecrate the northern waterfront and Golden Gate Park. The Ferry Building still stands. Many fine old commercial buildings were saved, and thousands of Victorian houses have been restored. Meanwhile, a cosmopolitan throng continues to occupy city neighborhoods: Africans, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Queers, and residual hippies, punks and poets. The living city lives on, even through these hard times.

Downtown Expansion: Property and Progress

From the Depression through the Fifties, decaying urban cores were a national obsession (Beauregard 1993). San Francisco business leaders, in particular, suffered from intense vertigo induced by a metropolis spinning outward like a red giant, threatening to leave a dwarf city behind. This spurred coordinated action through bodies such as the Public Utilities Commission, the Regional Plan Association and the Bay Area Council (Scott 1959, Lotchin 1979). In 1942, a plan for a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system was drawn up by Bechtel Corporation to keep commuters flowing Downtown, and built in the 1960s (Adler 1977, Whitt 1982). The 1940s saw the first designs for a freeway network, spurred by national planning for a national defense highway system. The California Department of Highways went to work right after the war, and freeway madness hit full speed with passage of the 1958 Federal Highway Act (Johnson 1997). Freeways were soon marching up from the Peninsula, around the waterfront, and behind the Civic Center. Freeway off-ramps led directly into all of the principal redevelopment zones. New bridges were envisioned across the northern and central bay. Obsolete forms of transit, like cable cars and trolleys, were destined for the scrap heap (Brechin 1983).

Urban renewal legislation, passed by Congress in 1949 and 1954 gave cities powers to assemble land, clear it of offending uses, and finance redevelopment (Gelfand 1975). San Francisco, like all big cities, established a Redevelopment Agency to spearhead its efforts. Justin Herman directed that agency aggressively for many years, backed by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (a citizens group), and later the Convention and Visitors Bureau (arm of the hotel and tourism industry).

The first renewal plan targeted the Western Addition, an area of dense rental housing occupied by former wartime shipyard workers, many of them black. The Agency aimed to rid the city of over two square miles of Victorian houses, replacing them with thirty-three ten-story slabs to lure middle-class suburbanites back to the city. One planner put it succinctly: “Nothing short of a clean sweep and a new start can make the district a genuinely good place in which to live” (Scott 1947). The project began by ramming through the Geary Expressway and clearing old Japantown for a retail complex; then it headed south on both sides of Fillmore. Four thousand people were rousted out in the late 1950s and over thirteen thousand in the 1960s. Over 1,000 Victorian houses were clear cut, eliminating ten percent of the city’s total stock.

Along the northern edge of Downtown lay the produce district, eyed for renewal. The Blythe-Zellerbach Committee, formed in 1956, drew up the Golden Gateway project (including the Embarcadero Center, to be built with Rockefeller and Mellon money). The Montgomery Block, the city’s oldest building and bohemian haunt, was cleared in 1958. Cyril Magnin, port commissioner and later president of the Chamber of Commerce, had the city buy back its port from the state in 1959, then offered a grand design for hotels and offices along the Embarcadero. Chinatown was eyed for renewal and Portsmouth Square was torn up for a parking garage. Manila Town, a one-block stretch of Kearny Street known as for its many Filipino residents and shops, was slated for demolition.

South of Market an assault was planned on Skid Row. In 1954, Ben Swig, the biggest hotel owner in San Francisco, laid out a nine block Yerba Buena project as a combination convention center, stadium, hotel, and park (Hartman 1984). The area was a jumble of single-room occupancy hotels built after 1906, replete with eateries and entertainments for the poor; occupants were overwhelmingly single, retired men—white, black and Filipino—who had worked as dockers, sailors, and day laborers. San Francisco long had the highest proportion of hotel housing of any city in the United States (Groth 1994).

Urban renewal was only the prelude to the property boom that followed from 1960 to the recession of 1973-75. The planners needn’t have worried, after all. Soon Downtown was bristling with new skyscrapers. Any number of buildings could be cited as flash points for opposition to Manhattanization: Bank of America’s Darth Vader hat, Transamerica’s pyramid, new hotels around Union Square, or a proposed US Steel tower flanking the Ferry Building. After 1975 a new boom came clad in Postmodern finishes and Downtown surged across Market Street until halted by the crash of 1985-86. Twenty-five million square feet of new office space were added, doubling the size of the corporate heart of San Francisco (Walker et al, 1990; Smith & Walker 1997). More hotels went up, and dozens of cheap residential hotels in the Tenderloin were converted for upscale uses.

The tragedy is not that Downtown grew and San Francisco was physically transformed; rather, it is the way thousands of ordinary people and a small city’s worth of urban places were cleared away with the rubble. In the symbolic contest for space, the victims shrink to insignificance. The class and race hatred behind the Downtown master vision should not be underestimated. The ruling elite sought to level the waterfront haunts of longshoremen who had brought the city to its knees in 1934; to drive blacks out of the Fillmore; to sweep aside the aging and discarded workers from their last redoubts south of Market; and to be rid of eyesores such as Manillatown. Crowds, dense quarters, and the commingling of classes and races, have always provoked a chill of horror in the heart of the local bourgeoisie (Broussard 1993, Groth 1994, Craddock 1995).

Downtown Encircled: Resistance on Many Fronts

As soon as the grand design for Downtown was put into motion, San Francisco was shaken by popular revolt. The first volleys were fired from the northern flanks of Telegraph and Russian Hills by well-to-do (but often bohemian) residents worried about their Bay views. Frida Klussman put her foot down over the removal of the cable cars as early as 1947, winning them National Landmark Status in 1964. Then came the Freeway Revolt, triggered by the advancing Embarcadero Freeway and planned obliteration of the Golden Gate Park Panhandle. Casper Weinberger, a young Republican lawyer, fought the Highway Department to a standstill in 1959, and San Francisco became the first city to stop the freeway mania (Johnson 1997). Next, apartment buildings on the northern waterfront were killed by shipping magnate William Matson Roth and his friends, and Ghirardelli’s shuttered chocolate factory was resurrected as a cozy shopping plaza -- becoming the model for such conversions around the world.

Organized under the Western Addition Community Organization and several African-American churches, the people of the Fillmore fought the bulldozers and for replacement housing. They won the first court injunction in the country against an urban renewal project in 1968, and local Congressman Philip Burton pushed through a law requiring compensatory housing (Mollenkopf 19xx). After that the southern tier of the clearance area was backfilled with public and subsidized housing for the poor. The African-American neighborhood was not eliminated, and eventually reoccupied a large part of the redeveloped housing (but the wretchedness of the ghetto dwellers also produced the People’s Temple and its mass execution at the hand of Jim Jones). The project was a dismal failure in attracting investment, and huge swathes of land lay barren for twenty years.

The historic preservation movement was born of this rebellion. A taste for Victorians was produced not so much by revulsion at modernist aesthetics as from distaste for the modern wrecking ball. A City Landmarks Commission was established in 1968 and the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage in 1971. Political alliances made for strange bedfellows, with the Junior League of San Francisco working hand-in-hand with African-American groups, gay activists, and gentrifiers. As a consequence, the political significance of architectural preservation in San Francisco was more radical than the commercial “heritage industry” that swept the country in the 1980s (Vail 1964, Olmsted & Watkins 1969, Waldhorn & Woodbridge 1978, Corbett 1979).

Meanwhile, as the familiar skyline disappeared behind an archipelago of towers, the Highrise Revolt erupted (Bergmann et al. 1971). Enter Alvin Duskin, who had fought off Lamarr Hunt’s mad scheme to place a giant Apollo spacecraft on Alcatraz (as atonement for the 1969 Native American occupation)(Fortunate-Eagle, 1992). Duskin wanted a drastic height limit on buildings, and his ballot initiatives of 1971 and 1972 gathered support from a broad coalition of preservationists, hillside dwellers, environmentalists, anti-redevelopment groups, and political progressives ( Wirt 1974, Mollenkopf 1975, 1983, Hartman 1984). Though defeated, they spurred city officials, led by Planning Director Allan Jacobs (19xx) to write a new Downtown plan, with a line drawn at Kearny and Clay Streets to stop Downtown’s northward and westward march. This was too late to save the International Hotel, bought for a highrise by Hong Kong investors, but defended by thousands of angry demonstrators before being torn down in 1978.

An elderly cohort of workers in the South of Market, living out their days on meager pensions and vilified as winos, were similarly being forced out by the Redevelopment Agency. But the old men drew on their experience in organized labor, forming Tenants and Owners Organized against Redevelopment under George Woolf, former president of the Alaska Cannery Workers Union, and Peter Mendelssohn, former seaman and Communist Party organizer. By a series of lawsuits, they were able to extract new housing projects for the poor and elderly. Protracted opposition led to the collapse of the project by 1975, to be replaced by a stripped-down version. Ground was broken for a convention center in 1979, yet two huge city blocks lay barren for another decade.

Discontent with the rule of Downtown and with the transformation of San Francisco also surfaced in residential neighborhoods such as the Haight, Castro, and Noe Valley. Activists began pushing an electoral reform plan that pivoted on district elections of the Board of Supervisors, picking up the support of gays, hippies, African-Americans, Asians and the progressive white middle class (DeLeon 1992). The key figure in the revolt of the neighborhoods was Harvey Milk, the man most responsible for turning the Gay Awakening into a political movement (Shilts 1982). The return of district elections allowed Milk to take a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977 as the country’s first openly homosexual elected official.

Electoral reform mobilization converged with the efforts of the anti-highrise and -renewal forces to unseat Mayor Joe Alioto, leader of the pro-growth coalition. They also dovetailed with the political aspirations of George Moscone, and the liberal Democratic machine of Phil Burton (DeLeon 1992, Jacobs 1996). The building boom went bust between 1973 and 1975, throwing the developers into disarray and giving opposition forces a precious opening. In 1976, Moscone beat out Dianne Feinstein for mayor on a promise to return control to the neighborhoods and end high-rise construction. Moscone did not keep his promise, though he did appoint some valuable mavericks, such as Sue Bierman, to the Planning and Landmarks Commissions. Neither Moscone nor Milk was allowed to finish his work. Both were assassinated in 1978 by Supervisor Dan White, a reactionary ex-cop and Marine, representing a white working class suspicious of a changing civic landscape and the lone remaining spokesman for Downtown interests on the Board (Weiss 1984).

In the Tenderloin another grassroots mobilization took shape in the early Eighties, led by Brad Paul of the North of Market Planning Agency, Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church, and Calvin Welch of the Cadillac Hotel. Encroachment from Union Square, conversions, and rising rents were forcing out the elderly residents. But opponents were able to win rent and conversion controls that held the property owners at bay, while non-profits and churches began upgrading buildings for the poor.

As the property market heated up again, anti-highrise activists forced votes on height limits in 1979 and 1983. These initiatives narrowly lost, but officials were again forced to respond, with Planning Director Dean Macris’s Downtown Plan. This new plan altered very little, holding the line in the Financial District (where property values and landmarked buildings prevented most building anyway) and giving its blessing to construction south of Market. Activists responded with Proposition M, a more severe containment measure, which finally triumphed in 1986. The battle over Downtown catapulted liberal Art Agnos, another Burton prodigy, into the Mayor’s office, but he promptly lost supporters by backing unsuccessful ballot issues for a new baseball park and an end-run around Prop M by the gigantic Mission Bay project (DeLeon 1992). The building boom was exhausted in any case, terminated by economic crisis (Smith & Walker 1997).

Roots of Urban Resistance

The contrariness of San Franciscans to the annihilation of their city has been exceptional, as has the success of anti-development politics. Simple defense of living space and neighborhoods against the wrecking ball has played its part, to be sure, and so have the organizing efforts of dedicated radicals and the peculiarities of local political structures. But these visible parts of civic resistance need roots and soil to grow on, and here San Francisco demonstrated, for a time, a most favorable economic, political and cultural substrate.

Under the Economic Volcano

Economics undergirds so much, and it is hard to escape San Francisco’s legacy of wealth. Cities have been wellsprings of modernization and modern life because of their capacity to siphon wealth from many corners of the land (and overseas), concentrating and multiplying it in a narrow space. California has, moreover, been one of the greatest engines of economic growth in the world over the last fifty years. While Los Angeles outgrew its northern rival before World War II, the Bay Area has been singularly favored by the wars in the Pacific, its financial complex and the growth of electronics (Nash 1984, Walker et al, 1990).

That prosperity erected new pyramids downtown, but also helped generate opposition to the business vision of civic progress. It brought many new residents to the city in the first place, as California’s booming economy generated millions of jobs and supported a large public sector (Walker & Lizarraga 1997). This magnetic field of opportunity drew everyone from ex-GIs enrolling at the Art Institute in the 1940s to computer hackers in Multimedia Gulch in the 1990s. It called up people of every class, from the professionals in the Marina district to immigrant workers in the Mission. It provided the cushion for those who came for non-economic reasons, whether Beats, students, Hippies or Gays, and allowed them the freedom to create subcultures that reinvigorated the city. The mass character of those bohemian elements was unprecedented, and can only be explained by the economic liberation of the young. The civic surplus even supported many of those who explicitly opposed redevelopment, whether businessmen like Duskin, bohemians like Ferlinghetti, or gay activists like Milk.

Prosperity worked its magic more effectively as long as rents remained low enough to allow artists, refugees, and those outside the mainstream to survive, if not prosper, in the inner city (RDavis 19xx). The long slump in central city investment due to Depression, War, and suburbanization had left property markets relatively untouched for two decades. The confluence of economic growth without property speculation through the 1950s was ideal for nurturing the countercultures that mushroomed in San Francisco. Conversely, the heating up of real estate in the Seventies and Eighties drove out many of the marginals, as old commercial space disappeared, the affluent crowded into gentrifying neighborhoods, and mortgage markets overflowed with easy credit (Smith & Walker 1997).

A Republic in Miniature

American leftists are prone to beg the question of the origins of urban protest by reference to ‘grassroots’ movements, and reject any class analysis of such upheavals (Castells 1983). Others refer vaguely to the middle class character of the anti-growth movement (DeLeon 1992, p. 11). Neither will do. In San Francisco the balance of classes has tripped up the business elite in their efforts to command the civic skyline. The Downtown capitalists do not rule the roost in so clear-cut a fashion as in other cities (cf. Davis 1990). This weakness (relative, to be sure) is sometimes attributed to schisms such as those between the Spreckels and DeYoungs or Giannini and the Anglo-Saxons of Montgomery Street, but there is little evidence for a falling out in the postwar era within San Francisco, when the real fight was with the East and South Bay (Walker et al 1990). Rather, difficulties came from below, in three directions.

To begin with, San Francisco has a curiously skewed class distribution because of its role as a commercial, financial and corporate center, as well as a government and public service node heavy on administration, education, medicine and foundations. The division of labor tips toward upper level managers, professionals, and technical workers, including doctors, lawyers, journalists, accountants, computer hackers, and administrators. This makes the city’s class structure bulge in the middle. Add to this the skilled manual workers who keep business and the city running through supporting roles in printing, electrical, office machines, carpentry, technical writing, and the like, and the working class skews upward, as well, with wages well above the national average (cf. Issel & Cherny 1986, Walker et al. 1990).

At the same time, the workers of San Francisco have historically been well organized, able to hold their own against the bully-bosses through union militancy and political activism (McWilliams 1949, Kazin 1986). Racial exclusion reinforced working class strength and the sense of rough equality among European-Americans of diverse backgrounds (Saxton 1971). At the end of World War II, San Francisco was a completely union town, and working class leaders were powers to be reckoned with (Issel 1995). Although key unions cut a deal with big business and Mayor Alioto to support Downtown building (Hartman 1984), many workers still carried memories of militancy and class hatreds in their trouser pockets. This is manifest in the old Filipino, white and African longshoremen and sailors fighting against the destruction of their hotels. Worker empowerment and good wages fueled class struggles rather than dousing them, brought alliances between skilled and unskilled male workers, and blurred the edges between the working and middle classes.

Finally, rapid growth and personal mobility has had a permanently destabilizing effect on the class system, top to bottom. The massive influx of people to California, and rapid turnover at all levels, has frequently meant that class allegiances are poorly formed and individualism in the ascendant (Walker & Lizarraga 1997). Moreover, a certain wage and rank mobility and the rapid formation of new businesses by aspiring people of skill (from Esprit to Wired) have reinforced such aspirations. The effect has been to strengthen the middle class outlook of San Francisco, a further petit bourgeoisification at the expense of the two ends of the class spectrum. Curiously, this has not made San Franciscans less but more liberal, even libertarian, in the face of power plays by big business. This contrasts with Los Angeles which, with a similar class structure, has always been more conservative (McWilliams 1949, Lotchin 1993).

Lifelines of Liberality

Politics is more than the geometry of class forces, and the liberal bent of San Francisco’s citizenry cannot be explained by the mere presence of a working class or petit bourgeois bloc among the electorate (nor by race, in the white postwar era). Electoral politics have been so progressive as to win San Francisco the moniker “left coast city”, and to make it a liberal island in a sea of California Republicanism. Voting patterns have a clear geography, with the east of Twin Peaks tilting consistently to the left (with its own political microgeography based on race, class and sexual orientation)(DeLeon 1992). Worse for the business interests, the eastside has been the part most impacted by development.

Behind this liberalism lies a political culture forged out the class standoff between capital and labor in the early twentieth century (Issel 1989). That political culture includes high voter turnout, political clubs, freewheeling initiatives, and weak mayors (DeLeon 1992, Lotchin 1993). Capital could not vanquish labor from the political landscape of the city, so it has had to go through Progressive Republicans such as Sunny Jim Rolph and Warren Christopher or pro-growth Democrats such as Joe Alioto and Willie Brown to get its business done without mobilizing class opposition. At the same time, a liberal Democratic party apparatus could be stitched together that owed little to capital, as was done by Harvey Milk’s Gay Democratic Club and Phil Burton, who became a civic, state and national power from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Part of this political culture has been to dispose middle class people toward organized labor and weaken their allegiance to the burghers of Pacific Heights. This sort of position is rarely rationalized in terms of class, rather as libertarian independence from all power blocs and sympathy toward the oppressed. As a result, any number of transgressive political bridges were constructed in the postwar era across conventional boundaries of class and race formation. Harvey Milk organized gay men across the class spectrum, turning personal liberation into political power (Shilts 1982). Burton got his start by uniting Chinatown and white workers of the hotel districts, then brought in middle and upper class liberals across the eastern half of the city (Jacobs 1996). Civil Rights activists and the Burton machine forged alliances between African-Americans protesting black removal and white liberals opposing Downtown expansion. Meanwhile, the Beats and Hippies contributed by their rebellious race-mixing and incorporation of black culture into their practical critique of the oppressions of bourgeois expression and repression (Cavan 1972, Davidson 1989).

A Taste for the City

Neither can politics stand alone as an explanation for widespread opposition to the spatial incursions of the Downtown. The protagonists of urban preservation were inspired by more than distaste for capitalist power plays -- particularly since so many of them were (petit) bourgeois in background or aspiration. Nor were they simply defending hearth and home. People rallied to protect urban life as they knew it. The everyday urbanity of San Francisco is undergirded by a webbing of popular culture and public vitality that sustains the city; the wellsprings of affection for urban life flow from many quarters. The opponents of redevelopment, of whatever origins and neighborhoods, all had experiences of urbanism to draw on and visions of civic space as a public good. These played in people’s heads, and got their backs up against the destruction of San Francisco (often after drawing them to the city in the first place). Such urbanity is rarely taken into consideration by leftists, even proponents of the postmodern turn. Yet the density, co-mingling and variety of the city, ordinary encounters with the urban world, have real effects on consciousness and action.

It helps that San Francisco had a rich cosmopolitan tradition to begin with (Matthews 1997). The city was the urban oasis of the west in the 19th century. The Victorian makeover of the last quarter of the century rebuilt the city as a stage setting of middle class row house respectability and upper class pomposity, but left the vast redoubt of the working class lying South of Market and the public secrets of the Barbary Coast and the waterfront on full display. After half the city was erased in the catastrophe of 1906, San Francisco was rebuilt along radically new, vertical, lines. The central districts were reconstructed at a much higher density as hotels and apartments. Thousands of multiple housing units were purpose-built for businessmen, saleswomen, clerks, longshoremen and the whole gamut of the urban labor force. These were, moreover, intentionally done in a ‘modern’ style, with the latest improvements, as an explicit alternative to the suburban house; these were meant to be homes for urban living. This was the high tide of dense urbanism, full of pedestrian life, bright lights and popular entertainments along the Great White Ways such as Market, Mission and Fillmore (Groth 1994). Many San Franciscans still occupied that urbane space after the Second World War, long after it had been junked in favor of the suburban model for American cities (Walker 1995).

The rebellion against Downtown was not fought by denizens of the past, but by the city’s postwar occupants -- many of whom were new arrivals. At the very moment when most Americans were fleeing the central cities, others fled in droves to San Francisco to escape dystopian suburbs and create their own utopias. This was urban renewal of a different stripe. It brought African-Americans into the Fillmore district during the war, along with the first Gays discharged from the military. Next came former GIs who had seen the city in passage from Toledo to Guam, and fallen in love with it. The pioneering Beats drifted in after the war, finding refuge in North Beach and Fillmore, and were joined by growing numbers of alienated white youth in the 1950s. Students came from around the country, swelling the ranks of those cutting ties to bourgeois domesticity.

After the Beats established San Francisco as the countercultural capital of postwar America, and student rebellion heated up in Berkeley, the Bay Area became a new sort of urban oasis. The Hippies overran the Haight, a district on the decline (bordering the Fillmore), with spacious Victorians and cheap rents. Gays emptied out of the great flyover to the Queer Mecca of the Castro district in the 1970s (the Castro was another working class neighborhood emptying out). Gay liberation jump-started the Yuppie era and its celebration of personal indulgence among the well-paid middle classes spawned by Downtown’s office revolution.

For the Beats, Hippies, Gays and Yuppies the city itself was an object of celebration as well as a place of liberation. More than housing, it promised tolerance, promiscuous mixing, cheek-by-jowl density, public life, and a landscape to delight the eye. The Beats fit easily into North Beach’s Italian community, with its traditions of anarchism, cafe chatter, and public display. Beat sculptors used the rubble of building demolitions for their ‘found art’. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded City Lights bookstore, was a protester at the razing of the Montgomery Block. A local judge refused to censor Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Hippies painted up the Victorians of the Haight, held their Be-Ins at neighboring Golden Gate Park, and listened to rock in the nearby Fillmore Auditorium. Urban space served as a critical resource for the flowering of Gay life, providing collective self-affirmation and protection in the face of a hostile world (Castells & Murphy 1982). In San Francisco few people outside the police department gave a damn about enforcing heterosexuality. Gays pioneered the improvement of Victorian housing and of the South of Market, and were leaders in the preservation movement. Yuppies had good, city-based jobs and bought city homes to go with them. They sought the kind of urbane culture they had witnessed on student travels to Europe and Latin America, and took to gentrifying Victorian and Edwardian neighborhoods with a vengeance.

Contrary Spirits

Along with the spirit of urbanism, San Franciscans, particularly intellectuals, have moved in counterflow to mainstream ideas of Modernity. Despite living at a crossroads of American capitalism, where money, commerce, industry and commodities bray from every corner, they developed a critical distance from the sirens of Modernism and Modernization. In short, they never bought wholeheartedly into the ideology of Progress. This was by no means true of 19th Century San Francisco, the Las Vegas of its time (Findlay 1986, Asbury 1933). Over the years, the lust for moneymaking at the cost of land and landscape had been blunted.

The first meek turning away came as San Francisco’s second generation bourgeoisie sought to erase its rag-tag origins in the mining districts and create a semblance of civilized urbanism modeled after eastern cities (Walker 1995). San Francisco’s burghers eschewed the sinewy Modernism of Chicago in favor of Victorian fiddle-faddle (though such buildings were thoroughly modern in construction). A second turning away came at the end of the century, when third generation burghers rejected Victoriania, but equally refused the Modernism of Prairie or Bauhaus for the historicism of the Shingle, Renaissance and Mediterranean styles (Longstreth 1983). More generally, they fell under the sway of the Arts and Crafts movement; nowhere was the radical romanticism of William Morris embraced more fervently than California (Trapp 1993). So dominant was the cultivated rusticity propagated by Bernard Maybeck that Modernism finally came to the Bay Area in the 1930s clad in redwood and rough-hewn planks, suitable to the regional myth of the naturalized city (Gebhard 1964). Contrast this with Los Angeles, which abandoned historicism in favor of high Modernism in the 1920s, and never looked back.

The leading contrarian of the Progressive era was John Muir, a mechanic and naturalist turned rustic bohemian and transcendental mystic, whose crusading zeal and savvy propaganda for the mountains of California launched the American environmental movement (Fox 1981). The most popular writer of the time was Jack London, and Frank Norris was not far behind. Both made nature the backdrop for their greatest novels, while pushing the critical reach of literary Realism to the limits of respectability. And both, for their contrasting social origins, were thoroughly imbued with the petit bourgeois streak of independence and self-righteousness of their home city (Starr 1973). Journalists Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair were cut of the same cloth, one moving east and the other west in the course of their careers.

The New Deal era found San Francisco at the head of labor upheavals with the General Strike of 1934 and the cultural turn toward Social Realism in painting, photography and literature -- another flux of contrary modernism. Diego Rivera spent his first years in the United States working here, and left a host of local acolytes. Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand and the f64 group redefined photography both in subject matter and in art. Ansel Adams broke away to follow Muir’s vision of pristine nature. Contrarian writers nurtured in isolation around the region between the wars included Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, and Eugene O’Neill.

After the war, San Francisco was propelled from cultural Hill Station to the global focal point for a generation of youth rebellion and countercultural experimentation. Many Beats writers were restless New Yorkers drawn to San Francisco because their sort of ragged poesy and vagabondage was irresponsible, even deplorable, in New York’s literary and political hothouse (Kamstra 1981, Davidson 1989). San Francisco offered the right combination of urbanity and obscurity to ferret away New York’s mantle as cultural capital of Modernity, and to begin in a marginalized, non-commercial, anarchistic way to stumble toward post-modernism (Smith 1995). When realism gave way to abstraction in the visual arts, San Francisco leapt on the boat from New York in the glory years of Abstract Expressionism at the Art Institute in the late Forties, but the counterflow of local culture twisted back into the Figurative turn of the 1950s and shifted Constructivism toward the political art of the 1960s, in the hands of Bruce Connor, Wally Hedrick and Jess (Solnit 19xx). Musically, black jazz briefly merged with white poetics, then the Bay Area sound of Dave Brubeck went off on its own iconoclastic tangent (WCZ 19xx).

The Beat generation seguéd easily into the rebellious Sixties, with politics and counterculture in closer dialogue in the Bay Area than anywhere else (Ashbolt 1989). Rock was the voice of the new generation, and San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium the launching pad for its most innovative bands, such as Big Brother and Jefferson Airplane or the black-white combustibles of Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power. The most enduring were those epigones of laid-back licks, the Grateful Dead. Psychedelic poster art was a kind of Jugenstil gone mad, while clothing took a lurch back to Victoriana. A familiar strand of the counterculture was an affection for nature, running from Kenneth Rexroth, the key intellectual bridging the 1930s and 1950s, to Gary Snyder, Beat poet and Zen-master of bioregionalism today (Hamilton 1991, Halper 1991). Disaffected Hippies and students took to the countryside by the end of the Sixties, seeking a rural utopia after their urban one failed (Raphael 1976).

Gays were largely white and middle class, and had more disposable income than earlier countercultures, but were nonetheless social pariahs. They elevated the joyful abandon of civic sinning to a level not seen since the closing of the Barbary Coast. Gay liberation exceeded even Beats and Hippies in its flaunting of social convention, and confirmed San Francisco’s reputation as a refuge from small minded America. On the other hand, the counterculture’s rejection of consumer culture was swamped by the hedonistic rush of Gay pleasure seeking (not without contradiction: hedonism fell afoul of the AIDs epidemic and consumerism split the well-heeled from poor Gays and Lesbians).

As the Eighties dawned, the San Francisco counterculture had achieved an unexpected degree of mainstream acceptance. The new Yuppie consumer culture bore some of the spirit of refusal against American domestic rectitude, ushering in the latte leisure class, and also Gay sensibilities in architecture, dress and the arts. The Yuppie’s affluence and consumer turn eroded the radical basis of urban culture, but distinguished the Bay Area’s petit bourgeoisie as a world historical force in the realm of consumption: nouvelle cuisine, hot tubs, wines, personal computers, the Nature Company, backpacking gear, New Age music, Esprit and Gap clothes, and more spewed from this fount of liberatory self-indulgence.

The Beat, Hippies, and Gays represent a very ungenteel sort of bohemianism that was more confrontational, more political, and more bizarre than ever before in this country. Rexroth, Ginsberg, and the rest showed a ferocious independence and spiritual refusal to follow orthodox parties, preferring a left anarchism that is a touchstone of San Francisco’s political culture (DeLeon 1992). The New Bohemianism was absolutely critical in forming the political consciousness and urbane outlook of the Bay Area, moving the middle class decisively to the left of the American mainstream, celebrating the frightful asymmetries of urbanity, and reigniting a radical romanticism that went far beyond the aesthetics of Arts and Crafts, mystical environmentalism of John Muir, or manly socialism of Jack London.


San Franciscans can be justly proud of their record of opposition to the bulldozer of progress, but such resistance has decided limits. Downtown expansion was contained on the north and west, only to cross Market Street and trigger the radical transformation of the South of Market to Mission Bay. Property speculation fell into the doldrums for a decade after 1985, but is picking up again -- Downtown’s growth is limited more by the property cycle than social protest. As the city’s economy went into the tank in the worst depression in fifty years, job loss (30,000 in San Francisco) laid waste to thousands of lives. Political conditions around the state and the country have deteriorated, as the triumphant demagogues of the Right put the screws to urban Democrats, the intelligentsia, working people, immigrants, and the poor (Davis 1993). Even in San Francisco, bourgeois reaction is out of the closet, where popular struggles had locked it up for half a century, and the ruling class is more interested in sweeping the streets of the homeless and cutting wages than in meeting the needs of the people (Walker 1995a).

Meanwhile, the wellsprings of opposition have been drying up. The left is worn out, gays have been preoccupied with AIDS, and Yuppie exuberance is gone. High rents put the squeeze on the counterculture, and outcast youth today are more likely to be homeless than bohemian. Wages and union strength have eroded, and the working class has been recomposed as largely foreign-born, Asian and Latin peoples who face greater obstacles than their white predecessors, and whose political and organizational presence is still awakening. Meanwhile, the skilled hotshots of computing, multimedia, and brokerage are more inclined toward monetary payoffs and Mercedes than to the public duties and pleasures of civic life. A fine and noble epoch is done and past -- much the gold rush era of libertine opportunity faded away in its time (Decker 1978). San Francisco has not sunk as far as the rest of America (Dole got only 17% of the vote), but the survival of the city as a decent place to live is by no means assured.


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