October 7, 1998
life | extra
A city transformed
By Tim Redmond
LET'S SAY THE NEXT major earthquake that hits San Francisco is of roughly the same magnitude as the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, or maybe just a little bit stronger. Let's say it wipes out roughly 1,000 houses and apartment buildings and leaves some 5,000 people homeless. Let's say the falling buildings and flying debris and the overload on medical facilities lead to 120 deaths.
Let's say the damages leave 50 local neighborhood-serving businesses -- hardware stores, pharmacies, bookstores, cafés -- on the brink of bankruptcy.
And let's say a few unscrupulous profiteers take advantage of the shortages of critical supplies and charge desperate residents triple the normal rate for food, blankets, and drinking water. Let's say a few speculators work the hardest-hit areas with wads of cash, trying to buy up distressed property cheap. Let's say some greedy out-of-town charlatans arrive by helicopter with prefabricated structures and cartons of goods, and set up shop in the neighborhoods, selling hammers, medicine, and coffee before the local businesses can get their doors back open.
It's not hard to imagine the official response. The president and the governor would declare San Francisco a disaster area. Emergency loans and relief funds would roll in. The mayor would launch a crash program to rebuild damaged homes and find places for displaced families to live.
The profiteers, speculators, and charlatans would be exposed in the press and roundly, loudly denounced by every political and community leader in the city. The ones who didn't wind up in jail would be forced to leave town in disgrace.
* * *
In the past three years San Francisco has lost more than 1,000 low-cost housing units to demolition and hotel conversions, some 2,000 public housing units to demolition, and roughly 1,600 rental apartments to back-door condominium conversions. In all, city figures show, more than 8,000 residents have lost their homes to evictions, and many have been unable to find another place to live. Those who haven't left the city entirely are now among the roughly 10,000 homeless who try to survive on the streets.
Last year 103 homeless people died on those streets, mostly from a lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
Since 1995, dozens of local businesses have closed up shop, driven to bankruptcy by big, out-of-town chains.
As we report in this 33rd anniversary issue, San Francisco is being hit with an unnatural disaster of epic proportions, a socioeconomic transformation that threatens to destroy the heart and soul of one of the world's great cities.
And the official response is a deafening silence.
In fact, the landlords and real estate speculators who are making a fortune on this disaster are considered respected members of the business community, with more influence than ever at city hall.
* * *
San Francisco has always been a city of the dispossessed, a magnet for refugees from all over the world who want a chance to reinvent themselves in a climate of tolerance and creative energy. It's been a city of artists, poets, writers, musicians, of dreamers and thinkers and oddballs who can't quite fit in anywhere else. That's the essential charm of the place, the reason it's a legend around the globe.
It's also the essential reason that Bruce B. Brugmann and Jean Dibble -- two refugees from the Midwest with the crazy idea of starting a weekly newspaper that didn't fit into any established journalistic mold -- came here in 1964 and began planning the first issue of the Bay Guardian.
San Francisco was (and is) a black hole of periodical publishing: more than 100 local magazines and newspapers have started, and folded, since the first issue of the Bay Guardian came out in October 1966. Bruce and Jean didn't have much in the way of a business plan, but they had a vision: the Bay Guardian would be a crusading, out-front-liberal paper with serious investigative reporting -- a progressive alternative to the two moribund monopoly daily newspapers.
There was no such thing as an "alternative newspaper" in 1966, no model to follow. There wasn't much money in the business, either -- the paper was horribly undercapitalized and struggled for years and years, staffed by young writers and artists who shared the vision, publishing a new issue as soon as the bills for the last one were paid off.
I'm not sure they could have pulled it off in San Francisco today.
In 1966 you could rent an entire flat in the Haight for $25 a month. An artist or writer or poet or musician or political activist could work a straight job for 10 hours a week at minimum wage and still have plenty of cash for the necessities -- and plenty of time to pursue his or her dreams.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1980, the price of everything was a whole lot higher. But this was still a city where a 22-year-old kid could find a place to live, get a part-time job to cover the rent, and spend most of his waking hours fighting Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and writing freelance articles for the local alternative newspaper.
Everyone I knew did a little paid work to subsidize a lot of politics, art, or music. San Francisco was buzzing with creative energy.
But I could see the signs of the socioeconomic earthquake coming, the pressure building up on the city's political fault lines.
* * *
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the leaders of the Bay Area military-industrial complex were flush with the power and glory of their success in using centralized planning to run the local war machine. A few men met in a few back rooms and decided that San Francisco would be the West Coast headquarters for a new global economy.
That required some radical changes in the way the region operated. Land-use decisions could no longer be left to communities; a master plan was put in place to turn downtown San Francisco into Manhattan West, with bedroom communities on the outskirts of town linked by a fixed-rail system (BART).
The plans got under way in the late 1950s, with redevelopment driving low-income people, mostly African Americans and senior citizens, out of town and high-rise office buildings coming in. By the time the Bay Guardian was hitting its stride, Manhattanization was well under way -- and the fledgling newspaper was leading the opposition. There were, the paper reported, two essential problems with the strategy: It would cost the city more in services than it would provide in taxes, creating a structural budget crisis that would devastate essential services such as Muni, parks, and health care. And it would, eventually, drive up the cost of housing and commercial space to the point where only the wealthy, big business, and chain stores would be able to afford to stay in San Francisco.
"The 'ripple out' [effect] also shows up as large increases in rents and market prices in homes," Greggar Slettland wrote in The Ultimate Highrise, a book written by the Bay Guardian staff in 1971.
Eventually, the contributors argued, that trend would destroy one of the world's great cities.
When I started working full time for the Bay Guardian, in 1983, we were in the middle of an all-out battle over a ballot initiative to limit further high-rises. One of the things that amazed me, as I covered the story week after week, was how effortlessly the developers had managed to line up all of the city's so-called liberal, environmentalist political leadership. Even the late Rep. Phil Burton, legendary leader of a legendary liberal political machine, wouldn't come out in favor of the anti-high-rise initiative. Neither would Willie Brown, the dynamic Burton protégé who had just become Speaker of the Assembly.
In fact, Brown's private law firm was representing a lot of the biggest developers in town.
At first, the way the high-rise promoters told it, downtown development was supposed to make San Francisco rich. A 1971 Bay Guardian cost-benefit study showed that the opposite was true -- high-rises bankrupted the Treasury. Then, development was supposed to create jobs. Two Bay Guardian studies, done by MIT economics professor David Birch in 1985 and 1986, showed that small, locally owned, independent businesses had actually created all the net new jobs in town, and that high-rises had destroyed more jobs than they had created.
In 1986 San Francisco activists (with strong Bay Guardian support) passed a ballot initiative containing one of the nation's strictest growth-control laws. When the collapse of the commercial real estate market devastated overbuilt cities such as Houston and Miami and Los Angeles in the late 1980s, San Francisco escaped the damage -- and the environmentalists got none of the credit.
The power brokers at city hall didn't want to hear the growing sounds of a city under immense economic pressure.
* * *
By the mid-1990s, with the nation's economy booming again, San Francisco was becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. These days more cars head south than north across the southern city border. The influx of cash, and the subsequent explosion in real estate prices, boggles the mind: a house that cost $180,000 in Bernal Heights in 1994 costs $350,000 today.
Meanwhile, San Francisco was facing another threat, from the same people who brought us Manhattanization -- the privatization of public resources. Privatization was part of a global strategy developed by multinational corporations in the 1970s to prevent left-leaning governments in developing nations from taking control of their own economic destinies. In San Francisco -- a major crossroads of "The Plundered Province," as writer Bernard Devoto once called the American West -- privatization has suddenly become rampant.
The first major sign was when private corporations seized control of the Presidio, creating the first privatized national park in American history (see "Presidio Power Grab," 1/12/94). Among the leaders in the privatization scheme: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (heir to the Burton congressional throne) and Mayor Willie Brown. Among the supporters: environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club.
Why did the environmentalists sell out the Presidio? The activist groups -- increasingly "professional," with increasingly high-paid staff, in increasingly expensive San Francisco, where it's increasingly impossible to survive as a political activist unless you have a well-funded sponsor -- have become reliant on private foundations for funding. And those foundations (some of them, such as the Tides Foundation complex, based out at the Presidio with sweetheart leases) have helped undermine the progressive-environmentalist agenda (see "Pulling the Strings," 10/8/97).
In a sense, in this city where fewer and fewer grassroots activists can afford to live, the foundations have privatized political activism.
* * *
In the fall of 1998, San Francisco is a city transformed. I couldn't move here today the way I did 18 years ago, when it was relatively easy to come to town, hook up with the radical political types whose reputation had convinced me to move here in the first place, and somehow find a home and a life in a wonderful, crazy community. It wouldn't have worked; I couldn't have paid the rent.
And I'm a middle-class, college-educated white guy.
Listen: Less than a third of the people who lived in the Mission in 1990 could afford the median rent on a vacant apartment today. That means two-thirds of the residents of what has long been an immigrant and activist neighborhood will be forced to leave town as soon as their landlord finds a way to evict them.
At that rate, in a few short years San Francisco will be the first fully gentrified city in American history. It will be a town that no longer leads the nation in progressive political ideas, a place where the likes of Harvey Milk and Tom Ammiano will be back on the fringes of society. It will be a nasty little place, filled with frustrated wealthy people who once thought it would be hip to live in a city that now no longer can offer the cutting edges of culture that brought them here. It will be a parody of itself, a wax museum that once had the chance to define the future of urban civilization.
What's happening to this city today isn't just a random act of nature. It's the result of well-planned policies that can be reversed the same way they were created. As Bruce Brugmann wrote in 1971, "It wasn't the invisible hand of Adam Smith at work that tossed skyscrapers into San Francisco like Lincoln Logs."
There are all sorts of short- and long-term programs that can save San Francisco (see "Fighting Back," ). But they require something that the powers that be in this city seem to want desperately to avoid. They require treating the situation as a crisis, something that deserves immediate, dramatic action. They require a recognition that if we don't take emergency steps, now, today, there won't be much left to save of San Francisco tomorrow.
What's happening to my neighborhood?!!
Anniversary issue task force
Editor and publisher: Bruce B. Brugmann
Project editors: Tim Redmond and Daniel Zoll
Contributors: Sam Ames, Savannah Blackwell, Dan Cox, Jason Dearen, Cassi Feldman, Myeast McCauley, Gabriel Roth, Angela Rowen, A. Clay Thompson, Tamara Thompson, Helene Vosters, Fiona Williams
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