“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


On the 14th of October, 1911 (eleven days before my father was born across the bay in Oakland) President Taft broke ground for the Pan-Pacific International Exposition to be held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. He then made his way to the Cliff House for lunch. There the President toasted San Francisco as “The City That Knows How”, an epithet which was used widely at the time and not, I think, original to him .

For the canal was not the only marvel of American ingenuity, zeal, and optimism. San Franciscans were justifiably proud that their city was ready to host the world only 9 years after being reduced to ashes and rubble by the earthquake and fire of ‘06. In fact San Francisco’s ability to recover from disaster stretches back to its earliest days as a major city. Between 1849 and 1852, the city burned to the ground six times. The official flag of San Francisco depicts a Phoenix rising from the ashes and was in use around 1900, well before the ‘06 disaster.

In rebuilding the city after each fire, San Franciscans were repeating the origin of the city itself. From the beginning of 1848 to he end of 1849, the population of San Francisco grew from 1,000 to 25,000. Where every other American city had begun as a territorial outpost and developed naturally over time, San Francisco erupted full grown from the brow of its peninsula as soon as Sam Brannan’s cry “Gold on the American River” echoed from Portsmouth Square to the United States, Australia, Chile, China, and the European continent.

I have seen a documentary on the History channel about construction in Dubai, and I have heard travel and engineering enthusiasts marvel at the scale and complexity of the projects undertaken there, and I have marveled at the audacity of the tiny Emirate in using the wealth gained from the sale of its mineral resources to challenge both the sea (by building islands in the shape of palm trees and a map of the world) and the sky (by building some of the tallest buildings in the world).

I now realize that San Francisco in the 19th century was exactly what Dubai is in the 21st: San Francisco used the wealth of its economy, which came from the gold under the Sierras, to pull down a range of hills that once stretched along the Market Street corridor and to fill in much of the bay. Although San Francisco’s development was haphazard and ad hoc, it was no less audacious that Dubai’s. Just consider the streets, laid out in two grids, one north of market and one south, that ignore completely the topography of the underlying land. As a result, streets come to abrupt ends in hillsides or atop cliffs, or become stairways or tunnels.

This refusal to take the natural environment into account in building the city reflects the long-standing Western view of nature as something to be tamed, regularized, and re-directed. (In Shakespeare’s words “To husband nature’s riches from expense”.) Today San Franciscans hold quite the opposite view of nature, as evidenced by the enthusiasm for restoring the bay and its natural wetlands, for setting aside vast acreages as parks and wilderness, and for reducing waste, including nothing going to landfill by 2020. (The city was 80% of the way to that goal by 2012.)

Still, it seems that in many ways San Francisco has become not “The City That Knows How” but “The City That Doesn’t Have A Clue”. The examples abound. When I lived on Clipper Street in Noe Valley, crews came by to tear up the street to replace sewer pipes, then to repave and repaint the street. Within a few months, crews came by again to rip up the street to put the utility lines underground, then to repave and repaint the street. After the Loma Prieta quake necessitated the removal of the part of the Central Freeway that stretched up past the Civic Center and joined Franklin and Gough, the routing of the replacement plan appeared on the ballot three times before construction could begin. And now the new Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge, the construction of which was necessitated by the same earthquake, faces an uncertain future after hundreds of bolts have been found to be faulty.

The original Bay Bridge was built in three years and five months; the Golden Gate Bridge in four years and four months. So far, twenty-four years have passed since the Loma Prieta earthquake. And the roadway itself has been manufactured in China and floated across the entire Pacific Ocean to be lifted into place by cranes also floated over from China.

What happened? In part, I think, the “greening of America”, i.e., the refusal of Americans to accept poisonous air and poisoned water as a necessary cost of manufacturing resulted in manufacturing moving to countries (e.g., China) were environmental regulations are lax. In other words, the same shift in the zeitgeist that one sees when comparing the 19th-century street grids and the 21st-century zero-waste policies of San Francisco meant the loss of our manufacturing and skilled construction labor forces.

A few weeks back, I boarded a streetcar on the F line, traveling up Market Street to Eureka Valley. At both ends of the car were sections of open-air seating, which reminded me of the similarly open ends of the city’s famous cable cars. And the interior of the enclosed section of the car seemed much roomier that the interiors of other streetcars I have ridden. (This streetcar line runs cars from cities around the United States and from foreign cities such as Milan.) A sign posted inside the car identified it as one manufactured for the San Francisco Municipal Railway in 1912, one year after my father’s birth and one year before my mother’s.

I soon realized that the sense of space came from the fact that the seating in this section consisted of a bench along each side of the car instead of benches arranged facing forward and backward and extending into the center from each side. There were probably fewer seats, but the result was a spacious and comfortable place to stand. Where the other cars -- and all the streetcars, buses, and BART trains being made today -- provide more seating for the lucky few who board before the vehicle has made enough stops to have become crowded, this San Franciscan car of 1912 provided a capacious and egalitarian room for a population of equals, with provision along the sides for the aged or infirm.

I imagined the car full of businessmen in suits and ties and hats, women in dresses and white gloves and hats, all happily riding the Municipal Railway into a bright and better future. For a moment I thought I saw my father among them, on his way from the office to the Ferry Building from whence he would embark for Oakland and the train home. San Francisco knew how in 1912.

And I think she knew how right up to World War Two and perhaps for a while after. When Treasure Island was built for the 1932 World’s Fair, it was intended to serve as San Francisco International Airport after the fair was over. What a glorious arrival for travelers that would have been, gliding in over the beautiful mountains of the Coastal Range and settling down in the midst of the sparkling bay, the towers of the alabaster city rising from the water’s edge to the west.

The San Francisco that was, and the San Francisco that might have been, were casualties, it seems to me, of World War Two and of the Pax Americana that followed. Today the city reminds me of a gated community for the very rich -- except that instead of gates there are bridges (or the tube under the bay) that charge tolls for entry to the sparkling but relatively unproductive town. Or it reminds me of a resort, full of tourists and fun destinations, its working class reduced to janitorial and menial jobs that pay only the minimum-wage, the blue-collar jobs that supported the middle class being long gone.

No longer a wonder of modernity, no longer the financial and cultural capital of the western United States, perhaps San Francisco is living her life backwards, like me.