By Marvin Destin, Guest Columnist
Left: San Francisco's Downtown in 1962
History is an interesting thing in hindsight. Looking backwards we can always see where things went right and where they went wrong. Take the end times of any great place or civilization and its path to perdition is always crystal clear and one always wonders, with so many dead canaries in the coalmine, why no one, at any time, ever smelled the toxic fumes. The canaries certainly did.
Santayana basically laid out the drill. If you ignore history you are doomed to repeat it. So what are we ignoring? And if we continue to ignore “what”, what are we doomed to repeat.
That San Francisco is hardly what it used to be is unarguable except when the Board of Supes passes the bong. For clues to why we need to go back in time to piece together the events and trends that led the City to the pinnacle it was on about the midpoint of the last Century. Right after WW2. I know people always talk about the Gold Rush and the ’06 Quake, but the first was a locational burst of luck (gold was discovered on the City’s doorstep and the Golden Gate happened to be just north of the City’s boundaries). Hence if ships wanted to come to Norcal, they had to come HERE. Ships meant business and economic activity. Ships also meant that when WW2 broke out, to go there, one had to come here. Throw in the weather and all SF actually did was exist. It wasn’t some legerdemain of political ingenuity that made SF what it has been. It was the luck of the location and its ability to attract entrepreneurs and visionaries to it that formed the combination that, together with its scenic wonders, made it among the most unique places on the planet. No one could have screwed that up.
Left: Hollywood films like Portrait in Black, The House on Telegraph Hill, Dark Passage, and Vertigo captured the allure of pre-Sixties San Francisco
As I grew up here I fondly recall any number of things that were scattered about the City that spoke to a past that is increasingly so remote in every way to today’s Cityscape that it wont be long before they vaporize into an almost mythical haze until many more people here will not recall them at all. The jet fighter off 19th avenue. The tank on the Presidio parade ground. A short stretch of cable car track on some back street. The still abandoned lot on which sat the Sutro baths. The filled in Fleishacker pool, the longest swimming pool in the whole world. Many others. All gone. Worse, there are people fighting to eradicate what built this city. It wasn’t the Jefferson Starship or even the Jefferson Airplane or even Rock and Roll.
San Francisco reached its modern zenith because of WW2. A million men came through here from everywhere else and the last thing they could picture in their minds was the incredible hills and water vistas and the setting sun over the azure sky with the fickle finger of fog waving them good bye as they went to the Pacific theatre to fight the Japanese with the sounds of the Big Bands appearing at the Avalon Ballroom still resonating in their heads. The Bethlehem Steel plant in SSF cranking out liberty ships at the rate of one an hour. The Hunters Point shipyards. The manufacturing plants. The vast SP rail yards. The growing bank system of AP Giannini. The ethnic odors of North Beach and Chinatown. To kids from tthe colder than a witch's titty Midwest and Nor’east, coming here to go fight the Japanese in the humid hell of the South Pacific, this place was heaven in their rear view mirror. The bay area was shipping and servicemen’s watering holes, entertainment on a top level, and an incredible time had by all. "If I live through this war I’m going to come back here." And so they did. Henry Doelger built the Sunset and the Westlake areas so they could buy their own home and raise a family, snail darters be damned.
Left: The West Coast Memorial to the Missing of World War 2, at the Presidio
The residue of all that was many things. The Sixth Army base called the Presidio. One of the most important military HQs in the world. The birthplace of the UN. Right here. Cal Berkley Lawrence labs nuclear inventions. The largest bank in the world. The Pacific Stock Exchange. Big Corporate headquarters in droves all wrapped by avant-garde culture and a saucy air that cared not a fig if anyone else existed.
BUT San Francisco, because of so much of the former, was still considered an IMPORTANT part of the United States of America. One might say that because of the military presence and activities between San Jose and the Vallejo Slew this area and this city was not just legendary, but important. Important. To the whole country. Let that word sink in.
And last but anything but least, this was, and always has been, the home base of the outcasts and the weird and the cutting edge culturally. Finocchio's. The Hungry I. The Purple Onion. Jack Kerouac. City Lights. Poetry. Gays on Polk. All coexisting with the straightforward and muscular (if "square") world of the business magnets, the military elite and old money from the gold and silver rushes. Foreign embassies. And the great Herb Caen to document it all.
Left: In the 1940's and 50's, San Francisco became a magnet for artists tired of the politics of the New York scene, such as Clyfford Still (image courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)
We even had sports covered with Joe DiMaggio at the North Beach playground, Frank Crosetti whose name still graces the wall in Crocker Amazon, Bill Russell and undefeated USF, the man who invented the T-formation for football, the man who invented the jump shot for basketball, and even, somewhat later OJ ‘the Juice” in the Potrero Hill and running wild for the Rams at CCSF. George Fenneman, Groucho's sidekick at SF State. Barbara Eden, and, of course, Marilyn marrying Joe at Sts Peter and Paul.
San Francisco used to be important. But now it is important like Paris Hilton is important. A thimbleful of talent in a sea of self-importance. A swath of irrelevance interrupted by a splash of weirdness or narcissism. Instead of a benchmark historic film with a line that stretches around the block, it’s a porno download floating on the Internet for free. How did we get to this? And where are we going from here?
Simply stated we got here piece by piece. First we stopped electing people who understood that they weren’t here to reinvent government and transition from conservator of the legacy to plastic surgeon intent on a sex change operation.
Then they disregarded many of the constituencies that used to give the City its gravity, gravitas, and prestige. You know, things that are meaningful to the whole country and the world, as opposed to just ten square blocks south of market. We chased out the military and defense, shipping and manufacturing industries, in favor of the ephemeral mirages offered by futuristic next big things. We chased away large employers because they offended the sensibilities of the political class. We chased away private sector entities in favor of public sector entities. Lastly we began to impact the ability of enterprises to make a profit by imposing costs in many ways. A profitable company is looked at here the same way the milk farmer looks at cows except even the milk farmer builds a fence so his cows don’t leave. In short it became increasingly more difficult to not “sin” in the business sense. A company (any company) either made the air dirty, made the water foul, made the street noisy, made the traffic congested, or simply annoyed a socialist activist or academic by making a profit and hiring more people.
Here if a company were to announce it was hiring 1000 new employees a lawsuit would be filed due to the probability of that creating “increased gridlock and impeding bicycle use”.
The City went, over about a thirty year period, from a vibrant place that heard music in pounding hammers to a large breasted unemployed masseuse that lays wastedly stoned in rapture to the sounds in the Ipod earphones only it could hear.
Ideologically, it eliminated its most universally talented and broadly attractive leader types and instead installed its warlords of Marxism. Each holding sway over a small piece of the kingdom, and each dedicated only to the warlords ability to bring home the ideological bacon not the Sunday Ham that all could feast on.
The concept of profits meaning jobs was dashed upon the rocks of Government grants, Earmarked freebies, and redistributed wealth of the entrepreneurial; who, in the minds of the Warlords, deserve to have it taken from them and given to the “more deserving”.
Yet amidst this transition from productive to parasitical, the City’s beauty and the private property clauses in the Constitution of the country (to which the City has become an unwilling member) conspired to produce the current wave. As businesses go away, and enterprises are squeezed by political fiat of the commercial oxygen they need, as any person with a calculator and a pencil can deduce, the only thing that still makes sense here is… non-rent controlled bedrooms. For now, anyway.
But like a Tsunami, the first wave (the closing of the door to commercial enterprise and the banishment of significant employers), isn’t the last. For after you make running a business too expensive and getting to the business a dangerous trail of parking fines and time wasted looking for spaces (or a crowded graffiti laced bus), you have instigated an inertia. The definition of inertia is the tendency of an object to remain in its current state of motion. San Francisco is headed for a place that is currently inhabited by the Morgan Hills of the world. People live and sleep there but if the place disappeared no one would notice or care.
I asked a friend if he might like to join my son and I at the IMAX theatre in the Metreon to see the film on Mars and he said, so fast it amazed me, I never go to San Francisco, besides its playing at the IMAX in Tracy! This conversation took place in Daly City folks. No, parking fees and tickets don’t matter do they.
In that small business can not survive and big business has already left, what’s left besides municipal government and public sector entities with a few choice Limousine Liberal foundations still operating via lease deals only Nancy Pelosi could finagle for them, see Tides Foundation in the Presidio.
In City Government we have The Kingdom of the Drones. An entity that can’t produce a single well mowed lawn in any of a thousand parks, but knows overtime and it is good. A city run by people who believe that its entire security apparatus must be rid of men who fight crime replaced with women who leave the criminals alone. Whose chief of police’s picture in the Chronicle looks like the lonely pet waiting for you at the SPCA instead of a leader that criminals decide any other town would be better that that guys. Where a huge law enforcement issue isn’t unsolved murders but “offensive” satires.
So with the streets increasingly dangerous, vital stores dwindling in number as well as profitability, gangs frolicking in mayhem, transportation preposterously inefficient and independent mobility under hostile assault, people will continue to turn to the Internet to get what they need to live here. I fully expect the United Parcel and Fed-ex trucks to far outnumber any other vehicle on the city streets within ten years. Think about what that means to the local stores you need.
Why this is so is, simply stated, district elections. The Marxist Warlords were born like the Alien in the Sci-Fi classic. You might notice their ancestors have never cared a fig that any land they ever ruled went the same course as this one has been put on. See Havana.
At the very moment San Francisco needs to think big and think real, it is thinking small. We used to make things like Golden Gate Park. Now we make a ski jump in Pacific Heights and pat ourselves on the back for doing THAT.
A Maryland court recently decided that Wal-Mart must pay 8% of its gross income on health care. Why 8% I asked. Why not 15%? Why stop at 8%? Why not cover all their transportation costs and school for their kids as well. Why not 30% and throw in three months with pay so the kids can get a worthwhile vacation to Orlando for, you know, their self-esteem. It’s for the children. The very idea that no court or City should be able to arbitrarily decide how much of a large employer’s (or small for that matter) revenues it can dream things up to spend it on, never occurs to Marxist warlords. And we then wonder why such companies are fleeing to India instead of coming to this beautiful place. They know botany, reptiles, and jellyfish. Some of the most beautiful are the most poisonous. It’s how they attract their food or victims. Then we wonder why India’s runaway demand for oil is pushing up the costs of OUR transportation. So to stop that from happening we demand everyone ride the bus and persist in the onslaught against the personal independent transport.
They plan to tear up Geary because they are certain you wont mind at all taking half your day to go all the way downtown to pay $3.00 for the fare, and $25 for a music CD instead of clicking on I-tunes.
And Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly and Jake McGoldrick and Mirkarimi et al celebrate their power and fondle their magic wands. And is that the sound of a canary choking?