Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Development and Redevelopment in San Francisco

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Development and Redevelopment in San Francisco

Article excerpt

The vertical earthquake of the 1970s and 1980s destroyed what was left of a tradition and covered it with a new city that bears no resemblance to what had gone before, The piledrivers were singing the song of the big buck.

- Herb Caen, "The Vertical Earthquake," 1993

Mayors are known for what they build and not anything else, and I intend to cover every inch of the ground that isn't open space.

- Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr., 1997

To the late Herb Caen, longtime San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columnist, a contemporary "vertical earthquake" of high-rise development threatened to turn to a unique city of "breathtaking vistas" and "sacred view corridors" into "any other skyscraper-plagued metropolis" (Caen 1992, 120-122). After 1960, the expansion of San Francisco's financial, corporate, and service-related activities - and the departure of port, wholesale, warehouse, and industrial functions - resulted in a towering high-rise core. The city's bell-shaped duster of skyscrapers symbolized both the promise and the peril of San Francisco's postindustrial transition. Although a racially and socially diverse population approximating 780,000 now resides within a compact urban area of 46.7 square miles and maintains the lingering contrarian spirit for which San Francisco is renowned, economic restructuring and skyrocketing housing costs increasingly homogenize the city in an affluent mold.(1) Accompanying pressures for revitalization of central neighborhoods - such as the Haight-Ashbury, the Western Addition, the Castro District, Noe Valley, Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, and the Mission District - where quaint and low-priced "Victorian" housing awaited renovation, made gentrification and displacement potent political issues in the 1970s and 1980s (Castello 1983; Godfrey 1988; Walker 1998). The dramatic contemporary transformation of San Francisco's skyline has provided ideological fodder in ongoing arguments between advocates and critics of the city's contemporary economic restructuring [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

Agreeing with the arguments of preservationists and neighborhood activists, San Francisco voters narrowly passed a stringent growth-control ordinance in 1986. The subsequent slowing of downtown expansion marked the ascendance of what Richard DeLeon (1992) calls "the urban antiregime." Actually, the emergence of a slow-growth movement reflected long-standing concerns that urban revitalization was creating a sterile city of affluent professionals, tourist attractions, and chain-store franchises. Since the "Great Freeway Revolt" of the late 1950s, in which neighborhood activists persuaded the Board of Supervisors to reject the construction of new state-financed but view-obstructing freeways, assertive grassroots movements for historic preservation have arisen. Yet preservation has inevitably led to gentrification. Since the 1960s, neighborhoods once noted for their idiosyncratic local charms, ethnic cultures, and nontraditional identities have been revitalized as bland imitations of their former vibrant selves (Godfrey 1984, 1985). As new businesses opened and "Victorian" buildings were renovated, an affluent population of professionals and tourists appeared, often displacing lower-income residents and small businesses. As I have argued previously, the widespread appeal of nontraditional social identities - particularly of the Beat, countercultural, and gay communities - unintentionally encouraged gentrification. Despite liberal or even radical neighborhood politics, real-estate prices have steadily escalated through successive local cycles of bohemian influx, middle-class transition, and bourgeois consolidation (Godfrey 1988).(2)

Ultimately, the cumulative social impacts of economic restructuring and gentrification have created a less oppositional city. By the late 1990s Richard Walker could justifiably contend that in San Francisco "the wellsprings of opposition have been drying up. …

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