Review #127 Jan/Feb 2003

How a City Was Changed Forever

City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, by Chester Hartman with Sarah Carnochan. Revised and Updated Edition. University of California Press, 2002. 432 pp. $24.95 (Paperback) The San Francisco […]

City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, by Chester Hartman with Sarah Carnochan. Revised and Updated Edition. University of California Press, 2002. 432 pp. $24.95 (Paperback)

The San Francisco of 2003 is a very different city from the one that greeted visitors 30 years ago. This book is a tremendous help in understanding why.

Born in the early nineteenth-century and shaped by the mid-century Gold Rush, the City by the Bay was shaped for much of its history by bodies of water – California’s two great rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, the great bay formed at their confluence, and the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco has historically been a city of working people and of misfits and malcontents.

Until recently, the city’s plan reflected that socioeconomic fact. From the Ferry Building, the primary entry point before the Oakland-San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridges were built, Market Street stretched west toward Twin Peaks and the sand dunes and ocean beyond. Along Market ran trolley and cable car lines, the latter earning it the colloquial label “The Slot.”

North of the Slot was downtown, the financial district where A.P. Giannini’s Bank of America and other banks converted the proceeds of miners and shippers into investment capital for new West Coast businesses. South of the Slot was a jumble of small streets and alleys with shops, homes, hotels and boarding houses for the many single men who came to make their fortune on San Francisco’s docks and the ships that sailed from them.

Chester Hartman’s voluminous and fascinating book details some of the episodes in the remaking of that South of the Slot area (more recently known as South of Market) into an extension of downtown and the Financial District.

Market forces had little to do with the transition. In fact, the key player in displacing thousands of blue collar and low-income workers and eliminating block after block of affordable housing was the city’s Redevelopment Agency. The saga is in part about the West Coast version of Robert Moses, M. Justin Herman, who took the reins of the city agency in 1959 with a broad mandate and extraordinary powers.

Herman was an ally of the city’s monied business interests and shared their vision of a South of Market cleaned up and developed with a mix of office towers, market rate housing, hotels, tourist attractions, a convention center and a sports arena. Though Herman died in 1971, before he could see his vision enshrined in steel and concrete, his work and the efforts of San Francisco’s political and corporate leadership changed the face of the city.

However, it is important to note that a determined citizen opposition forced substantial modifications in the vision of Justin Herman and his allies Ben Swig, Caspar Weinberger and others. The Yerba Buena Center project is the centerpiece of the South of Market redevelopment and the core of Hartman’s book. It is not a simple story to tell, and Hartman is not a disinterested party. As a resident of the Bay Area at the time, he was deeply involved in the efforts to organize South of Market residents and force changes in the project.

This new, updated edition of Hartman’s 1974 book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how modern-day San Francisco came to be and the real role of redevelopment as a political and social force. But it should not be the first book you read on the city’s urban history. It is too intensive in its detail and too episodic for anyone who doesn’t already have some sense of San Francisco’s history, demographics and politics.

A caution is also in order about Hartman’s sources and analysis. Much of what he reports he personally observed or was involved in, but a great deal of his information is drawn from (and attributed to) San Francisco’s daily newspapers, which through the period of the Yerba Buena Center project were not held in the highest esteem as fair and complete sources of information. Hartman also introduces a great many players. Few are profiled in enough detail to allow the reader to understand their motivations.

Nonetheless, Hartman’s conclusion is incontrovertible: “San Francisco’s development history in the post-World War II period has been overwhelmingly dominated by business interests, by those in the position to reap the largest profits from this development.” It was not, he cautions, a conspiracy, but rather “a confluence of powerful public- and private-sector actors operating in their class and personal interests.” But, he notes, the success of community-based movements opposing those forces was considerable.

Little can be done to return San Francisco to the heterogeneous, unpredictable city of decades past, but, as Hartman notes, there is much to be learned from its transformation.

You can order this book through Shelterforce’s Online Bookstore


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