Seeing the elephant
ago, before the Haight became hippie heaven, even before Los
Angeles became Tinseltown, Americans already regarded
California as a strange and wonderful place. "Have you
seen the elephant?" was the watchword of the
mid-nineteenth century, meaning, "Have you been out to
the West Coast?"
Those on the Atlantic side of the continent
werenít so naÔve as to believe that elephants really roamed
the Sierra. The phrase, a slang version of "Now Iíve
seen everything," first found tongue in Philadelphia
several years before the Gold Rush when patrons attended an
unusually imaginative theatrical performance.
According to the Washington National
Intelligencer, a couple of "bíhoys" were assigned
the dual role of a elephant, front and back. Because the beast
was there mainly for local color, they didnít have much to
do and soon grew bored. One night one of them, who played the
forelegs, devised a diversion: before he came onstage, he
refilled the porter bottles that served ó bottoms facing out
ó as the elephantís eyes, replaced the corks, and
sauntered onto the stage equipped with his own private bar.
The newspaper account doesnít say what the hindmost actor
was doing at the time; perhaps his partner brought along a cup
to share the liquid wealth.
In any case, by the time the exit music
began, the elephant had lost his footing. He managed to tip
himself and the princely hero of the play off the stage and
into the orchestra pit, where they landed on top of the
conductor and his violin. Poor forelegs, groggily realizing
what heíd done, ran from the theater. The conductor
followed, brandishing his smashed instrument in menacing
gestures of retribution. The actors and audience pursued them
into the night, howling with laughter and shrieking at
passersby, "Have you seen the elephant?"
Thatís the story. But you may recall
another one, equally applicable to the remarkable qualities
that travelers found and continue to find in California: the
tale of the blind men and the elephant. When asked to describe
the beast, the one who felt the tail said it was like a rope;
the one who felt a foot said it was like a tree trunk; and so
on. In the same way, the Cali-fornia that a visitor sees in
the Mojave bears no relation to the state envisioned by a
visitor to Big Sur.
In fact, two visitors to the city of San
Francisco ó in 1849 or today ó would most likely come away
with very different impressions. Take the seaman who recently
spent one night here and visited one bar: Specís. Or a
skateboarder in town for this Augustís X Games. Or the
Filipina who just flew in for her nieceís wedding.
Are you beginning to get the picture? Itís
a pretty complex one and, like the pickled Philadelphia
pachyderm, it wonít hold still.
All this babble about elephants has a
political point, and itís this: the city of San Francisco is
heading toward district elections of supervisors this fall, an
experience that is bound to change the way people see the
city. If you think that chaos forms the general climate of
these here parts, you ainít seen nuthiní yet.
The numbers themselves boggle minds. As of
last week, 122 men and women had announced their intention to
run for supervisor, to fill 11 seats. District 2 promises a
fairly sedate race between incumbent Gavin Newsom and two
opponents. But District 6, which is home to no incumbent at
present, is fielding at least 31 candidates. Some, like John
Sellick and Joan Roughgarden, are political neophytes. Some,
like Carol Ruth Silver and Beryl Magilavy, are already
familiar with the corridors of City Hall. Many, like Garrett
Jenkins of the North of Market Planning Coalition and Chris
Daly of Mission Agenda, have long been active in the
substratum of neighborhood politics.
The diversity of the districts boggles as
well. In a city of neighborhoods, local pride can easily
prevail over geographical demarcations. How, for example, will
District 2 find a defining issue that will equally involve
residents of Seacliff/Presidio Heights, Laurel Heights/USF,
Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, the Marina, and Russian Hill?
Even more daunting, how will any of the 31 candidates in
District 6 unify the residents of Hayes Valley/Lower Polk, the
Inner Mission, South of Market, the Tenderloin, South
Beach/Mission Bay, and Treasure Island?
The same disparities rule each of the other
nine districts as well. After the election, when the district
supervisors take their seats in the legislative chambers, what
kind of elephant will they bring with them? What kind of
alliances will these cobbled-together districts have to create
in order to actually accomplish anything?
A look to the past may be instructive. Once
before, in 1977, San Francisco embarked on the experiment of
district elections. Lacking todayís provision for a run-off,
some candidates were elected with a very small percentage of
the vote in their district: conservative Lee Dolson, from the
9th, snuck in with just 29.4 percent. But even so,
the winners formed a pretty representative cross-section of
the city. And they were a pretty illustrious lot, whose names
still ring a variety of bells: Gordon Lau from the 1st; Dianne
Feinstein from the 2nd; John Molinari from the 3rd; Ella Hill
Hutch from the 4th; Harvey Milk from the 5th; Carol
Ruth Silver from the 6th; Robert Gonzales from the
7th; Dan White from the 8th; Lee Dolson
from the 9th; Quentin Kopp from the 10th;
and Ron Pelosi from the 11th.
They didnít last long. In 1980, rule from
the center returned to the city, and district elections
returned to their musty old shelf. Today, as we dust off them
off and bring them back into the sunlight, we discover that
theyíve changed during their hibernation. Decades of
neighborhood activism have honed grass-roots political skills,
suggesting that the upstarts may give the candidates anointed
by the Democratic Central Committee a good fight.
In addition, the cityís population
patterns have changed, with a marked tilt toward the east and
the south. Tempestuous growth there has spawned neighborhood
activism, as well as a sense of unity over similar problems.
Weíve already had inklings of confrontations to come, as
careful-growth proponents of Daughter of Proposition M with
roots in the Mission, SOMA, Bayview-Hunters Point, and Potrero
Hill find themselves threatened with partition by Our Mayorís
new slow-growth plan for the Mission.
Anything can happen. Only one thing is
certain: a brand-new elephant is going to emerge. It may have
one leg longer than the others; its trunk may be misshapen;
its ears may be bright pink. But it, like all its
predecessors, will be something to see.