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Three Stories, One Moral

Or, It’s All a Matter of Scale

By Betsey Culp

Do you ever read the newspaper and find that all the articles point to a common theme? Saturday was one of those days. And then a memory wandered up, out of the depths of my own past, and darned if it didn’t start hollering about the same thing.

Here’s three for the price of one.

Several years ago, in preparation for a short story I never wrote, I explored San Francisco as it looked in the 1860s, first spending hours at the Bancroft Library poring over old photographs, then wandering through the streets of the city looking for traces of what used to be here. My last stop was at Fort Point, constructed just before the Civil War to protect not only the city but the entire coast from enemy attack. The fort was designed as an imposing structure, standing alone at the southern edge of the Golden Gate.

The Golden Gate. When the fort was built, there was no bridge, just cliffs marking the entrance to San Francisco Bay. And when I visited the area that day, my brain was so full of 19th-century images that I had completely forgotten the bridge was there.

It was quite a shock.

My red-brick guardian of the west cowered under one corner of the Golden Gate Bridge, diminished by the size of the span. It was in good company — even the cliffs were reduced to insignificance. The entire scale of the scene was changed: once one of the world’s magnificent natural settings, the Gate was now merely background for the Bridge.

At that moment, I hated the bridge.

The ancient word hubris came to mind, the mark of heroes in Greek tragedies, who angered the gods by their overweening arrogance. Twentieth-century American heroes arrogantly stamped their mark on the California landscape.

Later, my daughter — perhaps tired of hearing my tirades — gave me a poster, which still hangs on the wall near my computer. You’ve probably seen it — a black and white photo taken from Baker Beach in 1936. A couple of fishermen are on the beach, oblivious to the giant construction project taking place behind them. But what I love about the photo is that the bridge is only partially built. It hasn’t become the icon we know today. When I look at it, I imagine that there’s still time to turn back and undo it all.

It’s only a fantasy, of course. But thanks to our governor, my fantasy may be played out in another part of the bay. And that leads to my second story, inspired by a news story and an analytical piece in Saturday’s Chronicle.

Ever since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the press has eagerly reported on possible solutions to the damaged eastern span of the Bay Bridge. You may remember the brouhaha in the summer of 1998, when — nine years after the earthquake — a Metropolitan Advisory Commission panel of engineers and architects chose a cable-stayed, single tower design. Despite a wide variety of objections from both sides of the bay, the panel seemed to share the opinion of one of its members, UC Berkeley civil engineering professor Alex Scordelis: “The signature cable-stayed bridge would be a great addition to the scenery as you come into the Bay. It is of the 21st century. We should have a signature bridge that has something new to say.”

Hubris rides again.

Now another brouhaha is brewing over the bridge. In the face of budget cuts and cost overruns, Governor Schwarzenegger has thrown out the panel’s decision and called for an ever-so-plain viaduct design instead, something similar to the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges to the south. Once again, a wide variety of objections to the “freeway on stilts” arose from both sides of the bay. Berkeley’s Assemblywoman Loni Hancock weighed in, using familiar language: “This is one of the most beautiful areas in the world and our public structures should reflect that…. The Bay Area was already paying an extra dollar for a ‘signature bridge’ — so it's still a question of us buying a Cadillac, then turning around and being given a Chevy.”

For a moment, let’s leave aside local desires to do something showier than the South Bay could manage. Leave aside concerns over the way that democratic process faltered in picking the design — either design. Leave aside questions of whether the new design will actually save money.

Look at the statement that the latest design makes about the priorities of the San Francisco Bay Area. It says, proudly and unequivocally, that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. And to thrust ourselves forward with a “signature bridge” would only detract from the power of the landscape that we hold dear.

But Loni Hancock’s choice of words was more apt than she perhaps intended. This is really all about cars, isn’t it? Sucked into omnipresent gridlock, wheezing from endless pollution, paying ever-higher prices for fuel and highway maintenance, we should be saying, “Stop! Something’s very wrong!” But instead, we’ve succumbed to a technological form of the Stockholm syndrome. You remember — that’s what it’s called when prisoners bond emotionally with their captors. And at present, our car captors are inspiring us to build higher, spend more, and do more damage to ourselves and our environment.

I promised you three stories. The third has nothing to do with bridges, but it has everything to do with priorities.

At about 11:15 on the morning of Friday, December 10, a woman named Beverly Kees was walking a neighbor’s terrier near her South of Market apartment. At the corner of Harrison and Main, she waited for a green light and then began to cross the street. While she was in the crosswalk, a big-rig turned the corner and hit her, killing Kees and injuring the dog.

Beverly Kees was a reporter and a newspaper editor, and most recently a professor of journalism at SF State. “Friends,” said the Chronicle obituary, “recalled that Ms. Kees liked a good book and a good steak.” She apparently also liked to walk in what the Chronicle elsewhere called “one of the most urban and pedestrian-friendly cities in the country.”

If you’ve ever walked extensively in this “urban city,” you know that you take your life in your hands every time you cross a street.  The driver of the truck that struck Kees said he hadn’t seen her. The Chronicle obit added, “He was not arrested or cited pending further investigation.”

Of course not. He might have been, in a city that enforces the laws on the books about vehicles entering crosswalks when people are there. Or a city that employs a widespread system of pedestrian scrambles, where traffic lights stop all vehicular traffic so that people can cross safely. Or a city that considers pedestrians more important than vehicles.

But not in a city whose world-renowned symbol is a monument to the automobile. Not in a city that values manmade bridges over the earth they rest on, and manmade trucks over the people they were created to serve.

Hubris rides again.