This first article
appeared in the
San Francisco Flier on
August 3, 1998.
By Betsey Culp
A thicket of summer grass
is all that remains
of the dreams and ambitions
of ancient warriors.
It's like something out of an end-of-the-world movie ---
no people, only waist-high brown grass and the city skyline in the distance.
But the noise! A fierce dry wind whines across the fields; trucks rattle
over the cracking pavement at full speed; the giant machinery at RMC
Lonestar roars incessantly as it spews out ready-mix concrete.
This is Mission Bay, the rough triangle of land south of Market that lies
within Townsend, Seventh, Mariposa, and Terry A. François Boulevard. It's a
dead zone, a vacuum waiting to be filled. And that's exactly what the
Catellus Development Corporation would like to do.
It seems to be a win-win situation. Catellus has a vast expanse of
undeveloped former Southern Pacific land on its hands that it would like to
bring in some income. UCSF needs a new campus. The city needs new jobs and
new housing. The plans are no secret. They've been emblazoned across front
pages and explored at length in a 3-volume EIR: in their latest incarnation,
they call for a mixed-use development covering 300 acres, which will include
1.5 million square feet of retail space; 5.5 million square feet for
research and development, light manufacturing, and office space; about 6,000
residential units; a 500-room hotel; and a 43-acre UCSF campus.
A project like this offers the opportunity of a lifetime for a person of
vision, and there's nothing at all the matter with Catellus CEO Nelson
Rising's eyes. His face lights up as he describes the thought processes that
have gone into creating this real-life Sim City from scratch, which
--- with an area modeled on London's Berkeley Square
as its centerpiece --- will become a new defining
image for San Francisco.
The trouble with building on vacant lots, though, is that they're never
really empty. As construction begins, the bulldozers will stir up a lot more
than just annoying dust and toxic soil. The environmental impact report
doesn't mention ghosts. But they're there. And they'll be watching.
Just as, when there really was a bay here, three Ohlone Indians watched a
European sailor paddle a dugout into its waters, their tear-stained faces
inspiring the first Spanish name for the area ---
Ensenada de los Llorones, or Cove of the Weepers.
Just as the de Haro gente de razon watched a parade of Anglo
squatters put down stakes on their potrero nuevo, the pastureland
around the water's edge granted to their family by the Mexican government.
And just as the early citizens of the U.S. city of San Francisco watched
a frenzy of land speculators clamber over one another, scrambling to buy
underwater lots at South Beach and Mission Bay.
Spectral gazes to be reckoned with, to be sure, but the most powerful
phantasmal surveillance comes from people who occupied this space later,
when the bay had been filled in and buildings erected on the newly created
land --- scavengers who patiently combed through the
"dump trust"; ironworkers who poured out pig iron at the Pacific Rolling
Mills; ropemakers who traced a path back and forth within the
1,000-foot-long Tubbs Cordage Works; and above all, shipbuilders and
longshoremen who kept the waterfront functioning smoothly. These were the
men who lived in workers' boardinghouses on Irish Hill and Dutchman's Flat
and Scotch Hill, who drank hard and fought exuberantly. These men and, when
they were lucky, their families gave life to the city of hard-headed finance
on the other side of town. They defined San Francisco for the rest of the
Jack London understood: "North of the Slot [for the cable on Market
Street] were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district, the banks and the
staid, respectable business houses. South of the Slot were the factories,
slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works, and the abodes of the working
class. The Slot was the metaphor that expressed the class cleavage of
Society." And that class structure, though oppressive at times, provided a
symbiosis of capital and labor that allowed the city to flourish.
Can we take Mission Bay as the metaphor that expresses the new San
Francisco? The project must be seen as the most coherent part of a general
development spree that is oozing across Market and south toward Hunters
Point. It reflects the emerging American reality, in which traditional
working-class industrial jobs are rapidly disappearing and new-style
working-class service jobs are in increasingly short supply. And it is
intended not simply to turn a profit for Catellus but also to solve some
very real problems facing the city.
The question is not if Mission Bay should be built. The present wasteland
is an abominable eyesore and a shameful abdication of civic responsibility.
The question is how Mission Bay should be built. Will its labs and offices
coalesce into a new urban nucleus, a biotechnocratic hub, supported by
nothing but its own shifting landfill? Will it be an unsafe piece of shoddy,
fobbed off on an indifferent populace? Or will it be forced to reach out
toward the rest of the city, to escort San Francisco into the future, borne
on the shoulders of its own sturdy past?
There's no crystal ball for this one, only questions. Producing some sort
of result will be easy --- the mechanisms are already
in place. The danger is that we will be saddled for all eternity with a
Seaside-West or a Silicon Valley themepark just South of the Slot. It's only
by paying incessant attention to every detail, from financing to
infrastructure, that we can ensure the construction of the
city-within-a-city that we want. We must direct our passionate concern
toward the rebuilding of Mission Bay; we must listen to the voices of the
ghosts who inhabit the area now. Otherwise, we will have to blame ourselves
as well as Catellus if we find a classless, raceless, bloodless Truman Show
just inside our own back door.
It's like the graffiti artist said. The older San Francisco gets, the
more we realize that everything mattered.