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August 3 - 7, 1998

Wednesday, August 3, 1998

Whose dreams?

A thicket of summer grass
is all that remains
of the dreams and ambitions
of ancient warriors.

--- Basho

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 world.

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.

 --- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998



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