Saturday, March 31, 2018
The Vertical Earthquake essay by Herb Caen
Henry Park has invented a parlor game - fun for young and old alike - called City Planning. The equipment is simple, and any number can play. All you need is a grid map of San Francisco, crayons and a dice box.
The player who wins the toss rolls the dice, finds the corresponding coordinates on the map and "destroys" or "improves" that square with his crayon. If he colors a landmark, he gets 10 points. A theater is worth 9 points. If the numbers he rolls fail to intersect, he may draw a freeway - 15 points - between the two spots and pick up any number of points in between, depending on the buildings in his path (a pre-1906 house is worth five points).
The players may give themselves various titles - state highway engineer, city architect, Eastern capitalist and so on - and the one who destroys City Hall for a parking lot is declared the winner. To add a final note of verisimilitude, all players are blindfolded.
Well, City Planning, like Monopoly, is just a game - a dangerous game that San Francisco is playing every day with great recklessness. It contains an added hazard: The players are not only blindfolded, they are also masked, and the masks aren't necessarily black or white. It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and even the players themselves aren't sure. If you want to build a 33-story skyscraper on a slope of Nob Hill, are you a hero or a villain? Not too long ago the answer would have been simple.
A few days ago, we were delighted or chagrined, according to our various tastes, to read that another 20-story apartment house will rise on Russian Hill - in a so-called "sacred enclave." For years, the general feeling in that area has been that nobody would dare desecrate it with a towering slab of concrete. Good taste would prevail.
Well, we learned something - again too late. Nothing is sacred in San Francisco any longer. The Russian Hillers who opposed that 20-story building expressed a great love for San Francisco and made vain appeals to ethics and morality. The lady who is going to build that skyscraper probably loves San Francisco, too, in her own fashion, and would like to make a buck besides. That is also a sacred tradition.
Which brings us to the Nub Hill of the problem: The lady who owns the Russian Hill property isn't breaking laws by building her monster.
If what's left of the physical character of San Francisco is to be preserved, the laws have to change. (Frank Lloyd Wrightonce said, "San Francisco is the only city I can think of that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful." Then he snickered, "What San Francisco really needs is another earthquake," which overlooked the fact that we are having a quake - a vertical one.)
Changing the law to provide for zones that are indeed sacred - for reasons of history, beauty and just plain breathing space - is not going to be easy. There are people in City Hall who would tear down City Hall without a qualm in the name of that magic slogan: "Get it on the tax rolls!"
A high Chamber of Commerce official said: "We WANT big buildings here. We want this to remain the business capital of the West." So does everybody - as long as the buildings add to, rather than detract from the city.
"We don't want people to say San Francisco is dying," another said.
When is a city dying? Howard Moody answers that question this way:
"A city is dying when it has an eye for real estate values but no heart for personal values, when it has an understanding of traffic flow but no concern about the flow of human beings, when we have competence in building but little time for ethical codes, when human values are absent at the heart of the decision-making and planning and governing of a city - it is dead and all that is left is decay."