41st Anniversary Special: The privatization of San Francisco - Page 2

The city should be a loud, visible, proud, and shining example of a different kind of America
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Photo illustration by John Ueland

Downtown would become a new Manhattan, with high-rise office buildings and white-collar jobs. The East Bay and the Peninsula would be suburbs, with a rail line (BART) carrying the workers to their desks. Private developers, working under the redevelopment aegis, demolished low-income neighborhoods to build a new convention center and hotels.

Nobody ever held a public hearing on the master plan. And it wasn't until the late 1960s that San Franciscans figured out what was going on.

By 1971 the fight against Manhattanization began to dominate the Guardian's political coverage. It would play center stage in San Francisco politics for two more decades. The paper ran stories about high-rises and freeways and environmental impact reports, but the real issue was the privatization of the city's planning process.

Ronald Reagan soared into the White House in 1980, rolling over a collapsing Jimmy Carter and a demoralized, moribund Democratic Party. Reagan and his backers had an agenda: to dismantle American government as we knew it, to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society, to get the public sector out of the business of helping people and give the benefits to private business. "Government," Reagan announced, "isn't the solution. Government is the problem."

The Guardian was firmly planted on the other side. We supported public power, public parks, public services, public accountability. We had no blinders about the flaws of government agencies — I spent much of my time in the early years writing about the mess that was Muni — but in the end we realized that at least the public sector carried the hope of reform. And we saw San Francisco as a beacon for the nation, a place where urban America could resist the Reagan doctrine.

Unfortunately, the mayor of San Francisco in the Reagan years might as well have been a Republican. Dianne Feinstein's faith in the private sector rivaled that of the new president. She turned the city's future over to the big real estate developers. She vetoed rent control and gave the landlords everything they wanted. And when the budget was tight, she ignored our demands that downtown pay its fair share and instead raised bus fares and cut library hours.

When gay men started dying of a strange new disease, there was no public money or service program to help them, from Washington DC or San Francisco. So the community was forced to build a private infrastructure to take care of people with AIDS — and years later, as Amanda Witherell notes in this issue, those private foundations became secretive and unaccountable.

In 1994 we got a tip that something funny was going on at the Presidio. The Sixth Army was leaving and turning perhaps the most valuable piece of urban real estate on Earth over to the National Park Service ... in theory. In practice, we learned, some of the biggest corporations in town had come together with a different plan — to create a privatized park — and Rep. Nancy Pelosi was carrying their water. Every detail of the Presidio privatization made the front page of the Guardian — and still, the entire Democratic Party power structure (and much of the environmental movement) lined up behind Pelosi. Now we have a corporate park on public land, with that great pauper George Lucas winning a $60 million tax break to build a commercial office building in a national park.

And still, it continues.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, a rising star in the Democratic Party, who told us he's no fan of privatization, demonstrated the opposite in one of his signature political campaigns this year: he tried (and is still trying) to turn over the city's broadband infrastructure — something that will be as important in this century as highways and bridges were in the last — to a private company.