After the ruins - Page 4

SF's pasts and futures -- and Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia
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Some 17,500 African American and Japanese American people saw their homes bulldozed.

With their dreams of "urban renewal," the heads of SF-based corporate giants such as Standard Oil, Bechtel, Del Monte, Southern Pacific, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America reimagined the City as a utopia for big business. The language of a Wells Fargo report from the '60s evokes the notebooks of Dana: "Geographically, San Francisco is a natural gateway for this country's ocean-going and airborne commerce with the Pacific area nations." Likewise, Prologue for Action, a 1966 report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, might have been written by dystopian visionary Philip K. Dick:

If SF decides to compete effectively with other cities for new "clean" industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to "standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" characteristics. As automation increases the need for unskilled labor will decrease.... The population will tend to range from lower middle-class through upper-class.... Selection of a population's composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable.

This dream of turning San Francisco into a perfect world for business required that much of the existing city be destroyed. First, the colorful Produce District along the waterfront was removed in 1959, its warmth and human buzz replaced by the four identical modern hulks of the Embarcadero Center. Beginning in 1966, some 87 acres of land south of Market — including 4,000 housing units — were bulldozed to make way for office blocks, luxury hotels, and the Moscone Center.

The dark logic of the Redevelopment Agency's plans are projected into the future in the profoundly bleak science fiction of Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci series from the '90s. Russo's books are set in a 21st-century SF entirely segregated by class and health. The Tenderloin is walled off into an area where drug-addicted and diseased residents kill each other or await death from AIDS or worse. Access to all neighborhoods is restricted and even the series' hero, stereotypical good cop Frank Carlucci, submits to a full body search in order to enter the Financial District because he lacks the necessary chip implant to be waved through checkpoints.

Russo's nightmares have their real side today, and many dreams found in Ecotopia and the Whole Earth Catalog — composting, recycling, widespread bicycling, urban gardening, free access to information via the Internet, Green building design — have also come to pass. (There is even a growing movement to unearth creeks like the Hayes River, which runs under City Hall.) Pat Murphy's 1989 novel, The City Not Long After, imagines these opposing visions of the city will continue even after a plague wipes out all but one-thousandth of SF's population. In Murphy's book, those still alive turn the City into a backdrop for elaborate art projects, weaving ribbon and lace from Macy's across downtown streets and painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. This artists' utopia is threatened when an army of survivors from Sacramento marches into SF. But the last forces of America, unlike the dot-com invaders of the '90s, prove no match for the artists, who use direct action tactics and magic to rout Sacramento in an epic showdown at Civic Center Plaza.

In Carlsson's After the Deluge, several people enter a bar called New Spec's on Fulton Street. The walls are covered with old SF ephemera. One character explains to Eric, a newcomer, "Its all about nostalgia, a false nostalgia." Was the City a better place before the war, before the earthquakes, or before it was even the City? So many utopian visions of the future evoke a simpler past that one wonders if believing in one is the same as longing for the other. It's a question that would make sense, once again, to Philip K.

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