The great freeway revolt
How political activism took root in the last century's most conservative decade.

By Tim Redmond

IN MANY WAYS the waves of political activism that have made San Francisco an icon for progressive politics have their roots in the early days of World War II, which was not a good time for the Bay Area.

For almost a century, the city and the region had grown somewhat haphazardly, and when the war in the Pacific broke out, San Francisco wasn't ready. As Alvin Duskin explained in his 1971 Bay Guardian book, The Ultimate Highrise, the critical West Coast port was a military planner's nightmare. Workers lived too far from the shipyards and wasted hours getting to work. Supplies came into the wrong places and didn't get to the factories on time.

So the military leaders teamed up with the captains of local industry and created a powerful Metropolitan Defense Committee that effectively took over land-use planning, economic development, and transportation for the region – and did so very effectively. By the end of the war, the Bay Area was a well-oiled military-industrial machine.

But when the war ended, the planners didn't want to stop what they were doing. They looked across the Pacific and saw vast potential markets; they looked at their smoothly functioning, well-planned San Francisco operations and saw the next Manhattan. And they knew the people who got in on the ground floor would become very rich.

By the start of the 1950s, they had the vision all laid out, a comprehensive master plan for the new West Coast headquarters of Pacific Rim business. The nerve center would be a cluster of high-rise office buildings in downtown San Francisco, where tens of thousands of new workers would put pencils to paper. Agricultural land and underutilized space in the East Bay would be turned into vast housing developments where the junior executives would live. The low-rent residential hotels in San Francisco's South of Market would be bulldozed to make way for a convention center and hotels. Thriving African American neighborhoods like the Western Addition (see "Static Change") would be "redeveloped" and the residents forced out. Twenty-story high-rises filled with what the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce now calls "workforce housing" would spring up across the city.

And all of this would be connected by a high-speed rail system from the suburbs to downtown and a network of freeways that would chop up the city like a ticktacktoe board.

By the mid 1950s, the interstate highway system – a 40,000-mile nationwide network of concrete ribbons designed in part to easily move military convoys around the country – was well under way, and in most places it was either accepted unquestioningly as part of the era of post-war "progress" or welcomed joyously (in Los Angeles, for example) as the harbinger of a new wave of motorized freedom.

But in San Francisco something very different happened – something that would, in time, change the way people all over the country thought about cities.

On Nov. 2, 1956, the San Francisco Chronicle published a map of all the proposed freeway routes. It showed, among other things, an elevated six-lane highway above the Golden Gate Park Panhandle and a pair of highways running over the edges of the park. There was already some nascent opposition to the new freeways, and it quickly became a powerful movement. On Jan 23, 1959, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to cancel seven of the 10 proposed freeways, although not the Panhandle-park plan. It took seven more years, until 1966, to finally kill that one.

The so-called freeway revolt made national news and inspired similar fights around the country. Within a decade, William Issel, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, told me, environmentalists had taken on and defeated freeway plans in Boston, New Orleans, and Portland, Ore.

But the battle was about more than aesthetics and preserving parkland: For the first time, people in San Francisco were starting to realize that big plans were under way for the future of their city – and that they weren't involved in the process. The freeway foes sowed the seeds of a generation of activists who argued that cities were places where people lived, centers of human culture – not just places devoted to commerce and industry. In essence, the freeway revolt was the first outcropping of what would later be called the urban environmental movement.

"This wasn't the first time environmentalists were active on a city level," Issel noted. "There were 'city beautiful' movements dating back to the turn of the century, against smokestacks and billboards and in favor of tree planting and freeways that didn't impact residential areas, but they ran into the Great Depression and never went anywhere.

"San Francisco in the 1950s was really crucial, a hothouse for innovation of this new kind of civic activism."

The urban environmental movement would take on another new element soon after, with the first major antinuclear campaign. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced in 1961 plans to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay, setting off a fierce and ultimately successful battle to save the village and block the giant utility. Led by irascible Bodega rancher Rose Gaffney, a citizen movement that would later include the likes of Joe Neilands (who went on to write the Bay Guardian's seminal public power story) became the first in the country to stop a nuclear plant.

In the Navy

WWII also brought tens of thousands of young men, many from small towns and rural communities, to San Francisco and into an all-male military environment – where for the first time a lot of them discovered there was a kind of sexuality they didn't talk about back on the farm. Those who didn't successfully hide their attraction to other men were drummed out of the service – and sent back to San Francisco.

The city they returned to had always been a haven to the dispossessed and already had a small but vibrant underground gay culture. By the late 1940s, the Black Cat Café on Montgomery Street was operating more or less openly, with a thriving drag revue. (A Black Cat employee and drag performer, Jose Sarria, later became the first out person to run for supervisor, winning 5,600 votes.)

As Chris Carlsson notes on his Shaping San Francisco Web site (, "during the 1950s, San Francisco also spawned the Beat Culture, which shared spaces and attitudes with incipient gay culture.... The beats expressed a basic rejection of American middle-class values, especially the family and suburbanism, which coincided closely with early gay attitudes." And, of course, many of the beats, including Allen Ginsberg, were gay.

Harry Hay, a flamboyant communist and early gay rights pioneer, founded the Mattachine Society, the nation's first queer advocacy group, in Los Angeles in 1950, and the group moved its headquarters to San Francisco in 1955. That same year Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation's first lesbian rights organization, in San Francisco.

The Stonewall riot was still 14 years away. The word gay, in its current connotation, didn't exist. But in San Francisco an active, organized queer movement was building that eclipsed anything else in the country.

Nan Alamilla Boyd, a professor of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University, says San Francisco had two types of gay activism: a so-called homophile movement that pushed what today would be called a more mainstream, assimilationist agenda and a more radical, bar-based movement that emphasized a politics of difference.

"There were already two ideologically diverse elements," Boyd, the author of Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, told me. "They fueled and supported each other."

San Francisco wasn't the only place where the queer movement was taking root: there was an urban pink triangle of sorts (Los Angeles, New York City, and S.F.) – but when it came to grassroots organizing and out-front activism, San Francisco set the standard.

In fact, Boyd argues, by the time the Stonewall riot erupted in New York, in 1969, S.F. bar owners and patrons had already become enough of a political force that the local police had largely stopped harassing gay bars. "There was no Stonewall in this city because we were so far ahead," she said.

Rainbow city

On Oct. 7, 1955, when Ginsberg read "Howl" at the now-defunct Six Gallery in North Beach, there wasn't anything remotely resembling a "counterculture" in the United States. The hippies who arrived for the Summer of Love a decade later got more press, and even today get more historical attention. But it was the beats (later derided by Chron columnist Herb Caen as "beatniks," a term he came up with shortly after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik) who laid the groundwork for the politics of culture in the United States.

The civil rights movement started in the South, and the defining events were all on the East Coast. San Francisco had its share of sit-ins, marches, and clashes, but historians don't treat the Bay Area as one of the crucibles of civil rights activism.

But Issel, who is working on a new book on the topic, argues there's a side of the movement that was initially unique to San Francisco. "Nowhere else in the country was there the sort of multicultural, multiethnic coalition that emerged in this city," he said.

In S.F. the civil rights movement brought together whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos and Jews and Catholics, people who were not even talking to each other in some cities, in a Council for Civic Unity that became a national model for dialogue and cooperation. "The racial liberalism of San Francisco was a pioneering thing," Issel said. "That's often overlooked and worth pointing out."

E-mail Tim Redmond at

March 24, 2004