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November 20, 1997

Full Flaps

The Brown Derby

His embryonic if begrudging ability to recognize significant opposition to his policies and to hedge or ultimately recant appears to be the sole saving grace of Mayor Willie Brown's plummeting mayoralty. His reevaluation of his positions on Critical Mass, the Transbay Terminal, Presidio housing, the Central Freeway and the wisdom of launching airmobile operations against the guerrilla hamlets in Golden Gate Park has at least taken a bit of the edge off the public's increasing perception of him as the Great God Brown .

The survival skills he perfected in Sacramento were provident to his election to the Speakership as the compromise candidate, and his chagrin at bringing that comfortable parliamentarian neoliberalism to San Francisco and expecting it to fly here as a substantive agenda has been noxiously palpable, to put it mildly. The acerbity he exhibits toward his critics and his own bureaucracy (and most particularly when he feigns it ) confirms the obvious for those of us who consider Brown to be woefully out of his depths, not merely as an administrator --- that would be pleasantly inconsequential by comparison --- but as a figure of political vision. He senses that people are on to him and can only offer more of the same power broker grandiosity in the advancement of the corporatist stranglehold. Big gestures without the big picture, or, as the Coasters once said of another Brown, He's gonna get caught, just you wait and see (you can finish the refrain, I'm sure).

Help me out here. Is it just me who senses that the Brown ego may be experiencing actual terror in weighing the disparity between voters' assessment of his performance in office and the maelstrom of superhuman hype which preceded and guaranteed his election?  I've speculated in the past that a possible Brown implosion would be the grisliest of spectacles, and am thus buoyed by his nascent willingness to back off on unpopular issues. His political survival instincts may or may not indicate a recognition that he's not the right person to run this city, but for now that's a less pressing concern than the certain knowledge that he will yield to mobilized pressure, in sufficient numbers and with brio equal or surpassing what he himself puts forth.

In Beltway parlance, Brown can be "rolled," and of course should be. Our working assumption should be that he knows it's crunch time and that he is willing and even anxious to be moved toward policies more consistent with the progressive inclinations of this city. Such tactics, in the tradition of the glib psychobabble for which this burg is renowned, ought to assume that the Brown bile is a cry for help. Better to engage in rancorous confrontation and lose than not be challenged and constantly appear ineffectual, sounds to me to be a reliable reading of the man. A defeat in the heat of battle he can spin to his advantage; as befits a pro, he can ascribe it to the nature of the political process. In that light, what apparently accounts for his continuing posture of indignation is his being in over his head and having to thrash around --- at least until fairly recently, as the press and the public have begun to lose their timidity --- alone.

* * *

It's clear that progressives' misplaced faith in Brown grew out of recollections of his pre-Assembly activism. Our expectations that as mayor he would exercise his capability as perhaps the only political figure in America who could rousingly splatter the New Democrat blueprint and make Clinton enjoy it were equally unfounded. During the years he was out of view in Sacramento Brown underwent a turnabout in temperament and allegiances, and finally after two years of his mayoral tenure we've gotten around to admitting that he is unrecognizable and all too frequently frightening.

Interestingly, Brown has upped his sotto voce musings about the city's problems being a reflection of larger societal ills. You have to listen very closely for these pearls, and indeed they are offered as ruminative undertones by design. This is a consummate political hack feeling the wind veer and readying a spinnaker for the next leg. Brown wants to be pulled along with everyone else; the public's rapture with him has turned to befuddlement, and in that larger societal context the city's current mood is in the forefront of the national ire aimed at unitary government's corporate toadyism. Traditionally, such singular aberrance has always been San Francisco's trademark, a fact Brown has long since forgotten, if indeed he ever knew it to be so.

The country's perception of Clinton's lame duck status (as if he ever acted autonomously), and the open revolt of Congressional liberal Democrats allied with the resurgence of the party's labor constituency, are not lost upon Brown. The import of such events eases Brown's sequent rite of passage locally, enabling him to jettison the hard edges of the regal mandate for a more felicitous, if anemic, progressive posture. Lately Brown has really been feeling the heat and has rather loutishly demonstrated that he doesn't care for it; a shift in the tenor of the national debate proffers him a cover behind which he can hope to conciliate and maintain his considerable self-regard while dispelling those increasing loose cannon accusations so corrosive of image.

* * *

How far Brown will travel on this expedient taffrail, however, is delimited by his mainstream orientation. He is, after all, a classic Democratic Party pol, and as such will wander loyally and endlessly in circles with his witless brethren. Certainly in his next reincarnation he will go no further than a collusion with the Gephardt crowd as they tinker fatuously at the margins of globalism. That will hardly be sufficient to quell progressives' concerns here, but will provide Brown the illusion of action and change and give his bluster --- as the Reverend Jackson might put it --- a new luster. (It will be quite interesting to see to what extent Jackson aligns himself with Gephardt.)

Rather more significant in the probable Brown rebirthing is the manner in which his next persona will be crafted. Toning down his truculent style in an attempt at civic consensus will require, it would appear, a makeover of impossible difficulty --- until one is reminded that at stake is no less than Brown's very political survival. To be sure, our chorus of complaints has gained his undivided attention, and he has tentatively reacted. Remember, this is the guy whose rise to renown as Speaker was a consequence of his selection as the compromise candidate.

In effect, Brown will play the statesman card again. Slickly, it will bring to the fore his acclaimed mediation and negotiating rep and take the affront out of the compromising and accountability citizens will insist upon if he expects to be reelected. Look to him to bolster the inane media assessment of himself as the champion of urban leaders by going after Jerry Brown and the latter's Ecopolis plan for Oakland. In this zero-sum tilt, the recidivist bully in Willie sees Jerry as the perfect foil. In effortlessly moving a notch leftward on the ebb tide from fronting for Clinton to pitchman for faux populist Dickie, Willie will doubtless think he has performed the requisite mollification of voters and negated the Jerry Brown flame in the process.

Old school imaginativeness doesn't get any better than this. Which is why you can count on Willie to continue the refrain, Why's everybody always pickin' on me?

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



Cutting Corners

First came a plan for a new Giants stadium at China Basin. Then a new stadium-cum-mall for Eddie DeBartolo's 49ers at Candlestick Point, near where the Giants used to hang out. Then, most recently, a proposal from Disney and the Simon DeBartolo Group for a terminal-cum-hotel-cum-mall at Piers 30 and 32. The southern waterfront is bustling, at least in the minds of potential developers.

Why do I have such a sense of déjà vu? Does no one remember the story of the Second Street Cut?

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the center of San Francisco lay north of Market, just as it does today. But the area to the south was beginning to acquire a life of its own. Most noticeable were the elegant houses --- on a par with those in present-day Pacific Heights, but with larger gardens --- winding their way up Rincon Hill. Here lived such luminaries as Henry W. Halleck, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during the Civil War, and tycoon-in-the-making William C. Ralston.

Nearby, entrepreneur George Gordon had laid out an oval English garden in the midst of the sandy terrain. South Park was carefully landscaped, with geraniums and fuschias encircled by a figure-eight path and a ring of yew trees that were still quite scrubby in the 1860s. An early version of a gated community, the park was enclosed by a cast-iron fence that only the residents of the surrounding townhouses could enter. In addition to Gordon and his alcoholic wife and daughter (immortalized by novelist Gertrude Atherton in A Daughter of the Vine), Swiss and Portuguese Consul Francis Berton called South Park home, as did Senator William Gwin.

South Park was zoned --- or rather, in those days, covenanted --- for single-family residences, but the rest of the area between Market Street and South Beach was a mixture of fine houses, workers' homes, factories, and shops in an endless variety that would have delighted city critic Jane Jacobs. Peter Donahue, one of the earliest settlers, set the tone: he erected a forty-room house for himself on the corner of Bryant and Second; his Union Iron Works occupied a lot on First Street; and the Irishmen who worked for him lived in the neighborhood.

There was even a Second Street Corridor, a row of well-frequented shops that stretched out toward Steamboat Point and China Basin. Here's where the worm entered the apple. During the Civil War, the southern bay acquired a railway terminal, a hotel, and a complex of wharves and shops. To make it easier for horses to pull heavy loads from downtown to the new commercial strip, real-estate broker John Middleton hatched a scheme to cut through Rincon Hill and level Second Street; as a bonus, he suggested that the dirt that was excavated be used to fill in South Beach, which could then be divided into lots and sold. A wooden bridge at Harrison would cross Second Street 80 feet above the roadway, with stairs leading down from the homes on the hill.

Needless to say, not everyone greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. Mayor Thomas H. Selby, who had lived on Harrison since the early 1850s, saw a "vandal spirit" at work. Cooler heads suggested that a tunnel might be a sensible alternative. Lacking the convenient tactic of a popular election, Middleton got himself elected to the State Assembly, where he successfully sponsored a bill authorizing the cut. In a fit of urban greed, the city concurred.

Five hundred men worked on the project from April to November 1869, their lives constantly imperiled by cave-ins of the swampy earth. The autumn rains brought landslides, and one expensive house after another tilted dangerously toward the precipice. Episcopal Bishop William Kip was the unluckiest: his sedate stucco mansion careened down the newly made cliff in its front yard.

After the Second Street Cut was completed, another scheme was concocted to flatten the rest of Rincon Hill to the level of Market Street in order to fill in China Basin for further development. By this time, however, the people of San Francisco had tired of playing in this particular sandbox. The project was abandoned, and the hill did not fade into oblivion until the 1930s, with the construction of the Bay Bridge.

What happened to the area that was carved up in the name of commercial progress? The wealthy residents sold their property (often at a loss) and moved north. They settled in large, ornate houses on the slopes of Nob Hill, which the city's brand new cable cars climbed with no difficulty. But the rest of the little community was ruined. Toward the end of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson recalled Rincon Hill as he first saw it in 1880, "a new slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs, deep sandy cuttings, solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets."  Some 80 years later, it had changed little: in 1963 San Francisco Examiner writer James Benét referred to South Park as "the center of a slum...a pathetic symbol of an early effort to provide the amenities that commuters find today on the Peninsula." It is only in recent years, with the rise of Multi-Media Gulch and the attempts at urban renewal in the 1970s and 1980s (which seem almost endearingly amateurish by today's standards), that new life has begun to sprout along the old streets, as workers, professionals, offices, and factories once more exist side by side.

Perhaps this story has nothing to do with the glowing pictures now being painted of the new southern waterfront. Perhaps. But I find it hard to believe that a series of stadiums, malls, and hotels can contribute anything to the lives of the people who live in the vicinity. And if their needs are again steamrolled into the bay, the area is likely to collapse for lack of support, like the center of Rincon Hill, this time drawing the rest of the city down with it.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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