Of ports and parks | Hues and cries | Home | Current issues | Back issues | sfflier@well.com

October 19 - October 23, 1998

Wednesday, October 21, 1998

Of ports and parks

These days along the waterfront, the dawn does indeed arrive like thunder. Near the shore, a sharp clatter of well-shod feet punctuates the steady rumble of cars; overhead, snail-paced traffic on the Bay Bridge emits a muffled roar. The sounds of a city on the move. But underneath, other sounds emerge, echoes from another San Francisco.

Walk, for example, along Steuart Street, which stretches out by the bay below the Ferry Building. The end, beginning where the street hits Folsom, is a mess. Dirt --- guaranteed to become thick, gooey mud when it rains --- has replaced the pavement there, and two power shovel operators, jacketed against the early morning air, are busily excavating the ancient pipes underneath. A building permit attached to the Cyclone fence explains: work has finally begun on the long-anticipated Gap office building, designed to extend 540 linear feet along the Embarcadero, rise to a height of 16 stories, and cost $68.8 million. Complete with the company's name etched in its east wall in 15-foot floodlighted letters, the edifice has been heralded as an exciting symbol of 21st-century San Francisco. The project is expected to provide thousands of jobs and --- in a bit of inspired largesse --- the pleasures of a 3-1/4-acre park.

I wonder if the planners realize that their proposal is not original. In fact, it was my discovery of an earlier park here that sent me to this part of town on a crisp autumn morning. According to the South of Market Journal, a treasure trove of reminiscences published in the 1920s and 1930s, this was the creation of a group of men who delivered goods to and from the ships docked nearby. Apparently, business was slow in the winter of 1872, because these teamsters decided to engage in a little civic improvement.

During the rainy season in the late nineteenth century, Steuart Street was often a mass of mud, threatening up swallow up teams of horses and wagons that tried to enter it. When properly in place, wooden planks laid across the surface provided a little traction, but the heavy mud tended to ooze over their outer ends, weighing them down and forcing the inner ends, seesaw style, up toward the sky. The park-makers' solution? To rake as much mud as possible into the center, forcing down the flyaway boards. The result was so aesthetically pleasing that the architects went a step further: they canvassed the neighborhood for old Christmas trees and positioned them neatly along the street all the way from Market to Folsom. Local markets provided fish and produce to serve as somewhat aromatic ornaments. And Jim Smith, the proprietor of the Oregon House at Folsom and Main, sent over enough liquor for a decently rowdy christening of the brand new park.

The shouts of the revelers at the "Steuart Street Park" mingle with less happy sounds farther up the street. Here, at the corner of Mission, a rusty monument and a brightly painted metal sculpture mark one of the most dramatic and influential events in all of San Francisco's history: Bloody Thursday; July 5, 1934. During the preceding two months, striking longshoremen and seamen had closed down the city's waterfront in what was part of a coast-wide labor dispute, preventing deliveries of goods to and from the ships docked nearby. At the beginning of July, the picketing and occasional skirmishes escalated when the city's anti-union Industrial Association decided to force open the port. For several days sightseers climbed Rincon Hill to watch as police armed with riot guns, tear gas and revolvers battled protesters' rocks and fists. Then the inevitable happened. A car drove into the middle of the melee and a still-unidentified man emerged, looking like many of the men in photographs of that era in his dark suit and black felt hat. He deliberately fired into the crowd ("like a man shooting birds," someone recalled), killing a longshoreman named Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, a cook.

Four days later the downtown area fell silent as tens of thousands of dark-clad mourners left Steuart Street and proceeded somberly down Market to the mortuary at 17th and Valencia. The mood of the city changed. A week later, in an astonishing display of sympathy, a general strike closed down business throughout the Bay Area. The shutdown lasted four days, long enough to convince maritime employers to settle their pending dispute. The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did waterfront working conditions improve, but the incident spurred workers in other industries to organize as well, leading to the strong labor movement that marked the postwar period.

Harry Bridges and the other ILA leaders no longer patrol the waterfront, but it may be that people in the newly constructed Rincon Towers can still hear the voices of the strikers who struggled in the streets below. They would do well to take heed. Journalist David Selvin sees a "terrible anger" behind the events of 1934. Already weakened by an employers' war to eradicate unions, workers in the 1920s and 1930s found themselves forced to work in conditions over which they had no control; in an era of rapid technological change, they feared replacement by mechanization; and they worked longer hours, bowing to demands for ever-increasing profits. Sound familiar?

In our new global economy, where progressive U.S. employers conceal sweatshops behind third-world curtains, Bay Area longshoremen often act as an international conscience. When, in 1984, they refused to unload a cargo from South Africa, they refocused American attention on the pernicious persistence of apartheid. When, in 1997, they refused to unload a cargo loaded by Liverpool scabs, they called American attention to a worldwide deterioration in working conditions on the docks. In less than a year, however, their own contract will expire. As San Francisco's waterfront returns to life, will it save a place for the men who first made it strong, or will it allow the tide of privatization and deregulation to sweep them overboard?

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, October 23, 1998

Hues and cries

If we're honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that the ladder toward an attainable progressive politics starts with the sort of analysis Alec Nove put forth in Feasible Socialism: the acceptance of at least a rudimentary capitalism, the principle of supply and demand, and the market's methodology for setting prices. Nove had in mind a consumerist socialism, if you will, as a realistic and workable antidote to the voracious advance and displacements caused by global capital. He tempered his thesis with a call for a guaranteed minimum income floor and an array of other subsidies common to the Scandinavian countries' safety net, but his argument remained a reaction to the inevitable power of market forces.

By now most of us on the left are settled within that nexus and required to work within those confines, the differences among ourselves amounting to those of degree and how collusive we are willing to become with the instruments and practices of capital.

One approach is the indefatigable Jesse Jackson's, whose latest foray is the amalgamated Rainbow/Push Coalition's Wall Street Project. Make no mistake, this is little more than the stuff of the left wing of the Democratic Party, a staple consonant with perennial Black Caucus concerns, and the Wall Street Project's advent last January coincided auspiciously with the rising tide of economic recovery accruing to the investor class. Jackson's announced push for a renewed effort toward community reinvestment in poor neighborhoods targeted corporations, the third part of an approach which had earlier summoned state pension funds and federal programs to prepare to act together.

What distinguished the Coalition's newest exertions from the standard and dolorous "empowerment zone" concept it had previously accepted from Washington, was clearly the reemergence of national economic strength and the possibility of being able to ask for access to capital investment in blighted urban and rural enclaves. Since January Jackson has pulled together a series of roundtable meetings which have featured representatives from Freddie Mac, the Big Three automakers, assorted African American capital investment firms, state treasurers, labor unions and inner-city bankers. He topped it off with invites to the Small Business Administration and White House economic staffers for the recent three-hour portion televised on C-SPAN. But for all its organizational skill and shrewdness, Rainbow/Push's message is a plaintive plea for a full embrace with capital, a request for wealth-creation equity, and solely, it appears, on capital's terms. Jackson couched his language almost exclusively in the regalia of sound business practices, touting the $817 billion-per-year combine of African American and Hispanic spending, and emphasizing that the world's largest emerging market is here in the U.S.' underserved minority communities. Little of the traditional Jackson theme of direct federal intervention and aid was expressed, and that only in the context of mutual arrangements with the private sector. With the exception of the industrial park orientation of Detroit's empowerment zone --- and the heft of General Motors as the park's implied guarantor --- none of the other job-creation sites nationwide were manufacturing entities and almost all the rest were in retail trade.

One must assume that there's a certain method to Jackson's madness in distancing himself from his customary rap. Ten months ago the evidence of a recurrent affluence provided Jackson a wedge with which to fashion yet another of his spiritual entreaties, and this time to parse it to elites in the most concretely palatable manner: It's not really a race or gender gap now; it's a vertical gap. The conversation on race has its place, but the gap is structural, not just emotional and personal. Neglected communities have a mass of underutilized talent and untapped markets. We have the wealth to reinvest in them and reconstruct them, and this an absolutely historic moment in which to do so.

You'll notice that Jackson was almost, but not quite, talking about class. Certainly echoing in his mind was the current work of many black scholars like William Julius Wilson and Cornel West who have begun to disparage the stress put on race (simultaneous with Clinton's irrelevant and tedious wallow in "dialogue" about it), and who instead have inexorably come to pinpoint the problems spawned by globalism as those of class.

Surely you could conclude that this is a Rainbow/Push stratagem born of equal parts last-ditch civility and practical opportunism. And, indeed, there has not been an "If not now, when?" window like this in some time. Pluperfect tactician that he is, Jackson has held his tongue in deference to the possibility of a good-sized chunk of gradualist success.

What would bring the full complement of Jackson's inherent Nove-like sensibility back to the fore? Well, not until August, when Russia defaulted on its debts, did the full impact of the global economic downturn achieve tangibility. With that occurrence, there was a most definite short-circuit of the dynamics regulating the interplay between capital and the suppliants it has always had at its mercy. It's one thing to approach the corporations and the investment capitalists with better business plans for our decaying cities and rural hollows than they themselves could write; it's something else to meet them and know that, with the loss of America's export market, and with sizable elements of U.S. businesses ready to nosedive under the assault of dirt-cheap imports, we are faced with the prospect of a wholesale reconstruction of a domestic market supplied by domestic producers, much of it labor-intensive and manufacturing-based.

Window of opportunity, indeed. In such an event, there'll  obviously be an added overlay of social safety net programs, and they'll be essential ingredients to market mechanisms. There's nothing novel about that, except that now a distinct --- and dare I say, colorless --- working populace will partake of the same subsidies the corporate class has expected as its due (that equity Jesse's been so polite about). It's interesting how, in so many respects, differentiation and homogeneity are coterminous. You could even argue that feasible socialism and state capitalism are but flip sides of the same coin. One, however, has a heart, and the other has every right about now to be scared shitless.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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