A walk on the wild side | Looking both ways | One more day in the sun | Home | Current issues | Back issues | sfflier@well.com

March 8 - 12, 1999

Tuesday, March 9, 1999

A walk on the wild side

"Pacific Bell Park is just a short walk from downtown and we expect many of our fans to come to games on foot, by bicycle or by rollerblading," burbles the Giants' hype, evoking images of carefree San Franciscans enjoying the fresh air while they make their way through the city streets. Last week a break in the rains showered the South of Market area with warm spring sun, and I decided to give the road to the as-yet-unfinished downtown stadium a trial run --- or in this case, a trial walk. When I came to the freeway underpass, the writing on the wall glowed in bright red, yellow and blue: "It is --- I just feel something wonderful is about to happen." I was ready to do my bit. But the graffiti lied. The venture turned out to be a complete dud.

As the Chronicle has punctiliously reported, PacBell Park is rapidly taking shape at the corner of King and Third. I chose the most direct route, beginning my excursion on Market Street and heading south along Third. Lacking the sangfroid of a bike messenger and doubting the efficacy of inline skates on the torn-up pavement I knew I'd have to cross, I opted for travel by foot. The passage was uneventful and indeed familiar as I approached MOMA, with its flock of urban blackbirds sitting at the tables outside, lingering over lattes and earnestly discussing software or contemporary Chinese art. Across the street, the miniature hills of the Yerba Buena Gardens curved seductively, a serene oasis in the center of thriving commerce. Even Aunt Susie from Des Moines, I thought, would grasp the excitement of a city like this.

Half a block farther, my pleasant stroll turned into a hike from hell. Every intersection became a battle zone filled with kamikaze cars bent on mass destruction. After a couple of hair-raising escapes, I understood the alarming report in the Examiner of a nearly twofold increase in pedestrian deaths last year. But even when I kept to the relative safety of the sidewalks, exhaust emissions from hundreds of automobiles fouled the air. Moderate pollution clogs the entire route, but the intersection at Third and King is the worst, with carbon monoxide concentrations often exceeding state and federal safety standards, according to Bay Area Air Quality Management District methods of measurement. As I watched a young woman in tights running toward me, backpack bouncing on her back, it was hard not to tell her to stop for the sake of her lungs.

I quickly grew accustomed to the reckless driving and the CO fumes. The noise, however, was impossible to ignore. The engines of bumper-to-bumper cars, five abreast, established a steady base level, punctuated now and then by the metallic drone of motorcycles and a few souped-up sports cars. A seemingly endless procession of buses and delivery trucks, traveling quickly and stopping suddenly, raised the decibels from discomfort to danger. And the machine gun barrage of jackhammers, like the one tearing up the pavement at Howard and Third, sent hands to ears in self-defense.

The city has incorporated this auditory assault into its plans for expansion, as the Mission Bay environmental impact report makes clear for the area just south of the ball park: "Existing traffic noise levels...are high enough...for the San Francisco General Plan Environmental Protection Element to discourage new residential developments unless substantial noise reduction features are included in their designs." There's no mention of noise reduction features for pedestrians. The Giants might consider selling logo-stamped ear plugs to protect their dedicated patrons.

If the experience of other cities is any indication, the highly touted Third Street light rail line, scheduled to open in 2003, won't offer much relief. A Canadian government report issued in 1997 urged Vancouver to reroute a proposed transit line to ease the effects of light rail noise and vibration on businesses and apartment houses along its path. And a year earlier, a group of citizens in Sacramento protested the construction of a light rail system that would subject their homes to 86 decibels of noise --- the equivalent of heavy truck traffic --- every five minutes. They suggested a barrier of "short masonry walls topped with chain link," not a feasible solution in the middle of Third Street.

The problem is not simply the impossibility of a peaceful conversation on the way to the ball park. In December 1997 the Daily News published an article on noise pollution --- "New Yorkers' No. 1 quality-of-life complaint" --- which noted that exposure to an incessant din raises a variety of health risks. Deafness is on the increase --- "We see a lot of people that have hearing loss with no other association...than living in a noisy city," reported audiologist Elizabeth Davis. Worse, constantly high noise levels can raise blood pressure, damage the cardiovascular system and exacerbate emotional problems. I can see the signs: Warning! Walking here may be hazardous to your health.

As I approached King Street, I remembered reading about a whale named Moby, who got stuck in the waters near Edinburgh a year or so ago. Moby apparently took a wrong turn on his way south and headed into the Firth of Forth. When he realized his mistake and made for the open sea, he found himself in even deeper trouble, for every time he neared the two bridges that spanned his route, he was brought to a complete halt. The problem: noise. The sounds of traffic and trains overhead confused and frightened the poor wayfarer, driving him back into perilously shallow water. Eventually, wildlife experts gathered together a fleet of small boats, which formed a semicircle behind him and carefully nudged him in the right direction. A good idea, I thought. Perhaps at this very moment Pete Magowan is putting together a special squad of ushers whose sole task will be to guide disoriented baseball fans across the last, noisiest segment of the route to PacBell Park.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Looking both ways

The afternoon sun warms my bench behind the China Basin Building. I've just picked up a cup of coffee at Jitters and Shakes, the University of Phoenix's coffee bar inside the building complex, and I'm sitting very quietly, watching a lone waterbird determinedly plumbing Mission Creek for food. The bird seems to be attached to a central axle: tail pops up, head goes down; head pops up, tail goes down.

In front of me a lone man wanders back and forth, back and forth, along the grassy expanse between the creek and Channel Street. Behind me, another man walks slowly along the wooden deck, looking straight ahead as he sneezes again and again, ten, eleven, twelve times, until I lose count. To the right, past the Fourth Street Bridge, I catch a glimpse of the houseboats berthed in the shadow of I-280. To the left, Lefty O'Doul Bridge points Third Street toward Piers 48B and 50B, where Willie Brown's former law client and present business associate Ron Cowan maintains his Harbor Bay ferries. Technically a trunnion bascule bridge (check your dictionary), the span across Third Street stands squat and firm, looking for all the world like a sturdy black terrier.

Like many structures south of Townsend, the China Basin Building perches on top of land fill, for the whole area once rested beneath the surface of Mission Bay. A description of the Citizens Gas Company property at Second and Berry published in the Alta California in 1864 says that just behind the land "is a precipitous bank of soft rock and dirt, presenting a face towards the bay of 100 feet in height. From this cliff the earth is obtained for filling up the water lots below." Later, the hills farther north, in the South of Market area, also contributed sand and rock to "reclaim" China Basin and create new marketable properties.

In recent years, this area has stagnated, but now another tide of development is rising, both in the neighborhood of the Giants' new stadium and across the creek in Catellus-owned Mission Bay. The frenzied real estate feeding of last year may be subsiding, but the air still churns with the excitement of major construction projects. SOMA is where it's happening, and the center of the vortex is right here, in the quiet space where Berry meets Third Street.

A hundred years ago, this was the busiest part of the San Francisco waterfront. The south side of Channel Street still abutted the bay, and its piers stretched out into the water like fingers. Across Third Street, where the new stadium will edge the water, stood Pope & Talbot's lumberyard, one of several establishments that provided wood for the shipbuilders at the head of the creek as well as fine millwork for the city's construction crews. The work was an instance of "you scratch my back; I'll scratch yours": a little way down Channel Street, Alexander Hay's yard and the nearby Boole and Beaton's built huge steam schooners, 150-foot leviathans that successfully traveled the Pacific Coast in all weather, delivering timber from the Northwest to the wood-greedy Bay Area.

Just above the lumberyard, scows laden with grain docked at the South End Warehouse, bringing food to the hungry city. And at Pope & Talbot's, a wharf jutting into the channel was ruled by San Francisco's hay dealers, who engaged in the vital business of feeding the city's thousands of horses. The scene must have been chaotic --- often a dozen or more scows docked there, tying up three abreast, their decks piled high with bales.

All this activity became decidedly unhealthy for the waterway, as one old seaman noted. Captain Fred Klebingat, a German who arrived in San Francisco in 1909, described Mission Creek as "an open sewer, a cesspool that emitted offensive odors, especially at low water....Here was a creek the consistency of mud; the flow of the tides did not materially affect it. We knew what the contents of the creek were!" Plus ça change?

But what of the China Basin Building itself? It appeared on the scene relatively late, in the 1920s, but it arrived with impeccable architectural credentials. Built to store fruit for the burgeoning Del Monte canneries, it was designed by the firm of Bliss and Faville, which also produced the St. Francis Hotel and the renaissance revival Bank of America building at Hallidie Plaza. The curator of the Maritime Museum Harlan Soeten recalled that the warehouse provided work throughout the Depression: "United Fruit boats couldn't turn around in the narrow channel, so a tugboat would tow the big banana boats in by the bow and out by the stern. There were the famous banana boats that unloaded with conveyor belts into box cars at the China Basin Building." In the 1950s, not much had changed. Longshoreman Al Ohta remembered that one group of workers "fed the banana stalks onto the conveyor belt that brought the fruit up out of the hatch. The dock group walked the bananas from the belt to the chilled refrigerator cars on the siding next to the China Basin Building.  There was never much room between stalks so nobody wanted to work on the end of the conveyor belt where the bananas would fall off."

Twenty years later, the southern waterfront lay largely idle. But at the center of the quiet, in the China Basin Building, something was happening that presaged the era to come. In the 1970s, the warehouse assumed new functions, ones that complemented the new, hi-tech role the city was adopting. The warehouse became an office building. A very desirable office building: in 1997 the New York-based Blackstone Group paid $89 million for the refurbished property and nearly resold it a year later for $149 million. Today, as in the past, the building stands alone, guarding the waterway between Third and Fourth Streets. But tomorrow, it may have a rival. The designs for Mission Bay project a hotel across the creek.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Friday, March 12, 1999

One more day in the sun

It was the sort of cloudless, high sky that drives visiting outfielders crazy. But it formed a soothing blue canopy over North Beach yesterday morning as the neighborhood hovered in front of SS Peter and Paul's Church to honor its most renowned son for the final time. A mere block away, on the playground pavement where Joe D. served his apprenticeship, a thousand similar skies and their accompanying winds had provided him his singular skills. If you can play the outfield in San Francisco, you can play it anywhere, and the senses DiMaggio honed as a youth go far in explaining how he could turn his back completely on a fly ball and turn only when he had run it down. The secrets of his fabled economy of motion were in the smallest of details: Hearing the way the bat and ball collided, for instance --- the very timbre of that sound in the thick marine air of North Beach --- was an indice to how far it would travel.

Skilled workers are usually generous in demystifying their trades, and will tell you that 90 percent of completing a job is in laying it out. DiMaggio frequently said as much throughout his career, and what's been missing in the reams of copy written about him this week is that sense of him as a worker and craftsman --- and indeed, in the fullest declensions of the word, as an artisan. You don't grow up during the Depression as the son of an immigrant fisherman and one of nine siblings and easily lose that notion of strata and corresponding personal mission. In all the permutations of the word "class" which have been used to comment on DiMaggio's personal comportment, no one has placed the word in its more accurate political/economic context.

Preparation was everything to DiMaggio. And combined with his imposing physical gifts, it turned him into as complete an athletic specimen as we have ever seen. But more: In the 1930s, when the dignity of having a skill and the ability to earn a livelihood was a chimera for vast numbers of Americans, the country looked to him as an exemplar of its aspirations. We thrilled to watch such competence displayed daily out in the sun, honest labor combined with boyish playfulness, exquisitely delivered. And in truth it's an understatement to emphasize the degree to which he brought the nation together during his 1941 streak; it wasn't the inestimable Franklin Roosevelt whose name was on people's lips that summer as we moved out from under economic sclerosis --- it was Joe's. He was a proud and disciplined tradesman, a perfectionist, a kid who got seasick on the family boat and who, to our delight and gratitude, filled the shoes of his fisherman father in other ways. The mannerist workman's ethos of that era was, of course, something he relished: Grab a shave at the end of the shift, put on a coat and tie, walk tall but effacingly among everyone, and envy no man's scope or situation. DiMaggio's only competition was himself, and he knew exactly who he was and where he had come from. In later years, he would express befuddlement over criticism of the elegant parsimony which was as natural and instinctive to him as moving a runner over to third.

In those immediate years before the start of WWII the country had cohered geographically, as well, with the growing impact and influence of the heretofore provincial Western states. Widespread labor agitation along the Pacific Coast could no longer be ignored, and the stream of Major League ballplayers from San Francisco had no little added effect on the dissipation of regional isolation. The San Francisco--New York connection which DiMaggio had forged was electric, and it bespoke the possibility of finally enclosing the old archetypal frontier explorations of Lewis and Clark, and Richard Henry Dana. With the nickname The Yankee Clipper, the instrumentality of DiMaggio approached the poetic. It is the most precise, succinct image ever penned about an athlete, brilliantly anthropomorphizing the rakish 19th-century New England clipper ships which knifed the Cape Horn route between the two cities that were the primary locales of DiMaggio's life. Lean, sleek, fast, powerful, unerringly graceful --- man and ship, twined in America's collective unconscious, plowing forward toward completion and glory.

And for a while that impulse toward full democratic participation and inclusion held fast in the country's psyche. Cold War, and imperial overreach in Vietnam, finally closed out FDR's vision, and organized labor became an expediently willing accomplice to ideological convention. It's no wonder that DiMaggio, the next-most revered figure of the '30s and '40s, would become symbolic of the tumult of the 1960s. But it wasn't enough to insist to Paul Simon that he hadn't gone anywhere; or to feel slighted that the mucilage of integrity and excellence he once provided the country had seemingly evaporated. Like an intentional walk, events had appeared to become beyond the control of any of us.

* * *

It was fitting that yesterday was a normal day in North Beach. People went to work, fulfilling the tasks and responsibilities of commerce. Trucks unloaded in the warm, liquid sunshine. Middle-aged women in aprons bustled behind bakery counters and earnest young baristas coaxed cappuccino machines in the cafes along Grant Street and Columbus Avenue.

A few hundred people congregated outside of the church for the funeral service. Parents pushed infants in strollers, and at the edge of the crowd five elderly Asian women went about their Tai Chi routines. Intermittently, Italian phrases drifted softly through the mild air.

Up on Russian Hill, buildings gleamed in the mid-morning light and the underside of a flag rippled imperceptibly. As the church bells rang out 11 o'clock, the flock of wild parrots from Telegraph Hill flew over in a soaring V formation.

The pallbearers blinked in the bright sunlight a few minutes later as they moved down the steps and loaded the hearse. As the cortege moved off, the crowd as one burst into applause.

Were there a box score of this luminous morning, it would show that the streak continues. On the playground a block away, some 75 years ago, the former newsboy in the high-topped shoes painstakingly taught himself to catch life with both hands, lest it slip through the fragile webbing. Of the man and the times in which he lived, we have no better reminder of the dearest cheering we share.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

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