A City for Idiots

Historical Essay

by Iain A. Boal, 2004

Originally published in The Political Edge

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Double parking in the Valencia Street bike lane, c. 2016.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

“Idiot” derives from the Greek word meaning “private person,” that is, someone barred or absent from the public life of the city. “Private,” likewise, is etymologically kin to “deprivation,” though any memory of why that might be—namely, that privacy was a prideful abstention from a life in common—is long gone.
—The Devil’s Glossary

From any point of view other than that of police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Today urbanism’s main problem is ensuring the smooth circulation of a rapidly growing number of motor vehicles.
—Guy Debord, Les Lèvres Nues 6, 1955

Sometime this year humanity will cross a watershed. For the first time in history, the majority of people on the planet will be city dwellers. Despite a deep strain of anti-urbanism running through North American culture, which comes in several varieties of reverse puritanism—rural militias, the Unabomber, Earth First!ers, back-to-the-land rusticators (“city bad, wilderness good”)—the fact is that the human future is bound up with the fate of cities. They are strange and fascinating artifacts, though poorly understood. In particular, the megacities produced by structural adjustment programs and the new enclosures of capitalist globalization are, sociologically, UFOs. That was the phrase used by the urban historian and critic Mike Davis to describe these new sites of unrecorded and heroic improvisation in the Global South, many of whose inhabitants are engaged in a struggle for sheer existence. In the cities of the North too, in the midst of great plenty, millions are forced to improvise an impoverished and marginal livelihood. San Francisco is no exception, but thanks to the critical biographies that “everyone’s favorite city” has inspired—Hartman’s City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco, and Brook, Carlsson, and Peters’s Reclaiming San Francisco come to mind—it is possible to grasp something of the dynamics that have shaped the place, including the history of struggles on the terrain of transportation across its various modes—trains, trams, buses, bicycles, automobiles, and, okay, cable cars.

The chronic shambles of Bay Area transportation—a daily insult to the working population, and above all to those poor, elderly, and young who depend on buses—means that nobody in recent memory has been able to run for public office in San Francisco without having to make some noises about improving public transit. It was true of Willie Brown, and no less true of the candidates in the 2003 mayoral race. They all have to deal with the fragmented nature of urban government (of which there are more than a hundred in the greater Bay Area) and the dominance of suburban and auto interests. The subway system is occasionally fought over but in reality is in thrall to exurban developers, leaving most of the inner Bay Area under-served. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission failed for thirty years to create an integrated transport system; they doled out the lion’s share of funds to freeway construction, leaving some for the subway, and a pittance for the buses. What needs to be explained, however, is the extraordinary galvanizing of transit and local community activists by the Matt Gonzalez campaign, when in reality his “transit-first” manifesto on transportation was not radically at odds with Gavin Newsom’s own “transit-oriented” position. The Gonzalez phenomenon must ultimately be set within a deeper history of the San Francisco region and its politics.

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BART train at West Oakland station, 2021.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

The peninsularity of the city and the severity of its hillsides are at the same time a condition of its glory and an element in its chronic transportation woes. The breathtaking physiography of the bay, together with a crustal geology that fortuitously extruded huge mercury deposits to complement the gold and silver in the Sierra Nevada, constitutes the physical setting, though sadly San Francisco turned its back on the bay long ago, except for high-premium views. The contrast with, say, Sydney—its flotillas of water taxis, ferries, sailing craft, and vibrant waterfront life—is a standing embarrassment. The reasons are manifold; first, as with Manhattan and its relation to the Hudson and East Rivers, San Francisco’s bay was, from the beginning, predominantly used for industrial and military purposes. Second, the building of the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges in the 1930s evacuated the bay of most of its ferry traffic and consequently of pedestrian traffic moving through the Ferry Building, to the permanent detriment of life along the city’s main axis, Market Street. Thirdly, the paucity of deep natural anchorages within the bay combined with the barrier of railroad (and later freeway) corridors, created by eminent domain along the shore, to sever communities from the water. In the East Bay the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads had acquired most of the waterfront and it was only in 1911 that the city of Oakland was able to pry it loose. In San Francisco itself the merchants and shippers intentionally walled off the bay to control it and to keep down customary appropriation (“theft”) at the dockside; the assault on the longshore—a matrix for radical politics and labor solidarity in the city—went back at least to the building of the Embarcadero itself after the earthquake of 1906.

The extraordinary energies released by Gonzalez’s run for mayor were prefigured by the lightning three-week write-in campaign for Tom Ammiano in 1999. By no stretch could either candidate be called your av-erage machine politician. Ammiano’s improbable headquarters was Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint, a small gay comedy club in San Francisco’s Castro district. He had led the opposition to City Hall on behalf of tenants and neighborhood activists, agitated for an $11 an hour minimum wage for workers on city contracts, and refused on principle to deal with paid lobbyists. “Taking back the city”—from downtown money and the Willie Brown machine—was how many grassroots volunteers described what they were doing during those frenzied days, though it would be hard to claim that the city was ever in the hands of the people in the first place.

The Gonzalez campaign contained many echoes of Ammiano’s run in 1999, and tapped the same reservoir of latent energy. Like Ammiano, Gonzalez was a regular rider on San Francisco’s MUNI Metro system. Though a lawyer with a Stanford training, he continued to share a rented group house and could be seen walking around town. His brand of “antipolitics”—to be sure, a venerable American political tradition—could not be dismissed as a pose. He seemed unlikely to behave like Dianne Feinstein who as mayor had fired Richard Sklar, head of the Public Utilities Commission, when he insisted on downtown developers paying larger fees for public transit. Charismatic in a quiet hunched way, Gonzalez became the darling of organized transit activists such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, as well as pedestrian and motorcycling lobbies. More broadly, he mobilized “alternative” and subcultural elements, and appealed to thousands of young unaffiliated city dwellers seriously alienated from electoral politics. The campaign was quickly boosted by significant numbers of residents of the inner neighborhoods, particularly the Mission, Potrero Hill, Haight-Ashbury, and Bernal Heights, as well as South-of-Market denizens, who were on the rebound from almost “losing the city” in the dot.com gold rush. Luckily the gloomier implications of Hollow City, Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg’s anatomy of gentrification during the silicon boom years, were averted by the collapse of infotech stocks in 2001. Wall Street’s bagmen quit town, leaving Mayor Brown to settle the succession and candidate Gonzalez, as reticent pied piper, to lead what an old friend of his from law school sardonically called a “children’s crusade” against the Democratic establishment. A motley crew of all genders, colors, and sizes—bohemians, artisans, greens, assorted wage-slaves, and alarmed liberals looking for a local buttress against the atavistic turn in state and national politics—went canvassing with a will.

This temporary and ragged-arsed coalition of volunteers was further energized by the recent and vivid memory of a series of extra-electoral actions. In particular, the massive peace and antiglobalization demonstrations, which have been bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets of San Francisco since the spring of 2003, gave many their first taste of a highly charged public sphere (“public” being a deeply suspect and unfashionable notion in an era of neoliberal individualism) in which serious business—more than getting to work or shopping—is conducted in the spirit of Eros. On such occasions people glimpse the possibility of doing politics—and of living—differently. The crowds were noisy and full of banter, the mood was carnivalesque. One longtime chronicler of popular struggles in the city noticed above all “the civic feeling of the event—‘everyone’ in SF seemed to be there or wish they’d been there.”

The memory of the city as a vibrant public sphere—albeit fleeting and partial—is, I believe, one reason for the remarkable energy thrown into the Gonzalez campaign by the transit activists, many of whom poured into the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, the antiwar movement was making the connection between imperialism abroad and automobilism at home, between the massive military expenditures ensuring the flow of oil and the interstate highway system as a Defense Department project. What must also be recalled is the crucial role played by transit activists during the 1990s in nurturing hopes that a popular victory might just be possible despite being vastly outspent, and that a more livable city—one not given over to cigar-smoking traders and content providers driving Armadas—was not just a dream. After all, was it not an evanescent, anarchist, monthly, open-air, moving assemblage of San Francisco cyclists who had, mirabile dictu, inflicted the first serious damage to the Willie Brown administration?

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Critical Mass rolls down Lombard Street in August 2004.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

In 1997 the mayor, representing the interests of downtown capital and its smooth flow, suffered a political defeat when he found that he could not co-opt, buy off, discipline, or otherwise domesticate Critical Mass, which has joyfully transformed the Friday commute home for some, while revealing the exquisite tedium and irrationality of traffic dominated by privatized transportation. The mayor apparently was unable to grasp that Critical Mass was an idea about urbanity and the possibilities of collective life, not an organization that might be destroyed by a police riot. If there was coordination, it was not because there was an executive committee or leadership that conspired to cause traffic jams. There were only the antinomian merlins of Market Street, who smiled and said quietly: “We are not blocking traffic; we are traffic.”

In fact, recent political battles about transportation in San Francisco must be understood in terms of the production of space under capitalism, its priorities (in particular, the political economy of transit as servant of land values), its uneven development, and not least the contradictions of the circulation of its workforce. As early as 1896 there was a police riot on Market Street during a demonstration by thousands of cyclists, on that occasion demanding better roads (ah, the dialectic of history!). The owners of the tram companies felt threatened, as well they might, by this new mode of freewheeling personal mobility. But by 1900 the human-powered high-wheelers and safety bicycles were being challenged as “kings of the road,” and the long reign of the automobile was dawning. (Bicyclists in the United States seem never to have forgiven motorists for their eclipse and many today even claim to represent the antithesis of the automobile, even though historically they share with car drivers an ideology of personal mobility and absolute entitlement to “freedom of the road.”) We continue, at the outset of the following century, to live in the part-built, part-demolished utopia of 1930s car company executives, who gave fair warning in the GM pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And it’s not over yet. The U.S. consulting firm of McKinsey recently produced a document titled “Vision 2020” for the city of Hyderabad in India, proposing a state subsidy of $100 million so that Hyderabad could become a “world class futuristic city with Formula 1 [car racing] as a core component.”

Nevertheless, the so-called San Francisco Freeway Revolt of the 1950s and 1960s marked a turning point of sorts. It was the vanguard of resistance to cold war urban planning, which had been more or less handed over to highway engineers. Cities are in the best of circumstances ecologically dubious, as Gray Brechin shows in his Mumfordian account of San Francisco’s parasitic relation to its enormous hinterland. But the immense costs, social and environmental, associated with the motor car, as a result of the zoned disconnection of domestic and productive life, make matters far worse, and perhaps ultimately catastrophic. But all this was hardly obvious to the residents of the city at the time of the postwar masterplans of 1948 and 1951, which laid out proposals, without any consultation whatever with the people to be displaced, for ploughing freeways through the city to connect the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges as part of the interstate highway system. They were to be routed where possible along existing rights of way, across public land, and otherwise through neighborhoods of least resistance (read: poor and black communities). Moreover, the city rushed the process in order to qualify for massive (90%) funding under the Federal Highway Act of 1956. The construction of the first section of the double-decked Embarcadero Freeway passing in front of the Ferry Building, and the virtually simultaneous opening of the Central Freeway in the spring of 1959, showed San Franciscans the full horrors of a city designed by highway engineers. The fight was on to prevent the juggernaut demolishing the Panhandle, cutting a swathe north-south across Golden Gate Park and bulldozing through the wealthy Marina district. The proposed Western Freeway, which was slated to run parallel to 19th Avenue and would have bisected both the Sunset and Richmond districts, turned the working class and petit bourgeois of the city’s west side, notoriously conservative, into the avant-garde of a worldwide freeway revolt.

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Hayes Valley Farm built on the old on- and off-ramps of the Central Freeway, demolished after the 1989 earthquake. These ramps led to Fell and Oak Streets which under the original 1950s plan would have been bulldozed to make way for the Panhandle-Golden Gate Freeway to the GG Bridge, never built due to citizen revolt.

Photo: Chris Carlsson, 2010

In the course of the struggle, neighborhoods and communities normally indifferent or even mutually hostile, found common cause. The sheer scope of the destruction planned by the highway bureaucrats forged citywide alliances strong enough to have the maximum scheme withdrawn in 1965. The federal funds were transferred to the building of Interstate 280, and city planners now trumpeted a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system as the answer to getting about the city. (Actually, BART had been conceived as early as the 1940s by the new Bay Area Council and the Bechtel Corporation as part of San Francisco’s effort to maintain its centrality as the suburbs spun out of control; the plan was to keep white-collar workers and executives downtown.) It is unclear whether planners anticipated BART's centrifugal effect, raising land values at the core and on the periphery, eventually allowing Chevron and PT&T to move their headquarters away from downtown. Part of the problem was that in 1947 40% of U.S. workers relied on public transportation to get to and from their job; by 1963, only 14% did so. This precipitous decline was not unrelated to the conspiracy by General Motors, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tire and Rubber, and Mack Truck to dis-mantle mass transit and to replace it with private cars, buses, and trucks. They systematically bought up and closed down over 100 trolley lines in forty-five cities (often ripping up the tracks and selling the rights of way); they were indicted by a federal grand jury and eventually fined a nugatory $5,000 each.

Daniel Burnham, who might have had highway engineers in mind, once said: “Make no small plans: they have no magic to stir the blood, and probably themselves will not be realized.” Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez were both surprised by the surge of enthusiasm and civic energies generated by their modest plans. It is striking that such mild proposals to mitigate the irrationalities of the city’s transit systems and to enhance public space (including undeniably useful schemes such as an Office of Streetscape Design, the encouragement of sidewalk business, and the rationalizing of rail, bus, and tram links) were enough to galvanize the transportation activists of San Francisco. It is, if the Gonzalez manifesto is any measure, a safe prediction that even the youngest of San Franciscans will be living out their lives in the long twilight of automobilism. Apart from the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway structure, efforts so far to undo the dam-age citywide have been absurdly inadequate, or illustrate the adage “Be careful what you wish for.” The Octavia Street rehabilitation, part of the agonizingly long fallout from the [[Loma Prieta Earthquake, 1989|Loma Prieta earthquake\\, may end up with an outcome actually worse than the original condition, a classic case of half-baked solutions. Bicyclist and pedestrian activists pushed hard for the Octavia Boulevard Plan, finally prevailing in a third local election. Now that the plan is being built, many cyclists are dismayed to find their beloved Valencia Street bikeway once again covered by an ominous freeway overpass, on its way to a nearby touchdown at Market Street. Market Street cyclists, pedestrians, and bus riders in turn will have to wait through extraordinarily long traffic cycles designed to give priority to the movement of cars on and off the freeway.

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The Valencia Street bikelanes, once the best in the City, were nearly destroyed by private car services clogging them in the mid-2010s.

Photo: Chris Carlsson, 2016

Of course, nothing short of the abolition of current priorities—of a world organized around the wage form, exploitation, and the production of commodities by commodities—will be able to turn cities into livable places for all their inhabitants. Community-based resistance in its current form, and measures such as transit subsidy fees imposed on big developers, color-coordinated bikeways or showers in corporate offices, to mollify the tide of commuters in their daily ebb and flow—while reasonable enough, are themselves symptoms. They serve only to reveal the poverty of modern cities.

The question, then, is, given that totalizing blueprints, both liberal and stalinist, are for good reasons dis-credited, how do we truly get out of this mess? Mike Davis has proposed a retrieval of nineteenth-century urbanism, of the utopian writings of Geddes, Bellamy, and Morris. In another medium, and homegrown at that, Mona Caron’s Market Street Railway mural on Church Street inspires the imagination in the spirit of P.M.’s bolo’bolo or the Goodman brothers’ Communitas, an anarchist prospectus for the island of Manhattan. These visions of a renovated urbanity are not to be confused either with white ecotopias à la Sierra Club or the piecemeal mitigations and social engineering of capitalist urban planning, which is, under present conditions of re-ghettoizing and incarceration, a branch of criminology. Such artful and utopian poetics needs to be conjoined with ruthless analysis, laying bare the logic that connects automobilism at home to the imperial base-world abroad, that sees the linkage between gated communities in the cities and the prison gulag in the hinterland, that insists on the relation between the dedicating of so much space to private vehicles and the impoverishment of our collective life.

The current state of things will not endure. Still, Gramsci was proved right when he wrote in his notebook that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Who can deny that this captures the situation of modern cities? Gridlock, SUVs, smog, epidemics of asthma, road rage, carnage. Yet, in this long interregnum, materials for the reappropriation of daily life are to hand, and they must be combined with slow, hard, imaginative work by groups such as the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and neighborhood activists across the city. Matt Gonzalez, San Francisco’s remedial urbanist, may have left the stage, but we cannot in any case hope for the construction of a better world as long as we continue to surrender popular power to “representatives” in rituals of periodic ratification by ballot. Any democracy worth the name is direct and participatory, and yet the very configuration of capitalist space does not invite public assembly. On the contrary, land use under modernity makes circulation the highest priority. What that means is that struggles over roads and public space will always be at the political edge. The huge open-air demonstrations of 2003 and the Gonzalez campaign, materialized—however briefly—the dead percentages in the polls, took life for a moment off the flickering screen and interrupted business as usual. They imprinted the senses with a re-minder of what the public realm could be.

This essay draws on material from a chapter on automobilism, bicycles, and the spaces of modernity in The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure, to be published by City Lights Books. For helpful comments, thanks are due to Summer Brenner, James Brook, Christina Gerhardt, Joseph Matthews, Michael Weber, and especially to Gray Brechin, Chris Carlsson, and Richard Walker.

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published originally in The Political Edge ed. Chris Carlsson (City Lights Foundation: 2004)