"I was there..."
Interview by Marcus Duskin, originally published here.
Alvin Duskin in 1971.
Photo: courtesy Marcus Duskin
In 2009 sfgate.com published a feel-good, where-are-they-now piece about my dad Alvin Duskin, amusingly labeling him the “high rise hater” for his Yes on T campaign in 1971 that set height limits on new buildings in San Francisco. I thought the piece by John King was missing a lot of background information about what had happened to the city, so I interviewed Alvin to get some more history before, during and since. I am certainly proud of him for being a spokesperson for the citizens of San Francisco and for what I had learned from him in developing a progressive, humanistic worldview. Plus I was around when all this was going on! Certainly a highlight of my high school years was an invitation from dad to join him on a visit to Alcatraz Island during the American Indian Movement occupation in 1970 (he had been invited there by Richard Oakes, the local AIM leader, in recognition of the earlier media campaign to save Alcatraz.)
The Ultimate Highrise: San Francisco’s Mad Rush to the Sky was published by the San Francisco Bay Guardian around the time of the Yes on T campaign. Alvin wrote the introduction.
The transcript of our interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Marcus Duskin: I was looking through your intro to the Ultimate Highrise. You said that the anti-highrise campaign began with the campaign to save Alcatraz. That was, as I remember, your first entree into city politics.
Alvin Duskin: It was. The linkage, I think, is that the Alcatraz campaign got me interested in the whole question of who decides what the future of the Bay Area is. Essentially Alcatraz was a little microcosm, this little tiny island in the middle of the bay. The decision that had been made on Alcatraz was that one side of it would be a monument to the Apollo 8 mission and the other side would be a re-creation of Victorian San Francisco with plastic trees and all that kind of stuff. It seemed a really stupid idea to me. Why were we doing this, who’s deciding this? My notion was that the people should have some say in the future of Alcatraz, in the future of the Bay Area. Alcatraz was such a quick, spectacular victory – one very brief ad and a half a dozen television appearances, and the Mayor’s position just simply collapsed, the Board of Supervisors reversed themselves and Lamar Hunt left. And we won. So then the question is well, OK, what next? The next thing that was on everybody’s mind, because of the work that Herb Caen had done publicizing the question of the U.S. Steel building. People kept asking me what’s your position on the U.S. Steel building? When I started thinking about that, again it wasn’t a question of should we have a building, was it a good idea or a bad idea, but who’s deciding this? And why don’t we put this stuff to a vote? So that was the genesis of the campaign.
Proposed U.S. Steel skyscraper in the bay.
Image: San Francisco Chronicle
Marcus Duskin: With the idea to fight City Hall?
Alvin Duskin: Yeah, to fight City Hall, to get people involved in the political process, to get people thinking about it, that they themselves could decide what the future of the city was rather than a bunch of real estate developers.
Marcus Duskin: I believe there had been some precedent for this, some neighborhood battles against development. One that stands out in my mind is the Panhandle Freeway.
Alvin Duskin: The Panhandle Freeway and the cable car fight.
from the Vote on High-Rise Coloring Book, 1970.
Marcus Duskin: What was the cable car fight about?
Alvin Duskin: They were going to replace the cable cars with buses, diesel buses chugging up and down the hills. Some woman, I forget her name but she was a very early hero, led the fight to keep the cable cars going. The difference in those fights, what I was always trying to do was to put the thing actually to a vote, rather than getting the citizens to go down and simply lobby the Supervisors or complain to the Mayor, to actually have the citizens decide. So what we did was get into the initiative process. That process has been very much corrupted now, but when we did it, it was volunteers going out and getting signatures, because you have to get a couple hundred thousand signatures, you have to personally engender a mass movement. The way initiatives are done now is you hire a bunch of people and you pay them to stand around and get people to sign things. So whoever has the money has the initiatives. That’s another case of something that started out as a way of promoting a grassroots, democratic process being co-opted, taken over by the ruling class and used for their own purposes. Nasty change.
from the Vote on High-Rise Coloring Book, 1970.
Marcus Duskin: Looking through the Ultimate Highrise and looking through the coloring book, they both have a very anti-corporate feel. It seemed like the other side were the corporate interests and the politicians that were standing up for their interests, like Joe Alioto, who was, as I recall, a corporate lawyer.
Alvin Duskin: I wouldn’t characterize it as corporate interests, I would characterize it as development interests, of which the corporations, of course, are a major part. It’s the corporations, it’s the politicians who are in favor of supporting development, who are funded by corporations, it’s also the unions, and they were willing to say that the future of the city, the quality of life in the city, is not as important as the jobs that they’re going to get over the next six months, even though at the end of six months they’re going to be out of work. There was just a whole interest in development, the idea being that the more you develop the more prosperous the city will become, and that will increase the quality of life for the people of the city. Well, what we’ve seen happen as San Francisco becomes overdeveloped is that people who aren’t part of the process are forced out. You can’t buy a house in the city for under 600 thousand dollars now. So the typical blue collar family is simply pushed out, you get people commuting from Modesto, Escalon, and it’s just very difficult for people to stay. That’s the process we call the Manhattanization process, where the city will be a city of people who can afford to stay here. People who are very poor are put in public housing or low income housing and middle class people simply are pushed out.
This ad, first appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner in October, 1970, was the first step in Alvin Duskin's campaign to enlarge the citizen assault on the U.S. Steel Building into a general attack on highrise development throughout the city. More than 10,000 newspaper readers clipped coupons and sent them to City Hall.
Source: The Ultimate Highrise
Marcus Duskin: I don’t know if you’ve been following the developments in Louisiana, New Orleans, but it seemed to me that like that basically all the people who stayed were the poor, the blacks.
Alvin Duskin: It is amazing, isn’t it? Just amazing. I was in New Orleans not too long ago. I was in the French Quarter about six months ago or something like that, and there were lots of black people and lots of white people. And on TV and in newspapers it’s all been black people. Anyone who was white had a car or rented a car or got in a taxicab and left. The black people stayed and now we’re rescuing them. The thing that happened in New Orleans, of course, was it was an environmental catastrophe caused by the overdevelopment of the area, the building of the levees and the destruction of the bayous. And why is it done? Well, it’s done so that people can build high rise buildings in downtown New Orleans and develop the tourist industry and the people who take it on the chin, who suffer for it, are the people who are left out of the economic gains and are just left there to suffer the environmental catastrophe and the losses. Do you know what it is for a poor person who’s just simply renting a cheap apartment to lose all their clothes and all their possessions and all their everything?
Marcus Duskin: It’s an issue of survival over the next few months too, because there’s no work.
Alvin Duskin: Absolutely. And it will only benefit the carpenters from every other state who come rushing in to New Orleans to rebuild the place.
Marcus Duskin: It seems like it’s something that could have happened here very easily too, the same scenario, a massive earthquake.
Alvin Duskin: Or tsunami.
Marcus Duskin: I wanted to go back a little. The whole issue of quality of life really stood out for me in looking at this material. What was your perception of San Francisco growing up or reaching adulthood? Certainly myself, growing up in the sixties, I thought there was more of a working class feeling to the town. A lot of stuff I remember, like the diners in the Mission and the little metal foundries on Folsom Street, it all seemed like a kind of life that’s gone now.
Alvin Duskin: Well, I was in school at San Francisco State, which was downtown at that time on Market Street, usually the guys worked on the docks or they worked South of Market. There were metal working shops where Yerba Buena is, and printing presses and garment factories. It was an industrial area. A lot of the women worked in the Financial District as typists and stenographers and that type of thing. It was a working school, people that went to San Francisco State, which were really the glory days. State was, in my opinion, the most exciting school in the country at that time in the fifties. You had the Labor School right across the street, you had Communist Party organizers infiltrating the campus, and the loyalty oath controversy going, and it really was a blue collar school, and people lived in the neighborhood right around the school, and you could walk a few blocks to school. It was absolutely great. So what happened? The school moved out to Lake Merced, nobody could live in the neighborhood any more unless you had a lot of money and could live in Parkmerced. Of course the whole city became gentrified, that is, San Francisco became a center for tourism, a destination city for tourism, and the trades just had to move out. The price of housing, of course, became outrageously high. I was a child of the Depression, and I grew up in the city along the southern part, in the San Bruno Avenue/Portola District. That was certainly a working class, Jewish neighborhood, Jews and Italians and Maltese were who were in the neighborhood. There were virtually no blacks or Asians. We would go for a walk to go shopping down to the stores on San Bruno Avenue. I remember my sister and I would be really fed up because my folks would stop three times in every block to talk to people they knew, as there was a very strong sense of community, sort of like the Lower East Side in New York. They knew everybody, and all the stores were friendly. And all that changed. The kids I grew up with, everybody left the neighborhood and went to live somewhere else. Mostly the kids from my school mostly moved down the Peninsula, San Carlos, Daly City, South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City. Nobody stayed in the city. And the house that my folks built for $15,000 during the Second World War is now on the market for about 800 thousand. So who can live there? It’s really amusing.
Marcus Duskin: There was a mention in the Ultimate Highrise about the Bay Area Council, who were involved in all the planning that was going on after World War Two. It seems to me that the white flight to the suburbs, for example, was a result of this planning.
Alvin Duskin: Absolutely, yeah. The development of BART was to bring people in and out of the center of the city into the Financial District. The subway system here doesn’t move people around the city, it moves people from San Francisco to Orinda, say, and that’s about what it does. At the end of the Second World War it was realized that the city was laid out in a very irrational manner. And of course, getting back to the development interests, people that knew what development was going to go started investing in real estate in those places where the BART stops would be. It really was quite an elaborate conspiracy. For example, the old Key System buses coming across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge used to bring people into the city. In order to make BART possible they had to stop that, so they passed a ruling that said that it would cause too many traffic jams if the Key System actually took people from the East Bay and brought them into the city and then looped around the city. So the buses had to stop at the end of the Bridge.
Image: Louis Dunn in The Ultimate Highrise
Marcus Duskin: Right, at the East Bay Terminal.
Alvin Duskin: Then with the Golden Gate Bridge, those buses were allowed to keep looping around the city. The buses from the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t cause traffic jams, but the notion was that the buses from the Bay Bridge would cause traffic jams. Well, BART was never planned to go to Marin anyway, so who cared what the buses from Marin did? But they cared about the Key System, to stop the Key System in order to make BART necessary.
Marcus Duskin: So this was going on in the sixties, is that right?
Alvin Duskin: This was going on right after the war. In the late forties the Bay Area Council gets going, and it’s really moving into high gear in the fifties. The notion there was that San Francisco would be the hub of the empire’s westward movement into Asia, and people were thinking what the effect of this would be on the people who lived here. I pointed out in the campaign that growth meant the destruction of the quality of life of people who lived in the city, what the effect of this would be on the price of housing, and how people would be forced out of the city. A couple of things that we didn’t anticipate, for example, the great movement of gay people into the city, which also caused people to be forced out of the Castro, which again was a low income, working class neighborhood. There were other forces always operating in the city, some good and some bad. The main thing that’s happened in San Francisco is that it’s become a commercial center, one of the dominant commercial centers, the other being Los Angeles.
Marcus Duskin: One of the arguments of the anti highrise movement was that highrises were basically counter-economic, that is, the cost to the city of actually providing services to highrises would outweigh the economic benefits. Do you still think that’s true?
Alvin Duskin: Yeah, I do. This came from a book by an MIT economist named Forrester called “Urban Dynamics” in which he pointed out that a lot of things which we take as intuitively true turn out to be false. That economic growth does not mean that you get richer, it can often mean that you can get poorer. For example, let’s say you that decide that you’ve got some buildings that are in very bad shape, so you decide that what you’re going to do is build more housing for low income people. So you find a place where you can build some low income housing and subsidize low income housing, and you put low income housing on that new piece of land. What happens then is that the people who then move out of this decrepit housing which is substandard move into the new low income housing, but then somebody moves into the old housing which they’ve just left. What happens then is you increase the number of low income people in the city by building low income housing and that’s not the solution. The solution is that if you have available land, and you want to develop that land, build something that creates jobs for the people in the low income housing and let them solve their housing problem. But that means that you don’t have all your low income people concentrated in one place, in one building, which causes crime and drugs and all these other problems. The idea is to make it possible for people to get jobs and let them solve the problems of where they live or where their kids go to school and everything else. We did this study on the Transamerica Building when it was built on who got the jobs in this building, and everybody that was working in the Transamerica Building who got a decent job was living in Piedmont or Marin County. They’re taking their car in to the city every day, causing traffic congestion in the downtown area, and to top it off paying their taxes somewhere else. They occasionally go out and buy a cup of coffee and a necktie, and that’s the economic benefit to the city of having the population double during working hours. So who pays the tax burden for that? It goes on to the people who are living here, which raises the price of housing in the city and forces people to get out. So economic development does not make the current generation of people more affluent,, it just provides opportunities for other people to come in.
Marcus Duskin: The thing I’m having problems getting my hands around is how can you reform that? If San Francisco was planned to be a financial center, who else would benefit from it besides the well off? That someone’s already decided that this is the way it’s going to be.
Alvin Duskin: Well, you’re getting into the basic problem of how a capitalist society operates. Capitalism has its contradictions, and capitalism does not necessarily operate for the benefit of the people. It just simply says that economic growth is always good. It’s not just in San Francisco, but all the institutions of society are set up to further economic growth. If you’re running a corporation, if you have a job in a corporation, and you don’t try to increase gross revenue you’re asked to leave. Why would you want somebody around who’s not trying to increase sales? Least of all the CEO who wants to improve the quality of life for the workers, he’d be out on his ear in two seconds. But then all the other institutions of society such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc, all promote the idea that the reason our society’s a great society is that our economy is growing at a certain rate and we should encourage other economies around the world to grow at a certain rate. Now on the face of it that seems like a good idea, everybody gets more and more prosperous. But what we’re finding out is the world is a limited system and you cannot just have economic growth go on endlessly, or somewhat mindlessly, within a limited system. Eventually you run out of resources. In this country you see a few things that seem to be creating problems, but then you take China, they’re running out of water, major problem. China is using a lot of oil, China is using a lot of water, and that’s really hard to replenish. They’re running out of air, the quality of the air in Beijing is intolerable, much more so in the industrial cities of Western China, people’s lives are shortened with emphysema, lung cancer, everything else. They’re running out of air, they’re running out of water, they’re running out of land certainly, they keep building, there’s less and less land for agriculture. What we’re seeing is that the environment can be a fragile system and it’s more fragile in other parts of the world than it is in Northern California. We look around and we say it’s great out here, the air is good, water is good, I don’t have any problem, what’s everybody complaining about? This isn’t New Orleans.
Marcus Duskin: It seems like San Francisco is beginning to look more and more like any other city. The images of New Orleans, for example, suggest to me that Canal Street could be Montgomery Street, it isn’t that much different.
Alvin Duskin: Yeah, sure.
Marcus Duskin: It seems that common sense does fly in the face often of economic interests. Look what’s happened in the Presidio, for example. We have a problem with homelessness and there’s a need for low income housing, and yet that really didn’t seem to come into consideration.
Alvin Duskin: It was mentioned and dismissed. But there’s some justification for that because you can’t solve those problems in one city, you know? It’s obvious that if you create a really good homeless system in San Francisco, San Francisco becomes a magnet for homeless people.
Marcus Duskin: That was the conservatives’ reaction to Upton Sinclair in the thirties. If you create conditions that are socially beneficial, you get in trouble because you bring in undesirable elements.
Alvin Duskin: What you need is a change in the national direction. Without that you really can’t solve certain things locally.
Marcus Duskin: In the example you mentioned earlier about building low income housing, it seems to me that a lot of social solutions are not designed to give people autonomy, not to be able to allow them to make decisions about themselves, which they could do if you improved quality of life in the neighborhoods, for example. Or, if you put the homeless people out in the Presidio, you create a situation where they can actually do something for themselves.
Alvin Duskin: I can remember when I was in Denmark talking to a young woman who was a desk clerk at my hotel and she was obviously very smart and very capable. We got into a conversation and I said why are you working here? She said that she had got out of school and she really didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she just went on the dole for three years. Then she decided she had to get off of that, so she started this job and she was going to go to school. Her society’s notion was that when people decided they didn’t want to do anything they will still be guaranteed a decent standard of living and a place to stay and all that. If you take all the homeless people in the city and just give them some money for housing, money that can only be used for housing, just housing nothing else, you can’t use it for booze, you can’t use it for drugs, you can’t use it for sex, you can’t use it for anything, just housing. It’s a housing voucher. Let them figure out what to do. Then the low cost hotels would make rooms available for them. What people need is just money, nothing else. Getting back to this notion of building low income housing, if you talk to people in low income housing and say what is it you really want you’ll probably find what they really want is a decent paying job. You can’t live on a McDonald’s salary, I know you can’t do that. So you might as well go on welfare, you’d just do better. But if you had a decent paying job you’d take care of the housing, it’s not that big of a deal. The notion is always to build housing that benefits the construction industry, benefits the real estate industry, benefits the trade unions. You can get a constituency for that. Just to hand people some money, which would be the equivalent, doesn’t benefit those development interests so it’s very difficult to have that done politically.
Marcus Duskin: I remember you saying that in Cuba after the revolution Castro put some campesinos in high rise apartments in Havana with all these amenities that they never had, for example, a flush toilet, and that they pulled up the toilets and took them down to the flea market and sold them.
Alvin Duskin: Yeah, everybody can figure out what to do with money.
Marcus Duskin: The Vallejo ferry was discontinued because it basically cost too much, it was too heavily subsidized, and the argument was that it was losing money. I remember you saying that even the things that appear to be losing money, in terms of quality of life, they actually have a positive economic benefit in the long run.
Alvin Duskin: And should be subsidized for that reason. What do they do with Golden Gate Bridge ferries? Well, they wanted to make them cost effective so they got high speed ferries. The notion was that it should be faster to go from Larkspur Landing to San Francisco by ferry than by car. Well, if you have a high speed ferry it’s very expensive to operate and it doesn’t carry very many people, right? So they’ve been a loser ever since and people who go on them are mainly tourists, or probably as many tourists as commuters. If you wanted to reduce traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge it would be cheaper to give people a four seater Mercedes Benz sedan with the notion that they always took three people with them when they went across the bridge. If you’re going to have commuters that would be cheaper, just give them the car. But the only way this car could be driven is back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge carrying four people. Any other way it doesn’t work. Now what could have really been done on the ferries is they could have built much bigger, much slower ferries with a lower fare. So what if it arrived 15 minutes slower than you could do it in a car? It would be economically so beneficial that people would use it. It’s like the trains in France or Japan, they’re subsidized and they’re packed. We say here that Amtrak has to pay its own way, so they keep raising the fares because the fares are never enough to cover the costs. Every time you increase the fares the ridership drops down and you’re stuck with it. There was a study done a long time ago, back in the late forties, of the value of having no fares at all for the subways in New York City.
Marcus Duskin: You’d be better off economically?
Alvin Duskin: The city would be better off economically because you wouldn’t have to pay for freeways coming in which are tearing the city apart, you won’t have all these people out there collecting money, etc. You’ve reduced traffic. The whole thing would work better if it were simply free.
Marcus Duskin: Talk about the white bicycles. Was that in Amsterdam?
Alvin Duskin: No, it was at the United Nations Environmental Conference 25 years ago in Stockholm. They had all these white bicycles and what you did is pick up a white bicycle, and you could ride it and leave it wherever you went. Somebody else would pick it up so you didn’t have to have any transportation system. What happened is all the bikes were stolen in the first three days and so they discontinued the program. It was obvious to me that the thing to do was to have more bicycles. You should assume that people would steal the first bicycles but after a while, it would become routine. A small number of people in the society who would steal a bike like that as a souvenir or just because they wanted a bike you get beyond that, then you establish this whole notion that bicycles can be provided. Imagine what a boon that would be to San Francisco. Free bicycles. Just walk out of your building and jump on a bike, go to the next place and leave it off. What would it cost? Do you know how cheap bikes would be if you bought them in quantities of 10,000 compared to all the other money that’s spent on transportation? You really have to look at what the costs of the automobile and diesel bus traffic really are. What does it cost to treat people for medical problems that come from inhaling the exhaust of a diesel bus? That’s a side of the cost too. Down in Southern California, in Orange County, it was around ten years ago when gas was about a dollar fifty a gallon, there was a study done there of what the true cost of gasoline was in Orange County. They found that you had to raise it to four and half dollars to break even on it. They compared the medical costs of people who lived in Orange County with the medical costs of people that lived in Salem, Oregon or some place like that and found that childhood asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, all the stuff which came out as either increased medical costs, increased health insurance rates, or an increased cost of public medicine, that all has to be added on. Anyway, there’s more to the price of gasoline than the motorist pays at the pump, society pays a lot for it too. You take that difference and apply it to bicycles and electric transportation, you’ll come away happy. It’s not complicated.
Marcus Duskin: In the Ultimate Highrise I recall there were a lot of predictions about what would happen to San Francisco if highrises were allowed to develop unfettered. Do you think a lot of this has come true?
Alvin Duskin: I don’t really quite remember them.
Marcus Duskin: Here’s an interesting quote, “Old residential neighborhoods with spacious flats and Victorians would be redeveloped into highrise apartments for middle income people.” From what I can see, what’s been changing in San Francisco in the past 15 years or so is exactly that. Particularly my neighborhood, a lot of old houses have been torn down and replaced with condominiums.
Alvin Duskin: Well, certainly in the Richmond. Around here you see old houses coming down and these really incredibly ugly apartment buildings put up that look like they could be put up in Los Angeles or Anchorage, Alaska. What has happened in San Francisco is essentially that working people, people who live and work in San Francisco, are more and more driven out of the city. Highrise development was stopped everywhere except in the downtown area, it was stopped in North Beach, it was stopped on the south side of Golden Gate Park, along Lincoln Avenue, which was a highrise corridor, and it was stopped in Eureka Valley and Noe Valley. Those houses were saved. If you look at what happened to Noe Valley, essentially what you have there is great old houses which used to be lived in by working class families, now incredibly slick, beautifully restored to their Victorian elegance. But you don’t have working class families living in them anymore, you have yuppies living in there. The schools are losing population, the kids in the neighborhood don’t go to the neighborhood schools now, they’re in private schools. You got expensive restaurants in Noe Valley like Firefly, where it costs you 60 dollars for two people to have a meal. It’s hardly like the old days, when it was a blue collar, working class neighborhood. Nobody wanted to live in Noe Valley then, everybody wanted to live in Seacliff. Now houses in Noe Valley are over a million dollars. It’s comical, absurd. But that’s what it is. The notion was in those days that if you stopped Manhattanization working class people would be able to remain in the city. That hasn’t turned out to be true at all.
Marcus Duskin: There was a compromise worked out after the defeat of Prop T. How did that come about?
Alvin Duskin: Well, what happened is we were winning. We first fought the six story height limit, which lost, but then people then started to get into it, it created a lot of interest. I was asked if this six story height limit was defeated, what was I going to come up with next? I said a three foot height limit. They were getting really scared because we were really starting to win. The strongest support was on Russian Hill, which is where many of our volunteers came from. This was because opposite the Alice Marble playground was going to be the second highest, second biggest, bulkiest building in San Francisco, right on the top of Hyde Street. Do you know how small that playground is, right there on the top of Lombard Street?. The other really active volunteers were the gay groups that were coming into the Castro. They were real preservationists. That lot opposite Alice Marble Playground had been sold to a Kansas City developer, Werner Haas. The city fathers, in their wisdom, saw that we were winning. They down-zoned Russian Hill to 40 feet and essentially that guy lost two million dollars with that down-zoning. The street that we were living on at the time, Vallejo between Hyde and Leavenworth, was going to have high rise buildings on all sides of us. Every place was down-zoned except downtown. So essentially we lost the election because all my volunteers had quit when their neighborhoods were down-zoned.
Left to right: Alcoa building, West Coast Life, Security Pacific Bank, Transamerica Pyramid, Holiday Inn, Mutual Benefit (now US Bank) building, Pacific Insurance, c. 1971.
Photo: Dennis Barloga, from The Ultimate Highrise
Marcus Duskin: So you’re saying that the Ultimate Highrise is basically the absurdity of development?
Alvin Duskin: It’s gets bigger and bigger and bigger. San Francisco is a limited environmental system. It’s the most livable city in the United States if not the world. Talk about a destination city, where tourists like to come just to walk around. It’s the ultimate livable city. What was going on, which our campaign did a little bit to at least slow it down, was a campaign of development which was absolutely mindless. People who were living in the city weren’t part of the decision making process and it was all being developed as a part of this corporate development mentality, which completely disregarded the well being of the people that were living in this city. People don’t come to San Francisco to see the Bank of America building. What we saw in the early business campaign was this mindless development. The question was well, when does it end? And the answer was unless people intervene and start making decisions themselves as to what they want to see, it ends up as a city of tall commercial buildings with dark streets and people walking around with guns, that’s what you have. Who wants that?
Marcus Duskin: It does seem like the progressive tradition is continuing in San Francisco. The past five years we’ve seen Matt Gonzalez, Chris Daly, and a whole new generation of politicians that seem to truly want to serve the interests of their constituents.
Alvin Duskin: But then you have the Gavin Newsom crowd too.
Marcus Duskin: Well, that’s the continuation of the old Brown-Burton machine, right?
Alvin Duskin: Yeah, but with a more benign, more gentlemanly approach, the sense that the politicians care. Gavin doesn’t have the arrogance of Willie Brown, so it’s easier. He doesn’t drive around in his limousine and park in front of fire hydrants while he’s having dinner. He doesn’t do all the stupid things that Willie did. He’s a nice guy, and good company, very friendly. Will that make a difference? I don’t know. The more radical approach is something that we always welcome in San Francisco whether or not it will really prevail. The forces of development in this county, the forces of empire in this country, are so strong that it’s wonder that anything can stand up against them. How the empire will eventually fall is the question. Empires always do fall, whether it’s the Spanish or the British or whatever, eventually they fall, give way to something else. How America will maintain its empire it’s a real difficult question. We’re seeing signs of the empire falling right now and a lot of people would welcome a return to old fashioned Republican isolationism, you know, Fortress America, let’s just protect our shores and not interfere. Like Washington, Washington said let’s not get entangled with foreign wars. On the other hand Thomas Jefferson said, in his final letter to the Trustees of the University of Virginia, we have to bring democracy to the rest of the world and the rest of the world will eventually follow our lead. So even right at the start there was a contradiction between what Washington wanted and what Jefferson wanted. I think that San Francisco is too much of a focal point, a launching pad for the American empire, to think that things could really turn around here because of the work of people who are progressive. It’s a little bit naïve, I think, that there’s going to be any real changes without basic regime change in this country. That means more than just shuffling the characters at the top, in means a different perception. We’re just not going to get anywhere unless we start respecting other cultures. If you think of the rest of the world as your enemy, that they’re all kind of inhuman, Islamic beasts or whatever, you can’t get anywhere in this world, the world is too small. How will American people and American politicians develop a sense of respect for Islamic people, African people, respect and caring? Let them know that we really want to do things that are in our mutual interests, not in their interests but in our mutual interests, because there’s no reason to go over and make things better for people in Africa unless that makes things better for us too. So it’s a tough problem. Well, we’ll solve that soon. I maintain the optimism I inherited from your grandfather.
Marcus Duskin: Which is?
Alvin Duskin: My dad always taught me that ultimately things will turn out OK. He’d figure it out, Max would always figure it out.
Marcus Duskin: Right. The other thing San Francisco has had to offer over the years is that it’s been an intellectual center. Can that be preserved?
Alvin Duskin: I think that’s over. It used to be that when you wanted to lead you own life you came to San Francisco. The flat that I got in Telegraph Hill, Vallejo Street, Ronnie Davis was on the top floor living with Sandy Archer. It cost 45 dollars a month.
Marcus Duskin: And that was in what year?
Alvin Duskin: The early sixties. The whole bohemian thing started, well, it really started in the late forties. In the early fifties, if you think about when Howl was written, and City Lights got started and all that, San Francisco was a Mecca for artists and bohemians. In these days it would be just impossible. Who would come here? Why would you leave New York to come here? Maybe to work in a video company or something. Would somebody come here and write poetry, write a novel? I don’t know where they’d go now. Maybe Idaho.
Marcus Duskin: Right, that’s where people are going these days to escape.
Alvin Duskin: You wouldn’t come here, it would just be too expensive. So I think that’s over, just over. It’s very interesting, though, what’s happening with the Academy of Art University. The way the advertise, the way they build buildings, they way they spread out. Higher education is becoming this new cash export crop. They’re attracting kids from the rest of the country, providing housing, and they can qualify for these federal loans. These aspiring artists come out here, they get terrifically in debt, because they get their tuition and living expenses from a federal loan. That’s what’s taken the place of the freelance artists, the student artists. It’s pretty different. You’re not going to get Gregory Corso and the Cockettes, that’s for sure.
Easterly view along Folsom Street from 1st Street, January 2019, as the new highrise corridor takes shape.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
Highrise building boom in the Hub, between Mission and Market along South Van Ness, August 2020.
Photo Chris Carlsson