Historical Essay

by Brian Doohan


The old Levi Strauss factory on Valencia near 14th Street in the North Mission around 1998. The radical La Raza newspaper Basta Ya! ran a piece describing conditions in the late 1960s.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Two weeks before Christmas in 1975, the City seemed a better place for low and middle income renters. A few hours before the fire, George Moscone had won a runoff victory over realtor John Barbagelata, becoming San Francisco's thirty-seventh mayor. In a deepening climate of racial, economic and geographic polarization, Moscone's 90% margin in parts of the Fillmore, Hunter's Point and Bayview had overcome his challenger's 70% tally in many southern and western precincts. Watching from the sidelines was then-supervisor Dianne Feinstein, who had trailed badly in the first election and, in the opinion of political observers, was considering a career in the private sector.

Developers, who had turned to Barbagelata after Feinstein's stumble were, by 3:43, sleeping the sleep of the dead as were the victors, fresh new faces such as Moscone-backer Alan Wofsy and the new mayor's law partner, Charles O. Morgan. And while the movers and shakers dreamt of castles, sugarplums and HUD block grants and losers schemed of campaigns yet to come... Herb Caen would be touting mayors-in-waiting Kevin Starr and Fred Furth within the week... ordinary people dreamed their dreams of jobs and families and maybe better times to come in a nation moving slowly out of the corrosive stench of Watergate and still-smoldering hell of Vietnam.

Good Gerald Ford lacked some of JFK's charisma and the tortured majesty of Lincoln, but he wasn't Nixon either. Two assassinettes had missed the lucky President. Trials were in progress. And F. Lee Bailey, lawyer for the Hearst pup who had robbed her daddy's rival's bank explained the violence and cynicism in his proud exterminator's logic, sweeping the decade and its corruptions into the dust like so many dead cockroaches.

Physical coercion, Bailey thundered. Threat and fear of death. That will be our defense to the robbery of the Hibernia Bank.

And at the Golden Gate, Clint Eastwood was serving up a double dose of threat and fear in Magnum Force and Dirty Harry while at the Roxie, diagonal to the Gartland, Anna Karenina by the Bolshoi delighted the eggheads (no subtitles!). And there were Russians coming in the flesh... gymnasts Olga Korbut and her crew. Detente!

The first place Warriors, behind Jamaal Wilkes and Rick Barry had trounced Portland to move a game up on the hated Lakers. Hamburger on sale for $.69 a pound and Christmas turkeys $21,000 a year.

Good times.

And sparkling new studios at the Fox Plaza rented for under two hundred dollars. A three bedroom flat in Pacific Heights would set you back a princely $425, but at least they threw in a living AND a dining room. And for the less wealthy there were places like the Gartland... $115 up studio. Fun clientele. 495 Valencia Street. (SF Chron, 12/10/75)

Gaze across the City with a tourist's eye and there will be your hills and streets of quaint old houses; cable cars and derelicts and steaming crabs. . . tall buildings underway and vacant lots awaiting enterprise. But view it as a resident and a different landscape manifests; a grid of property and ambition, change and resistance. In a city where low-income is defined for housing purposes as below $28,000 yearly, the overlay takes on a sinister aspect; a shadow of existent and potential menace to the hearth and home.

It is, in fact, a board. . . a Mephistopoly similar, in some aspects to the Monopoly board in its gradations between slum and palace, its railroads, bank and jail. But it is no game, or, if it is, it has been entered by new factors, sly attorneys, managers who may either improve or burn their properties, financiers and foreigners and government all transacting business in a weblike skein of conduits running through, beneath and over streets and boulevards like a malevolent electricity; invisible, influential, deadly. . . unaccountable to space or time.

And the game is played by different rules and customs. Only the most vainglorious of players ever try to run their rivals into bankruptcy, and only the most ignobly ignorant cases come to grief (and how often are these creatures one and the same?). A game where the only losers are the tenants and the taxpayers who are no sooner disposed of than replaced as the gullible crowd in, deluded by the image of the tourist's San Francisco. And as these discover twenty percent raises in salary don't cover seventy percent raises in rents and mortgages, that there's nowhere to park and the neighborhood stores are falling before franchises from Texas and Europe, and that the fabled skyline grows like Manhattan West they shall also be used and discarded.

Across the board, there is no sanctuary. At every stop, a slumlord, gentrifier or developer waits. And between these lurk a network of privilege, utility and influence containing financial, legal and procedural entities of both the low (managers, evictors, scavengers) and high (insurers, banks and shadow financiers).

As the victors wolf down banks, developments and governments, the victims tumble through safety nets to the terror of Cardboard City, to the Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues of Mephistopoly. Let us join them in this journey from the slumlord's hovels to the halls of high finance and politics.

Ready to play?

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