Politics, Power, and Urban Development in San Francisco

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny, from San Francisco 1865-1932

San Francisco from the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression of the 1930s provides a rewarding setting for the study of political decision making. In this study, as in studies of other American cities conducted during the past two decades, the central question concerns the nature of power. Is power concentrated or dispersed? Who wields power and for what purposes? Max Weber’s approach has proven consistently useful, for he defined power as the ability of an individual or group to achieve their goals in the arena of public decision making even though others seek to block them or to accomplish other objectives.(1)

Because access to resources is crucial to the ability to succeed in politics, most studies of urban decision making have identified the social and economic resources held by individuals or groups in the community. This study described San Francisco’s economic, social, and cultural institutions and located significant individuals and groups within this institutional context. Then it examined their impact on the structure, functioning, and development of city government. Individuals and groups use resources in a variety of institutional decision-making arenas. Governmental decisions, however, typically involve the largest number and widest range of participants, and governmental decisions usually carry far-reaching consequences. This study has focused on key political episodes as a means of understanding the interaction of individuals and groups and, most important, of understanding the power relationships among them.

Approaches to the Study of Power

The analysis of resources is an important element in understanding power relationships, but resources alone do not determine the outcome of the decision-making process. Besides possessing political resources, individuals and groups must use them to accomplish particular ends. At least a few of San Francisco’s socioeconomic elite fit the classic example of the wealthy patrician who disdains politics in favor of cultural pursuits and who therefore has little or no actual political power despite a great potential for power. While some Pacific Heights aristocrats did eschew politics, their continued ability to do so stemmed from the close and continued political involvement of others of their social class. In San Francisco, no class with resources to engage in politics (and hence with resources to protect) disengaged from politics as a group.

San Francisco provides verification of long-standing observations that resources may take forms other than wealth, prestige, and control of economic institutions and that economic resources do not automatically produce power. From 1901 onward, unions successfully mobilized voters and thereby secured a sympathetic ear, and sometimes a supporting hand, in city hall. San Francisco also contained individuals who failed to translate wealth into political power. Rudolph Spreckels experienced a brief moment in the sun when he underwrote the graft prosecution, but shortly afterward he failed to rouse the public against Rolph’s compromise with the United Railroads. Similarly, some San Francisco organizations failed to convert political power into the achievement of objectives outside the realm of local politics. For example, throughout the 1920s the Building Trades Council often counted a majority of the Board of Supervisors among its friends, but it could not use this political influence to regain union recognition. An assessment of the relative access to a variety of political resources held by participants in the decision-making process is vital for an understanding of the outcome of that process, but a mere measuring of resources does not explain who held power, the structure of power, and the uses of power.

Another approach to understanding power requires determination of the beneficiaries of public decision making. Some decisions lend themselves easily to this approach. When the struggle over Hetch Hetchy electrical power ended, the beneficiary was evident; no one could doubt the political power of Pacific Gas and Electric. The outcome of the graft prosecution produced a clear consensus as to those who had not benefited, although a list of beneficiaries might include a disparate array of upper-class good government advocates, antiunion employers, a few politically ambitious lawyers, and—perhaps—taxpayers. This difficulty in identifying beneficiaries points to the central problem of the “benefits” approach: the more complex the issue, the more numerous and disparate the beneficiaries. Major decisions, almost by definition, are or become complex, often stretching over a long period of time and involving a variety of participants, many of whom might be identified as receiving some benefit. For example, the creation of the Municipal Railway and the boring of the streetcar tunnels benefited commuters (many of them middle- and upper-income homeowners), downtown retail store owners (whose customers found it easier to shop), union labor (who built the lines and staffed the streetcars), real estate agents and developers (who viewed the opening of new lines and tunnels as unparalleled opportunities for showing choice building sites), and construction contractors and building trades craftsmen (who rapidly erected new neighborhoods along the tracks). A list of those benefiting from the construction of the Opera House and Veterans' Building is similarly wide-ranging: musicians and artists, opera-goers and music lovers, art museum patrons, veterans’ organizations, the hotel and restaurant industry (which catered to the consumers of culture), construction contractors and building trades craftsmen, and those owning real estate or businesses in the vicinity of the Civic Center. Calculating the benefits from decision making can contribute to the analysis of power, but these two examples make it clear that some major decisions—indeed, many major decisions—do not lend themselves to easy determination of beneficiaries.

A third approach to the study of power is to examine the process of decision making and to draw conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the participants. Carl Harris, in his study of Birmingham, Alabama, and David Hammack, in his study of New York City, are among those who have examined the process of decision making.(2) This study, too, has sought to illuminate power relationships by studying episodes of public decision making. Its focus has been on highly visible and controversial decisions rather than on the rarely publicized decisions on more routine municipal functions, although our examination has been informed by Terrence McDonald's careful study of San Francisco municipal expenditures.(3) Study of the process necessarily involves consideration of the socioeconomic background of the participants, their political resources, and their motivation (and, thus, what they anticipated as benefits).

Models of Urban Decision Making

The two classic models of the urban decision-making process remain those of Floyd Hunter, whose study of Atlanta revealed an elite of business leaders who dominated decision making in every significant arena, and Robert Dahl, who found in New Haven a pluralistic process. Dahl described many citizen groups moving into and out of the decision-making process depending on the issue, and he concluded that government decisions emerged from compromise among concerned interest groups rather than from the pronouncements of an elite.(4) Hammack’s 1982 study of New York City presents a fragmented elite model, which acknowledges the elite character of decision making but denies the existence of a single, unified power structure.(5) Hammack’s conclusions suggest a model incorporating elements from both Hunter’s Atlanta and Dahl’s New Haven, in which decisions emerge from interaction and compromise among various elite groups.

Roger Lotchin’s studies of San Francisco and other Pacific Coast cities in the 1920s and 1930s suggest still a fourth model of decision making. Lotchin argued that the most important single factor in San Francisco politics and civic affairs was a Darwinian competition among West Coast cities, a struggle so intense as to create in San Francisco a unity that transcended intraurban differences in the common cause of besting Los Angeles. Lotchin’s model suggests that leaders of business, unions, and civic affairs set aside their differences or compromised readily in the face of outside competition for the commercial primacy of the Pacific Slope, with the specter of decline and decay hovering over them should they fail.(6)

While Lotchin correctly points to competitiveness as an element making for civic unity, there were other powerful factors pushing in contrary directions. When San Francisco business leaders found competition with Los Angeles to be a convenient tocsin, they sounded it; when they found investment opportunities there, they put down their cash without a pang of conscience. The largest single developer in San Diego was a San Franciscan, John Spreckels. San Francisco’s Bank of Italy provided important financing for the development of Hollywood’s film industry. Standard Oil of California, the Southern Pacific Company, and other companies with corporate headquarters in San Francisco all invested heavily in southern California. Bay Area business leaders worked closely with their Los Angeles counterparts in a wide range of endeavors including the state Chamber of Commerce, the state Republican party, and various state commissions.(7) Similarly, in 1910–1911 Bay Area unions launched an ambitious drive to organize their counterparts south of the Tehachapi mountains. Although the bombing of the Los Angeles Times brought that effort to a halt, statewide labor organizations, notably the California State Federation of Labor and the State Building Trades Council, continued to provide forums for discussing common concerns and for coordinating activities.(8) Political struggles within San Francisco, for example, those over union organizing, Hetch Hetchy electricity, and the city charter, raged with hardly a suggestion of a united front against the Angeleños.

San Francisco politics after 1916 reveal a polarized pattern that fits none of the four models. A highly unified business community stood at one pole, arrayed against a unified labor force at the other. Voting behavior clearly illustrates these class divisions, with the South of Market area consistently expressing views directly contrary to the political attitudes of Pacific Heights. Other neighborhoods ranged between these poles, in proportion to their residents’ tendencies to identify with business or labor.

Business Unity

The sense of unity displayed by the city’s business community evolved in a propitious setting. To an extent true only of New York among the nation’s major cities, San Francisco enjoyed economic autonomy. Few distant corporations played a major role in the city until early in the twentieth century. Nearly all of the city’s businesses were owned and operated by San Franciscans, whose interests ranged from Alaskan fisheries to Hawaiian sugar plantations, from Mexican mining operations to hydroelectric power plants in the Sierra Nevada, from logging in Washington to San Joaquin valley wheat fields. They operated on an imperial scale, but most of their corporate board rooms were within a few blocks of one another. They ate lunch in the same Financial District restaurants or in exclusive club rooms, saw each other regularly at the meetings of corporate and civic boards, worshipped in a few prestigious churches and synagogues, and watched fondly as their children married the children of friends.

Membership on the same corporate and civic boards and in the same exclusive clubs did not automatically produce unity among the city’s business leaders. Unity emerged slowly, beginning with efforts at improving transportation in the 1890s. The earthquake and fire of 1906 forged a unity born of shared adversity, although efforts for citywide planning fell victim to squabbling and to the desire to rebuild as quickly as possible. The graft prosecution unified the business community so long as the focus of the prosecution remained on Union Labor party supervisors who had received bribes; when the attention shifted to the corporate officers who had offered bribes, the business community divided sharply.

The Panama Pacific International Exposition went far to develop civic unity, especially within the business community; its board of directors was selected to represent all possible points of view, and Charles Moore became president because he was acceptable to both sides of the graft prosecution controversy. The PPIE provided an organizing model soon applied elsewhere; the launching of the Law and Order Committee in 1916 was a carbon copy of PPIE mass meetings and million-dollar subscription drives. By the 1920s, the San Francisco business community had produced a number of institutional expressions of its unity. The Industrial Association served as the business community’s arm for labor relations. The Bureau of Governmental Research provided its liaison to city government. The Commonwealth Club offered a forum for public presentation of proposals. The Chamber of Commerce brought together nearly all the city’s business leaders in support of growth and development. The Republican party—or, more properly, the wing led by William H. Crocker, Milton Esberg, and Wallace Alexander—provided focus for state and national politics.

The city's business community continued to exhibit differences and disagreements. Anti-Semitism kept Jewish business leaders from membership in the Pacific Union Club and a few other prestigious organizations. Personal animosities between individuals produced anecdotes still chuckled over by the participants' grandchildren. In the teens and twenties, however, individual feuds and institutionalized anti-Semitism did little to impede the momentum of civic unity. Bitter personal enemies, supporters and opponents of the graft prosecution, Jews and Pacific Union members, all joined in planning for the PPIE and served together on its board. Nearly all prominent business leaders celebrated the merger of the city’s leading commercial organizations in 1911 by joining the Chamber of Commerce and making it, for a time, the largest in the nation. Many of them continued that cooperation into the Law and Order Committee of 1916 and the Industrial Association after 1921, and few voiced opposition to the policy recommendations of the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Labor Solidarity

San Francisco’s unions, and its blue-collar families more generally, achieved a high degree of unity earlier than the business community. Robert Knight concluded his exhaustive study of San Francisco labor from 1900 to 1918 by citing sources of strength for unionization: the traditions and influences of earlier years, the composition of the local labor force, the structure of the economy and the city’s isolation, the reluctance of labor leaders to push too far or too fast, the willingness of business leaders to seek accommodation rather than conflict, and the political potency of the working-class vote. Lucile Eaves in 1910 and Alexander Saxton in 1971 both proposed another major element: the unifying influence on white workers of two decades of anti-Chinese agitation. Saxton seemed to suggest that the unity of white labor could not have been possible without this racist experience, and Eaves anticipated his analysis by six decades: “Much of the present strength of the California labor movement is due to the sense of common interests, and the habit of unified action which were acquired in this great campaign.” Eaves added, however, that “much additional discipline was necessary before it was possible to weld the differing groups into the effective central organizations of the present time.”(9) The emergence of effective central bodies, as well as the development of strong local unions, came well after the zenith of anti-Chinese agitation and owned more to the experience gained in opposing employer associations in the 1890s, and again in 1901 and after, than to the organizational legacy of racism.

Union strength emerged from workers’ neighborhoods as well as from confrontation between organized labor and employers. By the teens, both the Labor Council and the Building Trades Council had their own buildings, located near where the major South of Market thoroughfares curved south to become the major streets of the Mission District; both buildings contained ample office space for local unions as well as rooms on the ground floor for socializing. Unions sponsored picnics and other social affairs and formed a source of social life as well as work-site organization. Life in the South of Market and Mission districts also included churches, ethnic associations, sporting events, and political clubs. Owners of small businesses in working-class neighborhoods usually sided with their patrons, with whom they often socialized and worshipped. A handful of the city’s most prominent businessmen could also be found among labor sympathizers even in the dark days of the Industrial Association.

As was true of the business community, workers and their organizations harbored antagonisms affecting both individuals and groups. P.H. McCarthy held his Building Trades unions at arm’s length from the more heterogeneous Labor Council, sailors waged jurisdictional battles with longshoremen, and anti-Semitism occasionally surfaced in Labor Council meetings. Nonetheless, to a degree unusual in American cities, repeated conflict with employer associations fostered a unity that strengthened central bodies and individual unions and gave birth to the Union Labor party. The party, in turn, provided dramatic evidence of the political clout of unions and allowed the use of city government to support organizing efforts. Throughout the period after 1901, San Francisco labor promoted unity through the columns of its two major weekly newspapers, the Labor Council’s Labor Clarion and the Building Trades Council’s Organized Labor. Through those papers, union members learned of the need for solidarity with workers throughout the nation as well as elsewhere in the city; they also learned lessons of cooperation among all white workers, across the lines of ethnicity. Locals, central bodies, the labor press, and the Union Labor party formed the major institutions defining labor unity; they were bolstered by the efforts of sympathizers such as Peter Yorke and his Leader.

Ethnicity and Class

Among both business and labor, feelings of class unity submerged ethnic differences. Unlike eastern cities, no white group found itself excluded from the ladder of economic and social mobility. The Irish dominated trade-union leadership, but they also presided over major banks and manufacturing firms. Sons of Erin took prominent political roles of the most diverse sort: James Fair, Comstock silver king and U.S. senator from Nevada; Denis Kearney, sandlot rabble-rouser: Christopher Buckley, saloonkeeper and Democratic boss extraordinaire: Martin Kelly, Buckley's Republican counterpart in the 1890s; James Phelan, heir to a banking fortune, mayor, U.S. senator; Patrick McCarthy, building trades union leader and mayor. During the 1920s, Tim Finn led the progressive wing of the city’s Republican party, the McDonough brothers operated within the Republicans' conservative wing, and Timothy Reardon was the acknowledged leader of the city’s tiny band of Democrats.

Other ethnic groups exhibited a similar diversity. Jewish political figures included Max Popper, Democratic ally of Phelan in the 1890s; Adolph Sutro, bibliophile and Populist mayor; Julius Kahn, Republican stalwart as assemblyman and congressman; Abraham Ruef, eminence grise of the Union Labor party; Hugo Ernst, socialist and leader of the culinary unions; Milton Esberg and Herbert Fleishhacker, leaders of the conservative faction of the Republican party in the 1920s. Political figures of German descent included both Eugene Schmitz, union leader, mayor, and supervisor; and Rudolph Spreckels, the progressive gadfly who paid the bill for the graft prosecution that brought about Schmitz’s downfall. Italians who began to achieve political prominence in the 1920s included Alfred Roncovieri, member of the Musicians’ Union, superintendent of schools, and supervisor; Angelo Rossi, businessman, leader of the Downtown Association, and moderate-to-conservative supervisor and mayor; and A. P. Giannini, most prominent banker on the West Coast and occasional supporter of progressive Republicans. Protestants of old-stock American descent included conservative Republican magnates such as Crocker and Alexander, but also Fremont Older, the crusading editor; Isaac Kalloch, Baptist preacher and Workingmen’s party mayor; and the Hearsts, father and son, strong advocates of the Democratic party and, in the son’s case, of labor causes.

San Francisco prided itself on its tradition of tolerance for all, although the tradition included only white groups. Immigrants and their children remained largely immune to the wave of nativism that swept the nation in the late nineteenth century. The American Protective Associations anti-Catholicism gained few converts in a city predominantly Catholic and Jewish. Prohibition and other varieties of moral reform also found few supporters. In 1914, when California voted on Prohibition, 83 percent of San Francisco voters said no. This rejection of Prohibition showed no ethnically distinctive patterns. Assembly districts south of Market Street and in the Mission District with large proportions of Irish Catholics, staunchly pro-labor in their voting behavior, varied from 16 to 21 percent in favor of Prohibition; middle-class districts ranged from 17 to 19 percent, with no major differences between German Jewish areas and those more ethnically mixed; wealthy Pacific Heights (where old-stock Protestants were disproportionately represented) and the North Beach–Tenderloin area (with Italians most prominent) registered the lowest levels of support, 15 and 10 percent, respectively. A similar pattern appeared in a vote on a state nuisance abatement proposition aimed at the brothels of the Barbary Coast. In other parts of the nation, sentiment on Prohibition and moral reform reflected underlying ethnocultural cleavages and proved powerful predictors of voting behavior; San Francisco voters’ rejection of proposals for moral reform illustrates the city’s reputation for toleration among white ethnic groups and underscores the preeminence of economic class as the primary determinant of political behavior.

Evolution of Political Decision Making

San Francisco’s polarized politics emerged from the fiery crucible of labor conflict in the 1890s and the violent waterfront strike of 1901. Patterns of political decision making regarding urban development evolved more gradually. Six major periods may be discerned, each different in significant ways from the period before and after:

1. 1856 to 1877, merchant dominance
2. 1877 to 1880, the Workingmen’s party episode
3. 1880 to 1890, the era of Christopher Buckley
4. 1890 to 1901, heyday of the Democratic reformers
5. 1901 to 1911, the Union Labor period
6. 1911 to 1931, the era of James Rolph

While each of these periods has been described in detail already, a restatement of some of the central characteristics of each may help to indicate both the relationships between them and the changing relationships between municipal government and patterns of urban development.

Merchant Dominance.

For twenty years after the Vigilance Committee of 1856, the nature of municipal policy was shaped by two influences: the strict limitations of the Consolidation Act and the political dominance of the city’s merchants. Of the six mayors elected by the People’s party and its successor, the Taxpayers’ party, five were merchants and one was a lawyer.(10) The era was one of minimal government by any criterion. City government remained almost entirely in the hands of the political heirs of the vigilantes. Office-holders stressed their honesty and parsimony, and key decisions about urban development took place almost entirely outside the arena of city government. The emergence of a central business district north of Market Street and an area of light manufacturing south of Market resulted from decisions made by entrepreneurs such as William Ralston rather than through any exercise of the municipal polity.

The merchant politicos limited city government to the protection of life and property through police and fire departments, provision of an educational system (usually overcrowded and understaffed), maintenance of the streets (72 percent of the streets remained unpaved in 1880, another 11 percent were covered only with crushed stone, and few streets had gutters), construction of sewers (one-quarter of the city's houses were still not connected to a sewer in 1880), and the reserving of park lands (although the city's larger parks remained largely undeveloped until late in the nineteenth century). Private companies and individuals performed other essential services, typically through a franchise from the city, including provision of water and gas, collection of garbage and night soil, rendering, and street transportation.(11)

Although the six Peoples party mayors and the two Democratic party mayors of this period approached the role of city government similarly, they drew their support from quite different parts of the electorate. The People's party strength came in upper-class and middle-class sections of the city, areas with disproportionate numbers of old stock and Germans, Protestants and Jews. Democrats, by contrast, ran most strongly in working-class areas of the city, with disproportionate numbers of Irish and Catholics. The Democrats of San Francisco, in short, drew their support from the same ethnic and economic groups who provided the bulk of Democratic support in Boston or New York, in Illinois or Nebraska. Although voters divided in their party allegiances along lines of ethnicity and class, leaders of the two parties showed little difference in their attitudes toward the highly limited role of city government.

The Workingmen's Party.

The Workingmen’s party episode did nothing to change the role of city government, but it did demonstrate the potential for a class-based political movement. Support for the party followed the general pattern of support for the Democrats, but with support more pronounced in lowest income levels and less so at higher income levels. While Workingmen's Party support had some ethnic dimensions, especially among the Irish, a comparison of the support for WPC and Democratic candidates indicates the extent to which Democratic support was moderated at both economic extremes by cross-cutting effects of ethnicity and class. The Workingmen’s Party and Kearney sharpened political class lines by simple-minded appeals based on racism and opposition to the wealth epitomized by Nob Hill. Beyond such antagonisms, the party offered no political program, neither one aimed at using city government to assist the depression-wracked WPC constituency nor one that differed in any particular from the limited role previously subscribed to by all major political leaders. The party, in sum, represented a demonstration of working-class political power bereft of any political agenda.

Buckley's Decade.

At the end of Kalloch’s term as mayor (1879-1881), the patterns of the 1870s resumed, with merchants in the mayor’s office during four of the next five terms. Throughout most of the 1880s, as control of the dominant Democratic party rested with Christopher Buckley, he and the officeholders of that decade demonstrated no more of an agenda than had the Workingmen’s Party or the Peoples Party. Voters repeatedly rejected efforts to alter the Consolidation Act, and city government continued in the highly limited role so thoroughly rehearsed before. Indeed, city government during the Buckley regime showed almost no change in patterns of city expenditures, unlike either the gradual increases of the Peoples party era (resulting from increasing population) or the sharp increases of the Phelan years (resulting from changing concepts of city government).(12) While voting behavior returned to the pre-WPC patterns of ethnicity and class, the nature and direction of urban development continued to be determined outside the arena of city government.

Phelan and Reform.

The Democratic reformers who came to power in the 1890s and who looked to James Phelan for leadership challenged prevailing expectations regarding the structure and function of city government. In order that city government might be freed from the constraints of the Consolidation Act, Phelan led a group of businessmen-reformers who produced a new charter, implemented in 1900. Phelan’s charter increased the authority of the mayor, dropped all semblance of a ward system in electing supervisors, and proposed eventual public ownership of utilities. In the reformers’ view, municipal government was to do far more than provide police and fire protection, education, and streets and sewers. Self-styled “progressive citizens,” the reformers hoped to use city government to provide direction for the very development of the city.

Phelan and his associates also formed the moving force behind the drafting of the Burnham plan of 1905, an ambitious design to rearrange the city’s streets and parks to create scenic vistas and ordered inspirations. Planning of the sort envisaged by the Burnham plan would have required strong centralized authority over the half-century or more required to complete the proposal.(13) Burnham adjured his devotees to make no small plans, but Phelan and the reformers needed no such urging. In their most ambitious moments, they saw the city as not just a commercial marketplace and manufacturing site, but also as a seat of learning and government, a place for recreation and inspiration, an organic entity worthy of celebration and devotion. While Phelan and his associates embraced a new concept of city government, they did not entirely dispense with past practices, when plans for urban development were created and implemented wholly outside the realm of government. Many of the Phelan group’s initiatives, for example, the charter, the Burnham plan, or the Hetch Hetchy proposal (at least from 1901 to 1906), were nurtured outside government, then presented to elected representatives for adoption and implementation.

Union Labor Control.

The Phelan Democrats lost their legitimacy with working-class voters after the bitter class conflict of the 1901 waterfront strike and the advent of the Union Labor party realized the potential of the Workingmen’s party. Where the latter had lacked a program, however, the former not only mobilized voters along class lines but did so in support of a program. The reformers of the 1890s had used city government to implement a program conceived and developed among the business community. The Union Labor party used city government to protect existing unions and to promote unionization of workers not yet organized. Under the Union Labor party, municipal government moved to implement a program conceived and developed among the city's unions. The party proposed a much narrower program than that of the reformers, who wanted to use city government to transform the city itself. The party, created to save unions, largely failed to address broader concerns of urban development. The initiative in areas such as franchises fell by default to Abraham Ruef, whose approach owed more to Christopher Buckley and Martin Kelly than to James Phelan. Such methods of enlisting city government in support of development were no longer acceptable, however, and Ruef brought disgrace upon the Union Labor party. Patrick McCarthy, elected mayor in 1909, had the opportunity to redeem the party, but his program was only slightly broader than that of Schmitz and Ruef. In addition to protecting unions, McCarthy fostered construction of the Municipal Railway, but he saw the project as a means of supplying jobs at union wages to loyal union members.

The Era of Rolph.

When James Rolph entered city hall in 1912, he brought back into the mayor’s office the breadth of vision characteristic of the reformers of the 1890s. but he coupled it with a sympathy for labor and an appreciation of ethnic diversity. For a brief time, from 1912 to 1916, urban development came to rest squarely with the city government, as Rolph appointed experts to draw up plans for the Civic Center, the Municipal Railway, and the water system. Expansion of streetcar and water services, to be certain, was intended to aid privately planned development such as the Panama Pacific International Exposition and residential growth in the Outer Mission, Sunset, Parkside, and West of Twin Peaks neighborhoods. After World War I, Rolph’s leadership waned and patterns returned to those more typical of the 1890s, as the business community formulated development plans and turned to municipal government for implementation. These patterns characterized disposal of Hetch Hetchy electrical power, extension of the Market Street Railway franchises, creation of the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans’ Building, construction of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and charter revision in 1930–1932.

Unlike previous times, however, during the 1920s an opposition coalition emerged that went beyond mere nay-saying to advocate a different role for the city in development. The business community accepted municipal ownership of activities not in competition with private enterprise, but this new opposition, led by Franck Havenner, argued as well for municipal ownership of some enterprises directly in competition with private corporations. Both public ownership advocates and their opponents, however, found it easier to mobilize a majority to defeat proposals than to forge a majority to take action—witness the defeat of efforts to buy out the Spring Valley Water Company in 1910, 1915, 1921, and 1927, the defeat of all the incumbent supervisors who had voted against public ownership in 1925, or the defeat of public ownership bond issues in 1927 and 1930.

  • * *

Max Weber’s definition of power poses a question: which individuals or groups were able to succeed in their efforts in the arena of public decision making even though others sought to block them or to accomplish other objectives? Judged by the ability to elect public officials, both sides of San Francisco’s polarized politics were able to succeed. Judged by the ability to win public support on propositions, again both sides could point to successes. Judged by access to campaign resources (workers, money, newspapers), both sides could command an array of support. Judged by the outcomes of public decision making on a wide range of issues, both sides could count victories as well as defeats.

While several measures of political success suggest that both sides shared in political power, another criterion suggests the contrary. Who initiated new issues and thereby set the political agenda? By this measure, the business community exercised far greater political influence than labor. For the most part, labor’s political objectives were defensive, aimed at preserving hard-won gains and at extending them to other workers in the face of employer opposition. Employers, too, saw politics as having a potentially important role in labor relations, and they sought government assistance in breaking strikes. This development, more than any other, created and defined San Francisco’s political polarity.

By contrast, after the 1890s, the business community also saw politics as one of several means for implementing urban development plans. Labor usually involved itself at first in such matters only when its primary concern of protecting its organization from assault coincided with or overlapped a development issue. Thus, outraged by the open-shop practices of the United Railroads, labor joined forces with proponents of residential development and with advocates of public ownership to create and extend the Municipal Railway. By the 1920s, public ownership issues usually featured the same political alignments as did labor issues, but the initiative rested with the business community, whether the question involved the role of the city government in the 1926 Carpenters’ Union strike or the means of circumventing the public ownership provisions of the Raker Act. Even though labor could elect its own candidates to city office as often as not, even though labor-oriented voters could carry city referenda as often as not, even though labor supporters could win votes on the Board of Supervisors as often as not, almost all the labor victories (especially after 1911) were reactive or defensive because business defined the political agenda. In this larger sense, then, power was not shared but concentrated.

Men such as James Phelan or William H. Crocker, who sought to use the power of city government as one instrument among many to define or redefine the nature of the city itself, typically did not define their roles as involving the promotion of a class or group interest, nor did they tote up a balance to determine benefits. Their business and personal activities provided their understanding of the city: its neighborhoods and districts, its surrounding suburbs, its role in the economy of northern California, and its position as economic capital of a region stretching from the Bering Strait to the Isthmus of Panama, from the sugar plantations of Maui to the mines of Coeur d’Alene. Their organic sense of the city led them to the conclusion that a project that benefited the city would inevitably benefit all city residents in proportion to the investments each had made. San Francisco’s business leadership held secure control over the city’s development. They were certain that if projects were appropriately planned, if visions were sufficiently bold, if implementation was prompt and efficient, then benefits would naturally flow to all, although clearly not in equal proportions.


1. Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. H. H.Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, 1946), p. 180; see also Hammack, Power and Society, p. 5.
2. Carl V. Harris, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (Knoxville, Tenn., 1977); Hammack, Power and Society.
3. McDonald, “Urban Development.”
4. Hunter, Community Power Structure; Dahl, Who Governs.
5. Hammack, Power and Society, esp. pp. 303 — 326.
6. Lotchin, “The Darwinian City”; Roger W. Lotchin, “The Metropolitan-Military Complex in Comparative Perspective: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, 1919—1941,” in The Urban West, ed. Gerald D. Nash, pp. 19—30 (Manhattan, Kans., 1979); Roger W. Lotchin, “The City and the Sword in Metropolitan California, 1919 — 1941,” Urbanism Past and Present 7 (Summer/Fall 1982): 1 —16.
7. See parts of ch. 2, above; and William Issel, “Business in California, 1890-1940,” paper presented at the American Historical Association annual meeting, San Francisco, Dec. 29, 1983.
8. Knight, Industrial Relations, pp. 226—235 and passim.
9. Lucile Eaves, “Labor Day in San Francisco and How Attained,” Labor Clarion, Sept. 2, 1910, p. 6; see also Saxton, Indispensable Enemy.
10. William F. Heintz, San Franciscos Mayors: 1850—1880 (Woodside, Ca., 1975), pp. 42 — 89. The mayors were Ephraim W Burr (1856 — 1859), People’s party, merchant and financier; Henry F. Teschemaker (1859-1863), Peoples party, merchant; Henry P. Coon (1863-1867), Peoples party, physician, druggist, lawyer, judge, and landowner; Thomas H. Selby (1869-1871), Republican and Taxpayers’ parties, merchant and manufacturer; William Alvord (1871 — 1873), Taxpayers’ and Republican parties, importer and manufacturer; James Otis (1873 — 1875), several parties, importer.
11. U.S. Census Office, Department of the Interior, Report on the Social Statistics of Cities, pt. 2, The Southern and the Western States (Washington, D.C., 188/), pp. 805 — 811.
12. McDonald, “Urban Development.”
13. Kahn, Imperial San Francisco, pp. 210 — 216.

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From San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 9 “Politics, Power, and Urban Development in San Francisco”