San Francisco has long avoided the explosion of dull, ho-hum facelessness that has characterized the architecture of our major cities during the last hundred years or so.
Very tall. No decoration. Blocked views.
Until recently, the single word one heard more than any others from San Francisco visitors was ”charm.” The charm of the city simply could not be denied, and few who have seen it have attempted to do so.
For me, the city is a kind of secret haven in which marvelous food, amazing views, fine weather, great music, sophisticated writing and, now and then, if you really look for it, good art can be found with little effort. I’ve been here off and on my entire life, and look out at the rest of the United States as though I am a protected species.
But I am more of an adventurer than that, and I look to see what’s happening in other cities and countries. So I leave San Francisco every few years, and go live somewhere else. Thus far, that has included a few years each in Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) and Paris, a most unlikely combination of venues. Also, long sojourns in Argentina, Mexico, Great Britain, Nicaragua, Ireland, Guatemala, California’s Humboldt County, Texas, Berkeley, and that other distinguished California capital, Oakland.
Most particularly, though, I enjoy New York City, the place in which the fictions in my latest book are situated. I even gave the book the very original title of New York, the only words I could think of that would do justice to the intensity of life there. Say the two words, and you are immediately taken up by excitement, or at least I am.
Just now I’m reading Mike Wallace’s amazing Greater Gotham, the second volume of his projected series on the history of that city. I read the first volume, Gotham, (written by Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows) when I was living in Manhattan in the early 2000s, and the book became a kind of compendious guide for me, to every aspect of New York City’s history up to 1898.
In this new volume, Wallace writes about the unstoppable explosion of business activity and building after the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx into an enormous single city. You learn everything important about what happened during that revolutionary re-purposing of the lower reaches of the Hudson River from 1898 to 1919.
I love the New York City we know now. I marvel at it. I also recognize that there is a downside to what happened during those early twentieth century years, a downside that regularly muscles its way onto the stage to this day. Wallace writes, “In 1856, Harper’sMonthly had declared that New York was notoriously the ‘least loved of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.’ The velocity of transformation in the early twentieth century left the nineteenth century’s turnover rate looking turtlish. Henry James decried the city’s ‘restless renewals’ that dehistoricized its landscape and left its citizenry marooned in a provisional present. By 1913 critic James Huneker could argue: ‘In our town memories like rats are chased away by the ever-rising flood of progress. There is no room for ghosts or landmarks in New York.’”
It’s the same in 2018.
We’re in the midst of a similar change in San Francisco. Until recently, San Francisco was a manageable entity. Yes, there were the kinds of large, characterless skyscrapers that you find in New York City: the Bank of America’s leaden California headquarters at California and Kearny Streets and the U.S. government’s hideous Federal Building at Seventh and Mission, to name just two. Even somber religious institutions got involved, most particularly with the unintentionally comic Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary of The Assumption at Geary and Gough Streets (about which I wrote extensively in my novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro.) But for the most part, charm remained the guiding design principle in this city.
Now, though, the downtown of San Francisco is being transformed with the neglect of good taste, the amazing speed, and the anti-human design that so distinguished the building of New York City between consolidation and, say, 1930. Everything is tall. The competition for the highest building has only just begun. The design principle seems to be that the top look exactly like the bottom, which itself looks like a shined-up cardboard crate that has windows in it. Money talks. Taste starves. The city grows tooth and nail towards no particular goal, other than getting that square-foot rental-rate higher than it was last year.
There are a few buildings that do wow the soul, if it wishes to be wowed by grand impersonal plainness. For example, we now have the new SalesForce building. Located at the corners of First, Mission and Fremont Streets, it looks to have been inspired by the “Gherkin” in London, a building named after the famous pickle. The San Francisco version has sixty-one stories, and is the only building that can be seen from offshore in the Pacific Ocean as you approach California’s coast. This despite the fact that a range of hills separates the coast from downtown. All off-color priapic references to this eyesore are appropriate.
And “The New Gherkin” is just a few doors from the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street, now called “The Leaning Tower of San Francisco.” A silver giant of no architectural interest, it was found in 2016 to be sinking. It is sixteen inches shorter than it was on completion, and is tilting toward the northwest, two inches at the base and six inches at the top. The city’s populace is waiting for it to fall, and in the meantime, numbers of people who bought the super-expensive residences inside are suing the developers. One wonders, if the shadows cast by these buildings now are so threatening to the light on the sidewalks below, imagine what they’ll be like when the Leaning Tower’s summit touches that of The New Gherkin.
There are many such buildings now almost everywhere you go in this downtown area. Walking especially through these many blocks, and most especially south of Market Street, is like crawling through the shadowy darknesses of the tallest tunnel on the west coast. San Francisco streets in this section of town are narrow, and there is little room between these structures for air, much less human frivolity, artistic wander, or heart-felt laughter. You can find very hip branding firms in San Francisco now, writing cute sales-generating copy for all these buildings. (I know about them because I have worked for a few of them.) There is much assured self-congratulation among the software engineers (seemingly everywhere in the streets) who write the code necessary for all the buildings and their attendant businesses. While walking around in the open air, they don’t have to restrict their exchanges with each other to lines of ones and zeroes. But to hear them talking with each other, you might prefer that they do so. They have, so far, no interest in the arts. They don’t seem to know that they exist.
If you want fresh air, bright light, and good views, go to Montana. But you had better get there quick, before all these people arrive there themselves. And for those of us who do admire charm…as they say in New York, “Forget about it!”
This piece appeared originally in HuffPost.