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San Francisco : Sometime a Great City

February 23, 1986|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is the author of "Americans and the California Dream" and "Inventing the Dream," social histories of Northern and Southern California. He is currently completing a book on California during the Depression.

SAN FRANCISCO — The recognition has dawned, indeed, has been dawning for some time now, that Los Angeles has replaced San Fran cisco as the premier financial capital of the West. It is a tribute to San Francisco's reputation as a financial center that the recognition has been so long in coming. The reality has most likely been in place since World War II.

Money and energy, the will to build and to create, a capacity for proper growth--of late, San Francisco has been lacking them. The recession of San Francisco as a financial center is not an isolated phenomenon. San Francisco's loss of financial predominance, symbolized most dramatically in the troubles besetting the Bank of America, are part and parcel of the large malaise which grips this once-proud and commanding city.

In a variety of endeavors--art, literature, fine printing, in which San Francisco has so long predominated--a Venetian twilight mood of decline pervades this city. Only in opera, symphony and ballet is there any major vitality; and these enterprises have to them, not a quality of present-tense creativity, but an almost museological representation of past accomplishment. San Franciscans are willing to spend more than $600,000 mounting an opening-night production of Verdi's "Don Carlos," as they will be doing when the opera opens its fall, 1986, season; but no one hopes to see comparable commitment and creative energy in the marketplace or in politics, journalism or any of the other pursuits by which one measures the importance or vitality of a city.

In the 19th Century, San Francisco grew up in splendid isolation. A small Mexican village in the late 1840s, it was by the 1870s one of the top 10 cities in the United States. As an urban presence it dominated not just the Far West, but the Southwest as well, and even extended its financial influence into the Rocky Mountain region and the western Great Plains before the rise of Denver and Omaha. San Francisco was not a typical frontier city, developing gradually through successive stages of an agricultural frontier. It was, rather, a maritime colony, poised midway between the oceanic land mass of the unsettled western half of the continent and the mighty Pacific. San Francisco served both these regions, the developing inland frontier and the Asia/Pacific, as a center of commerce, transportation, communications and, most important, financial services.

In California terms, this hegemony was sustained through the 1940s, long after it should have given way to Los Angeles-based institutions. Agriculture in the Imperial Valley, the film industry in Hollywood, municipal bonds backing San Francisco's massive Hetch Hetchy water project, canning and food processing industries throughout the state, home loans galore--A.P. Giannini kept the Bank of Italy/America at the center of California's 20th-Century devlopment. When Giannini wrestled back control of his bank from the New York-based Transamerica Corp. in 1932, he also insured that the development capital needed for California's recovery from the Depression and for the overnight creation of major wartime industries would be San Francisco-based. (Giannini extended to Liberty-shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser the longest single line of credit in American banking history.) Those days are now, alas, over.

Every weekday morning at the San Francisco International Airport, Bay Area-based businessmen and businesswomen, dressed in matching suits and briefcases, line up to catch a commuter flight down to L.A. for a day's work. More and more Bay Area-based financial executives and their attendant legal counsels are finding it necessary make the shuttle. Bicoastalism, especially between New York and Los Angeles, is now being augmented by biurbanism between San Francisco and Los Angeles. People live in San Francisco because of its amenities. They struggle for their daily bread in Los Angeles.

A friend of mine recently became a partner in a top Los Angeles law firm, without sacrificing his San Francisco flat, club connections, civic appointments or even voter registration. Monday through Friday he works in downtown Los Angeles, dragging himself exhaustedly home in the late evening to a nearby condominium. Every other weekend he spends in San Francisco. To his way of thinking (and I believe that he is typical of many) Los Angeles is a boomtown: creative, energetic, unbothered by hierarchies or entrenched establishments. It's where the money and action are. San Francisco, by contrast, is a resort, not totally serious, albeit pleasurable.

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