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ON CALIFORNIA

Changing by Staying the Same

June 20, 1989|Robert A. Jones

SAN FRANCISCO — Great cities change slowly, over decades, and so it is difficult to name the year when San Francisco finally lost its war with Los Angeles. Perhaps it was 1958, when the O'Malleys saw the future and moved the Dodgers south instead of north. Perhaps 1971, when the Fillmore closed its doors. Or 1986, when the Bank of America fell from grace, revealing San Francisco to be a fading center of high finance.

One can argue about these things, but there is no doubt that one of the great urban rivalries of this century has now ended. San Francisco is slowly being drawn into orbit as a satellite of Los Angeles. This may be regarded with a sense of vindication or with some sadness, but the truth of it can be seen everywhere.

Just go to The Top of the Mark, a place that once symbolized so much about San Francisco. This grand old room occupies the highest floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel, which in turn sits at the very pinnacle of Nob Hill.

Once the city's banking and railroad barons came here to survey their kingdom and dance away the night. They don't come here anymore, of course. The Top of the Mark is now a quick stop for the tourist buses.

From the windows, as big as movie screens, you can look over the city that only a century ago was the unchallenged center of the Pacific slope. Look north and you can see the city's port, a place now empty of ships, the old docks filled instead with lobster restaurants and bric-a-brac stores. The ships themselves have long since gone to Oakland and Long Beach. You will nowhere see the name of Crocker Bank, one of the city's first great banks, because Crocker no longer exists. The Southern Pacific Railroad, the original junkyard dog of corporations, is operated out of Chicago now. Del Monte Foods is controlled from Florida. The once imperial Bank of America has become a tenant in the granite-faced skyscraper it formerly owned.

No one is claiming that San Francisco is about to become another Cleveland. The streets of the city still are filled with people of money munching bran muffins as they push their way through the crowd. South of Market Street new hotels are abuilding. No, the decline of San Francisco is another sort. It has to do with the loss of mass, of urban throw weight.

Richard Walker, a geographer at UC Berkeley, studies the rise and fall of cities. One day recently he ticked off the reasons why San Francisco should never have lost its rivalry with Los Angeles.

San Francisco had a great, natural port, it had water supplies, had railroads and banks filled with money from the gold rush. Los Angeles had none of this. And yet Los Angeles now completely dominates the western United States, and San Francisco has been reduced to a regional center. No one really understands how this happened.

In fact, there are probably lots of reasons for San Francisco's fall, but I have a favorite theory. It has to do with urban narcissism and how that can lead a city into dissipation. There is nothing wrong with municipal handsomeness, of course, and some cities--Paris, for example, or even Seattle--have managed to accept their beauty without becoming obsessed by it. Cities, like people, need a reason to get up in the morning and these cities never forgot that truth. San Francisco did.

Have you ever listened to San Franciscans congratulating each other simply for living in the city? Or the stories they tell about New Yorkers or Washingtonians who threw it all over and came here to live on salaries half their previous size? Living in San Francisco is like going out with the prettiest girl in high school, the one who has convinced herself she doesn't have to be smart or know computers or shoot pool. All she has to do is remain forever pretty.

But prettiness is all about staying the same, about dreading change, which is what San Francisco did while other cities were grabbing the future. San Francisco didn't bother with containerized shipping, and the port moved to Oakland. Trade with Japan was ignored and the Japanese car companies all put their American headquarters in Los Angeles. The city didn't woo the aging J. Paul Getty when it had a chance and the old man built the richest museum in the world in Malibu. I have my own favorite milestone in all this. It is 1977, the year tourism became the largest business in the city. This was the point when San Francisco turned prettiness into a profession. It was the point of no return. From 1977 on, the city's old roles ceased to matter and it began the sordid game of wooing outsiders to pay its keep. This city, once the ruler of all it surveyed, had joined the ranks of Honolulu and Las Vegas.

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