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The Depression's artistic legacy

Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Diego Rivera murals: It's time for a tour of the Depression-era wonders that helped change the face of San Francisco.

March 08, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

SAN FRANCISCO — Stocks have crashed, industry is shuddering and banks are failing. The restless unemployed will soon fill the streets. Yet in San Francisco, some crazed optimist in the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower has hired Diego Rivera to decorate a private club for stockbrokers.

Could this be the most doomed, stupid idea of all 1930? Here is Rivera, an intermittent communist who'd met with Stalin in Russia only two years before, perched on the scaffolding above the financial titans of Sansome Street. He's supposed to sketch grand visions of happy, healthy California, its produce plump and shiny, its hills dotted with oil wells, the Golden State agleam with capitalism. All this, a year into the Great Depression.

What is the muralist thinking? What are the stockbrokers thinking?

Even as I stand before the mural on a Friday morning last month, my eyes an inch from the artist's brush strokes, I can't quite imagine. But I do feel a little closer to the 1930s, and I know I'm not the only one who has been wondering lately about those years.

The remedy is a trip to San Francisco -- good not only for plain fun but also for some encouraging revelations. In the face of the hard times between 1929 and 1941, including a bitter maritime strike in 1934, all sorts of strange and wonderful creations and transformations emerged here. Murals. Bridges. Even a couple of islands.

In my single-minded mission, I made it to the first nine of these 11 Depression-era landmarks in 24 hours. As a saner, slower traveler, you could easily cover five in a weekend. Most are inexpensive or free. And you've probably already visited several Depression landmarks without thinking of them that way.

The Golden Gate Bridge, for instance. Or the Top of the Mark, the bar that hovers 19 stories above the top of posh Nob Hill. Or Coit Tower. Or, if you're driving in from the Oakland airport as I did, the Bay Bridge beneath your wheels.

1. Bay Bridge

In fact, even though we're not slowing down, think of the Bay Bridge as our first stop. It was finished in 1936, six months before the Golden Gate, and for the armada of ferry boats that used to carry as many as 50,000 commuters daily across the bay, it was the beginning of the end.

At the Oakland end of the span, you'll notice construction: Nearly 20 years after the Loma Prieta quake, seismic fixes continues. When work is done in a few years, traffic between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island will run on one level instead of two, giving drivers bigger views, and cyclists and pedestrians will have a pathway to the island.

2. Coit Tower

Even now, as you zoom across the bridge, you'll glimpse a landmark that those pre-'30s ferry commuters never saw: Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

It was 1933 when a $125,000 bequest by local philanthropist Lily (sometimes spelled Lillie) Hitchcock Coit paid for a streamlined 210-foot tower with commanding views. Coit adored the city's firefighters, but I haven't seen evidence to back up tour guides who say the building was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle.

The view would have been enough, but the tower gained another dimension in 1934, when its ground floor was covered with murals by artists in the federally funded Public Works of Art Project. About 25 artists were paid about $31 a week, and the walls they left us amount to a portrait of the city 75 years ago: ferry commuters, fedoras, newspapers, high anxiety. And of course, the artists couldn't resist peppering the imagery with a little political spice -- notice the library denizen reaching for a volume by Karl Marx, and the copy of the Daily Worker high on the news rack display.

3. Alcatraz

After all that fun below, the view from the top of the tower (admission: $5) didn't knock me over. First, it was raining. Second, the view portals are awkwardly glassed in, making decent photography almost impossible.

Still, from the top of the tower, you see a lot, including a small, densely built island to the north.


Though most of its buildings date back to earlier years as a military prison, Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934.

That meant retrofitting the whole place to boost it from minimum to maximum security, and the penitentiary remained in business until 1963, its notoriety spread worldwide by movies.

Now it gets about 1.8 million visitors a year, about a quarter of them foreigners, who pay admission of $26 to $33 per adult.

4. Treasure Island

But let's go back to the view from Coit Tower. Look east toward the Bay Bridge, then look down to its footings on tiny Yerba Buena Island. Then check out the strange, flat, 400-acre patch of land attached to it by a causeway.

That's Treasure Island, created from scratch to house the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40. This was San Francisco's effort to wow the world with its new bridges and artistic wonders. (More later on that.) Unfortunately, the 1939 World's Fair in New York gave it stiff competition.

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