Public Comment

Building on Sand and Goo Again, 100 Years Later

By Gray Brechin
Friday November 23, 2007

On Sept. 11, the Chronicle’s urban design writer, John King, an-nounced on the front page that an architectural jury had predictably chosen for the Transbay terminal site a 1,200-foot tower most resembling a titanic penis. A shaft the height of the Empire State Building thrusting out of the current plateau of glass and steel that now obscures the city’s hills would, correspondents to the paper opined, either wreck remaining views or assure San Francisco’s world-classiness. Can first-rate delis or Frank Gehry anythings be far behind for our retiring little city?  

Nine days before, the Chronicle’s revered and retired environmental writer, Harold Gilliam, published an essay in the Sunday opinion section entitled “Towering Above Quake Country.” Gilliam offered a sobering caution that aesthetic squabbles about highrises built between cocked fault lines display world-class hubris, for each tall building is a daring experiment in engineering whose risks grow greater as developers attempt to erect structures matching in height those of San Francisco’s age-old would-be rival, Manhattan.  

But even Gilliam missed a fundamental truth about modern cities. They are not simply agglomerations of structures but extraordinarily complex organisms, as dependent upon vulnerable life-support systems for public safety as is the human body upon its circulatory and lymphatic systems. Those systems are not keeping pace with San Francisco’s vertical hypertrophy. Indeed, they can’t.  

As the high rises grow higher and denser south of Market, few choose to remember what destroyed the city in 1906. In only one brief sentence did Gilliam name it: “What about fires in the upper stories?” Why just upper stories?  

In his non-fiction thriller The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, Philip Fradkin reminded readers that San Francisco had been a fire underwriter’s nightmare ever since it sprang from the shores of Yerba Buena Cove in 1849. The influx of gold-seekers so fertilized land value that the grid of streets begun around the Mexican plaza (now Chinatown’s Porstmouth Square) leapt out in all directions, climbing precipices and leveling hills to bury low-lying marshes, creeks, and the harbor itself. As Simone de Beauvoir once remarked, the town seemed to have been laid out by someone who hadn’t been there.  

Buildings, at least, nodded to one threat only to fall to another. Robert Louis Ste-venson observed that frequent earthquakes so terrified San Franciscans that “in that rainless clime, the whole city is built of timber—a woodyard of unusual extent and complication.” Fear and necessity thus assured that “nowhere else in the world is the art of the firemen carried to so nice a point.” On the morning of April 18,1906, that woodyard spontaneously ignited at multiple points south of Market, and the city’s firemen could do little more than watch as the holocaust quickly moved into and consumed downtown’s “fireproof” structures.  

Seeking a scapegoat, many blamed the private Spring Valley Water Company whose system spectacularly failed after flames erupted in scores of damaged buildings after the shaking stopped. In response, the company’s chief engineer, Hermann Schussler, rushed out a folio volume just three months after the last flames were quenched. The Water Supply of San Francisco, California Before, During and After The Earthquake of April 18th, 1906, and the Subsequent Conflagration contained a map that illustrated at a glance why neither the water company nor the fire department were to blame: heedless growth and speculative fervor stacked the pyre that few wanted to acknowledge then, as now.  

Water mains (and gas lines as well) predictably snapped wherever streets crossed buried creeks, coves, lakes and swamps whose soils momentarily liquefied. South of Market Street, they broke along the snaking underground courses of Mission and Hayes Valley creeks, and north of Market on Yerba Buena Cove—otherwise known as the Financial District. As in New Orleans two years ago, “first responders” trained to deal with discrete crises were largely helpless when confronted with a sudden systemic failure.  

In 1983, Mayor Dianne Feinstein pressed for the departure of her rogue PUC chief Richard Sklar when he—as a member of the city’s Planning Commission—refused to OK more highrise growth unless developers contributed more to expand the city’s overstretched transit infrastructure. As usual, the mayor and her wealthy supporters saw soaring towers—no matter how banal—as proof of the city’s “world-class” status. That its firefighting life-support system lay upon jello foundations, and that skyrocketing land values were driving the city’s firefighters to seek cheaper homes across vulnerable bridges, was of little concern. They did not see the city as an organism, but as a lucrative marketplace the height of whose skyscrapers were for them the measure of its greatness.  

Under the best of circumstances, highrise fires are difficult enough to extinguish. Under the worst, when streets are blocked by fallen debris, flattened cars, and by panicked and dead people—well, I leave it to your imagination what could happen there and to the East Bay if high rises ignite like bundled faggots. A recent bridge collapse at rush hour momentarily woke the nation’s media to what tax cuts combined with headlong growth have done for public safety. Will San Franciscans tax themselves—or developers contribute—to substantially expand and reinforce water mains and the fire department? Can we learn from a century-old catastrophe that was, for all its adjectival overkill, truly world-class?  

One year after the centenary of its destruction, the city built on sand and goo debates the design merits of ever denser towers, while Yerba Buena Cove, Mission Bay, and the buried creeks of SoMa mapped by Herman Schussler quietly await their encore call on history’s stage.  


Gray Brechin is an historical geographer and the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin