The Colossus of San Francisco
It seems to be the common zeitgeist that humanity’s progress has been linear, and that the past, in nearly all objective measurements, was worse than the present. I believe this to be generally true, yet to stop here at this absolute distorts the reality of the complex nature of our history. Recall that it was the Old Kingdom of Egypt that built the Great Pyramids in 2500 BC, wonders that reached higher than any structure until the Eiffel Tower in 1889. The concept of linear progress is a useful doctrine for concentrating innovation in chosen areas, but to believe this is the full truth is willful ignorance of our rather crooked advancement. It seems possible to me that there might be important elements lost in this heads-down race towards the future.
I’m particularly interested in cities as a proxy for the technology, culture, and spirit of a society. The great cities of Europe continue to draw tourists in pursuit of a glimpse of their hardened splendor. Over centuries, these societies ossified their periods of success and expressed their ideals through aesthetic pursuits. For the largely homogeneous and culturally rich polities of Europe, this crafted a tapestry of uniquely evolved, and often irrational, structures of exuberance across the continent. Roman arches, Gothic cathedrals, and Italian domes seem to tug at something deeper — a reflection grasping at a cardinal form.
I don’t think this to be uniquely true of Europe alone. I believe Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, to be the most beautiful city in the world. Similarly, the ruins of Angkor Wat continue to humble architects over a thousand years after their initial construction. Even in the United States, our early cities were imbued with the ideals and optimism becoming of a new nation. Our creed, bound by the Constitution, uniting peoples of the world at our shores. For those of us out West, Manifest Destiny presented a promise of freedom from landed nobility and dogmatic rule, the foundations of the American Dream. Iconically, this is best illustrated by San Francisco.
In less than thirty years, the city grew from a small village to the jewel of the West — a gold rush will do that kind of thing. People flocked to our shores and put down roots, until one day the ground fought back.
It’s difficult to compare the devastation of the 1906 Earthquake to anything in modern memory — a collapse that truly shook the foundations of our world. Many believed the city would not even return to a shadow of what it once was. How wrong they were.
From the ashes, the city by the bay was born again. The 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition was ordained as a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, yet for San Francisco it was something more. This festival provided an opportunity to display their recovery — and not only that, but become a beacon for the world's wonder and awe.
While much of the exposition was meant to be temporary, some of its legacy remains standing—the Palace of Fine Arts still draws visitors to this day. Even the ruins of the fair grounds have acted as the foundation for the famous Marina District. San Francisco rocketed out of its nadir, ultimately excelling through the chaos of the early 20th century towards the construction of its crowning achievement — the Golden Gate Bridge.
What’s particularly fascinating about San Francisco is that, if I was a writer looking back on the city's past, I'd rightfully believe this to be the height of our civic story. The idea of building the Golden Gate was preposterous to many at the time, and it took a decade of persuasion to convince relevant parties that it was even possible. Furthermore, this required the support of the Secretary of War, and the nascent auto industry, in providing the land and funding required. (Current San Franciscans might compare the difficulty of this to building a new apartment complex)
The Golden Gate Exposition of 1939 was held in celebration of its completion, and, in my mind, was the last hurrah of San Francisco's civic greatness. We literally built an entire island in the middle of the bay from scratch, hosting over 10 million visitors from around the world.
A wave of “Manhattanization” over the course of the next 50 years brought the Transamerica Pyramid and skyscrapers, yet these towers weren’t something we could truly call our own creation. As we moved into the latter half of the 20th century, progress shifted into the hands of the individual, often in conflict with traditional civic society. The Beat Generation and Hippies; Haight and Ashbury and the Castro. This hit a crescendo in 1978 with the dual assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Around this time homelessness spiked and, rather symbolically, the 1989 Earthquake accosted the new renaissance of San Francisco; the digital age.
Strikingly, the civic degradation since the mid 20th century has not stopped the people from making it perhaps the most innovative and wealthy city in the history of the world. It’s in this simple incongruity that I find my hope for the future — for as long as the people remain steadfast we will succeed in spite of the challenges ahead. And while the COVID-19 exodus might be true, it will likely only serve to make room for the next wave of dreamers, a rekindling of the beacon of wonder and awe once celebrated back in 1915.
This does beg the question, what if the civic government and San Franciscans were able to work in tandem? For many, this is the crux of our frustrations — the possibilities of what we could be. While our technology, culture, and spirit might be ever present in the minds of our people, we have failed on historic levels to solidify our success during this recent extraordinary period. We should have a Great Pyramid or Arc de Triomphe, but instead we got a sinking Salesforce Tower.
It has recently become popular to critique San Francisco and predict its looming downfall. While these concerns have merit, I don't believe them to be true of San Francisco alone. All of our once great cities are in civic decline, the differentiating factor being merely the speed of the fall. The only city that spends more per citizen than San Francisco is Washington D.C., which uniquely has the burden of also acting as a state. In my mind, this illustrates the simple fact that our problems aren't purely financial, and that they can't be solved by further liquidating our citizens' success as retardant for a self-conjured inferno. From this lens, I ask you to consider that the city's ills might need a different medicine—to treat the problem rather than the symptoms.
While this might be a larger critique of modern society in general, I worry that rapid progress through the last millennia has shed something rather crucial — irrationality. There will never be an economic justification for building the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts, just as there wasn’t for many of the magnificent structures of our past. A city in its ideal form is meant to be a symbolic representation of its people. Ours is focused on bureaucracy-driven incremental progress, while the legacy of our success is written by step-function improvements on a magnitude that has shaped the modern world.
We are intrinsically drawn to the monuments of history because they remind us of the simple truths and values that drove our ancestors, forged by the crucible of time. Perhaps even subconsciously we are comforted by the notion that they could even be built. The rational mind finds little solace in a symbolic representation, and the collective bureaucracy functions only within the sphere of what can be justified by committee or objective data. To the rest of us, these irrational endeavors provide a sense of hope.
The entrepreneurial icons of today are consistently inspired by fiction—in its most pure form expanding the mind's ability to conjure new realities. As a creative medium, the written word is rather constrained . Perhaps we can do better. We must look to our ancestors' irrational ideals that lie dormant within us, the pursuit of aesthetic form over pure function. A canvas of marble and stone for our minds to freely wander.
The hypocrisy of our city is painful. We are the most innovative in history, yet at the same time increasingly muzzle ourselves. I pray it doesn’t take another earthquake to shake sense into us. In the pursuit of ossifying our brief period of splendor, we might burn through the institutional detritus that has brought our city to a grinding halt. Imagine a Colossus standing watch over our beautiful natural harbor, ever reminding us of the titans of the digital age that once thrived. A dream of our children gazing upon our city with wonder and awe. The hope that we might thread ourselves into the tapestry of civilization — the City by the Bay.