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Past Imperfect 

Herb Caen-inspired nostalgia is no substitute for dealing practically with the dot-com boom

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
-- William Shakespeare

If any legacy authenticates Mark Antony's warning in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, it is Herb Caen's.

Revered as he may have been for his journalistic abilities, Caen was above all a nostalgist. As the official voice of San Francisco for 60 years, his Reagan-esque idea that redemption is to be found in some earlier, imaginary era has contaminated the consciousness of all who live here. His columns, especially the memory-lane, Sunday Punch tone-poems, suggested that if only San Francisco lived up to an idealized 1940s Old World of upper-crust life -- Wilkes Bashford blazers, operas, expensive restaurants, and vacations to Marrakech -- it could somehow be saved.

Caen publicly struggled against this tendency in his later years. "There's a lot of resistance in the city to change," Caen told a reporter late in his life. "That's why the city is in trouble on almost every front ... and I contributed to that by waving the flag."

But Caen's regret came too late. His ethos had become the city's, and the delusory collective mental state he inspired had already harmed San Francisco in ways too numerous to count.

This nostalgia for what probably never was, and certainly can never be again, is important to note during this autumn of discontent over San Francisco's digital economic explosion. As rents escalate and cranes clutter the skyline, a large slice of San Francisco is seeking solace in the idea of freezing the city, and returning it to the 1970s, or the '60s, or even the '50s.

I just received a press release from a group calling itself the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition demanding an end to market-rate housing construction, a moratorium on office development, and an end to the conversion of commercial space to technology offices. An anti-growth ballot initiative that voters will consider this November seeks to give some of these desires the force of law. Called Proposition L, it would prohibit development in certain areas of the city, strengthen curbs on office construction, and add rules making it easier to obstruct builders wishing to erect office buildings or housing projects.

This measure has become a rallying cry for San Francisco's nostalgia-driven brand of progressive politics. By halting development, proponents of this measure maintain, the wave of dot-com yuppie scum ruining the Old City will be repelled. We will go back to a better time, before people erected buildings to house hard-to-comprehend Web-technology companies. In this imagined past, which sponsors of this measure promise to turn into the future, the new bad people would go away, and the old good people, the people who have been here for decades, would be able to stay.

By keeping developers from building new commercial space, this logic goes, the number of jobs in the city would be limited, and demand for San Francisco housing might ease, making it more affordable to live here.

Though this may be a pleasant dream, in practice it would be a nightmare.

Whether an office building is erected in San Francisco or in Walnut Creek makes almost no difference in the number of people seeking to live here. They'll take housing where they can get it. The fierce demand for housing here will not abate, merely because San Franciscans force office construction into Oakland.

And anybody with a serious understanding of economics, or cities, or real estate, or -- and I don't mind saying so -- reality itself knows that limiting the available supply of vacant office space is the surest possible way to inflate rents. And when commercial rents inflate, they price artists, arts groups, social service nonprofits, and other important but financially limited portions of the city mosaic out of San Francisco, or out of existence.

This is the legacy of Herb Caen's nostalgia: a city purged of economic diversity, and culture, and soul. And so I come to bury Herb Caen, not to praise him.


At its simplest, Proposition L is a reinforcement of a 1986 ballot measure spurred by Herb Caen's 1970s and '80s musings against the "Manhattanization" of San Francisco. During those decades, Caen would alternate cranky griping about construction in the Financial District with an occasional column mentioning how discontent he was on (mysteriously frequent) visits to New York City.

The 1986 measure, called Proposition M, was the most restrictive anti-growth legislation in the country. Soon after it was passed, Caen got his wish, sort of. Thanks to the savings and loan crisis and a resulting recession, the economies of California and San Francisco shrank dramatically, and the city was, indeed, reminiscent of decades past. High downtown vacancy rates made for clear streets. The skyline stopped changing. The city became a nostalgist's delight. And the odd, nativist, provincialist, deeply nostalgic "progressive" movement that had coalesced around this no-growth campaign emerged as the arbiter of correct political thinking in San Francisco.

Proposition M reappeared with a vengeance last October, though. For the first time during the 1990s, builders asked permission to erect more office space than the 1986 measure allows. At last check, there were proposals to build 2 million square feet more office space than allowed by law.

Builders were responding to the greatest escalation in demand for office space in American history, an escalation that has driven up downtown commercial rents by two-thirds during the past 12 months. As their inexpensive leases expire, artists, nonprofit groups, small businesses, and other commercial renters who can't afford the country's highest lease rates are being forced from San Francisco. Recently, even doctors -- the wealthy country-gentry of nostalgic lore -- are being forced out of their downtown offices by escalating rents.

Proposition L would permanently ban large-scale office construction in portions of the Mission and Potrero neighborhoods, and along the central waterfront. It would impose a moratorium on development in the Bayview and South of Market neighborhoods. It would effectively ban live-work lofts. It would ban the Planning Department's current practice of categorizing some digital businesses as "basic industries" not subject to Proposition M's office construction cap. And Prop. L would require special hearings to determine if any new commercial or residential project might, theoretically, cause rents to rise in its immediate surroundings.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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