Balkans by the Bay

Aquatic Park, long mismanaged by a jumble of self-interested entities, needs public-spirited refurbishment

Jutting from the northern wall of the S.F. Maritime Museum's bottom floor are mementos of a more civilized era: bright chrome shower heads lined up at attention, as if waiting for a rush of bathers from Black Point Cove. But the shower room at Aquatic Park is now a government maintenance workshop filled with shop vacs, sawhorses, and dust; the towel room holds supplies for a senior citizens' art class, as do the lockers. Bathers haven't showered here for 60 years. They'll probably never return.

San Francisco is full of such remnants of abandoned public life. There are sites of former churches scattered throughout the city -- on Market Street, Dolores Street, Mason Street, and elsewhere -- each vacated as congregations dwindled to near nothing. Longshoremen's Hall on Fisherman's Wharf is usually empty, save for three or four regulars who use the hangar-size building for board games.

San Francisco, site of gay liberation in the 1970s, anti-war protests in the 1960s, and labor militancy in the 1950s, home to some 400 neighborhood preservation groups, and host to the west's greatest concentration of nonprofit organizations, is actually short on public spirit.

Last month's astonishingly low 15 percent voter turnout was merely a symptom of a phenomenon long known to people who study the city's social capital: San Franciscans live their lives in such a way as to rarely encounter fellow citizens. As a result, we don't trust each other. Neighbors battle each other with astonishing vigor over where dogs may or may not poop. Last year's greatest political struggle involved a doo-doo fight writ large: Artists and affiliated "progressives" wished to keep undesirable yuppies out of their neighborhoods. Our current civic moment is dominated by yet another not-very-public-minded debate: Shall we punish beggars?

The issue of public spirit has dominated national conversation in recent months, after President Bush inaccurately predicted that Americans would become more socially minded following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. American youth were going to rethink career choices and become firefighters, teachers, and soldiers, he predicted. Americans were going to volunteer more, and attend church more often. They didn't do any of these things.

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that during the past two decades, Americans have abandoned many forms of public life. At first glance, San Francisco would seem an exception to this trend. We have the aforementioned 400 neighborhood groups, which pack Planning Commission meetings any time somebody plans to construct so much as a single in-law apartment. San Francisco is headquarters to national civic organizations such as the Sierra Club, whose millions of members have been described as a new type of grass-roots social force. And there's our history: Movements launched in San Francisco redefined American civic culture during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

But, as Putnam notes, San Francisco-style neighborhood groups represent a type of organization that actually detracts from civic togetherness. "Urban gangs, NIMBY "not in my backyard' movements, and power elites often exploit social capital to achieve ends that are antisocial from a wider perspective," he writes.

The Sierra Club, its fellow environmental organizations, and many of the other civic-minded groups with national headquarters in San Francisco expect little of their members beyond dues-paying. The 1960s peace movement has few politically relevant vestiges here, despite popular claims to the contrary. If gay rights groups in the city constitute an important bastion of public-minded civic involvement, they also represent the very balkanization that divides us.

San Francisco, attractive because of its diversity, is also sharply divided along group-identity lines. The mayor's young white critics talk past his black backers, ignore his Asian allies, and don't socialize much with the city's large Hispanic immigrant community. The fact that we don't have enough housing for workers to live here is partly to blame: Many of San Francisco's daytime residents commute from other cities and have little stake in our public life.

San Francisco is a magnet for young people, but there's a flip side to this constant influx of twentysomethings: Much of the city's population has few roots here.

San Franciscans' lack of civic engagement is important for reasons that go beyond the trials of trying to get a date in this town. Civic engagement and social connectedness are crucial to good government in all sorts of ways: People who know and trust each other take a keener interest in making sure government works for people outside their own circle. This interest translates into better schools and health care, broader economic development, lower crime, and more effective government in general.

Lack of such interest gives you the abysmal San Francisco Unified School District, and a city government that produces an astonishingly small amount of service per tax dollar spent.

Which all brings me back to the shower heads at Aquatic Park, their relevance as a symbol for the social disconnectedness that ails us, and how the situation might improve. Built by FDR's Works Progress Administration as a staging area for civic culture, Aquatic Park is now a shining example of civic balkanization and the death of public life here.

As first imagined, Aquatic Park and the charming cove it surrounds were to constitute San Francisco's bayside recreation gateway. At the park's west edge, which begins where Van Ness Avenue ends, a visitor could walk onto the curved, quarter-mile-long municipal pier, stop at a snack bar surrounded by San Francisco Bay, and take in a breathtaking view of Alcatraz, Marin County, Angel Island, and the city's north side. Walking back to land and heading east, the visitor would then traverse an expanse of grass that led to a series of concrete bleachers backstopping a beach that fronted on the Aquatic Park cove. Farther east, this visiting stroller would come upon the centerpiece of the park -- a three-story concrete, glass, and stainless-steel structure, designed to resemble a streamlined battleship and housing, on its top floor, a $2 million restaurant named "Casino," beneath which were shower rooms and a boathouse. The cove itself, protected by the Hyde Street Pier on one side and the municipal pier on the other, offered calm (if cold) water for swimming and boating.

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