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Five years before he died last February at age 91, I got a chance to speak with Hal "Snake" Perry, an ebullient retired foreign-service agent who, during the 1920s and '30s, had been a bike racer. After he'd showed off his collection of carefully restored 1920s and '30s track bicycles, Perry directed me to his living room couch, sat beside me, and opened a faded box containing dried, but still vibrantly colored, race programs illustrated in the art deco style. They depicted six-day bike races at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939, at San Francisco Civic Auditorium in 1937, at S.F.'s Dreamland Auditorium in 1935, and at Los Angeles' WinterGarden Auditorium in 1932.
Perry, in his gentle, excitable way, was sharing with me a glimpse of the brief period from the turn of the last century until World War II when bicycle racing was San Francisco's, and America's, king of sports. The most popular event was the six-day team race, wherein one member of a two-man squad competed while the other rested. Velodromes pocked the country like moon craters; racers earned thrice the salaries of baseballers; and a continent away, Broadway starlets and Wall Street tycoons vied for trackside seats at Madison Square Garden.
Perry, who earned his serpentine nickname for his habit of sneaking around to win at the last minute, recalled that the biggest race he competed in was a 1932 event at L.A.'s WinterGarden. Perry and his teammate, Douglas Barker, were badly outclassed. They dropped out three days before the competition ended, picked up their intermediate sprint winnings from the promoter, and went home. They later learned they were the only ones who got paid.
"Just before the race was to end the promoters skipped town with the gate," Perry said. "Bike race promoters in those days were known as a shifty crowd."
To this day, Perry's adage sometimes holds true: Bike race promoters still can seem as shifty as a rear derailleur during a Tour de France mountain stage. Last week, for instance, San Francisco Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin lashed out at Mayor Willie Brown for his decision to forgive a $350,000 loan to a bike race promoter who had apparently been stiffing the city of just about $350K for police overtime related to the race. Daly's asked the city attorney to investigate.
But Hal Perry's old S.F. bike race programs also illustrate another reality: Bike racing impresarios of the 20th century's early decades enriched San Francisco's economic, civic, and cultural life, and today the race that's the subject of this latest City Hall squabble -- the San Francisco Grand Prix -- stands to be some help in pumping up the city's 3-year-old economic flat tire.
In two short years, the S.F. Grand Prix has become the Western Hemisphere's biggest single-day event in cycling, the world's largest sport in terms of live spectators. The event attracts 50,000 course-side fans, receives live coverage on television, and has attained real status within the cycling world; it's one of only two non-European events attended by four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.
Thousands of the Grand Prix spectators stay in city hotels and eat at city restaurants. The event's television images, broadcast worldwide, depict the city as host to one of the most prestigious events in global sport. It's the type of publicity no amount of money could buy.
As an economic-development initiative, having the city pay for the police overtime required to staff the Grand Prix is a smart governance no-brainer. And in criticizing the mayor for making such an investment, the "progressive" majority of city supervisors has exposed its huge collective blind spot in regard to the government's proper role in promoting economic development.
The bike race is just one tiny example of these supervisors' chronic inability to tell good economic-stimulus policies from bad. Rather than try to judge what would and would not improve the city's economic vitality, they've adopted a consistent anti-business and anti-jobs posture that's particularly harmful during economic hard times. Whether the issue is overly restrictive commercial zoning controls, the absence of concerted city efforts to lure businesses downtown, the failure to build new worker housing, the inability to properly exploit the port, or the lack of attention to regenerating a sclerotic tourism industry, these politicians have adopted a stance that says: "Other cities may need to take an active role in keeping and generating jobs; San Francisco does not."
In San Francisco, liberal pols find it all too politically easy to cloak an anti-jobs attitude in good-government trappings, because the city has such a rich history of bungled economic-development projects. Indeed, the city's pulled more boners in the name of economic development than might be found in a boy's dormitory on prom night's eve. Pick a city block, a government department, or an industrial sector, and there's been a public-private partnership boondoggle in the not-too-distant past. Each of these useless projects creates a potential excuse for recusing the government from its rightful role in encouraging the creation of private-sector jobs. But there is a rightful role.
Good local leaders can and should object to economic-development schemes when they offer no clear benefit to the city. But our city's leaders don't appear to have learned the difference between promoting public integrity and discouraging job creation.
Examples of job-killing policies disguised in misleading rhetoric abound. The city is poised to consider extending, or modifying, a business growth moratorium in the Mission District and other neighborhoods in the eastern portions of the city -- even though offices and warehouses in these areas are mostly vacant, and residents there desperately need jobs. Supervisors have proposed zoning controls that would specifically ban biotech companies from locating in certain parts of the city -- just as developers are planning a biotech industrial zone to surround the new UCSF SOMA campus, and as the biotech sector gives signs of becoming one of the major economic engines of coming decades. The rationales for these counterproductive zoning initiatives connect, vaguely, to the S.F. progressives' disdain for developers. That's to say, the rationales are based on politics, rather than on the type of facts that make for good policy.
Because the progressive supervisors have allowed the city's role in the economy to become highly politicized, the types of enterprises that thrive on economic fundamentals, rather than political wheedling, shun the anti-business, anti-jobs mess that is San Francisco. And we're left with the political/business wizards -- can you spell Joe O'Donoghue? -- who've learned to game our Byzantine political system to their benefit but not, necessarily, to the city's.
Ideally, City Hall would be aggressively fighting to bring new, clean, well-paying jobs to the Mission and elsewhere. The Board of Supervisors would be struggling to bring about the regulatory and infrastructure changes necessary for cruise shipping lines to use San Francisco as a major home port. Supervisors would be keeping close tabs on the development of the port as a whole, seeing to it that legitimate proposals were chaperoned to fruition, bogus ones tossed out. San Francisco should be wrestling against the governments of San Jose, Boston, Austin, New York, and other tech centers to lure technology-oriented companies back into empty downtown and SOMA office buildings. The city should do whatever it can to help make sure UCSF's new campus biotech zone in Mission Bay isn't a flop.
And yes, our city fathers should be thinking of ways -- cheap ways, because the city is in a budget crisis -- to rejuvenate San Francisco's devastated tourism industry. That sector has lost thousands of local jobs since 9/11, and attempting to shore it up is not only good policy, but good politics. Aren't waiters, valets, dishwashers, hotel housekeepers, and cashiers, after all, the natural constituents of S.F.'s self-styled progressive coalition?
In an era when the Tour de France dominates newspaper headlines around the world, the biggest one-day race outside Europe -- the San Francisco Grand Prix -- provides an outsize boost to tourism and other business here. Our well-meaning supervisors shouldn't be carping about the insignificant sum needed to properly police this truly grand event; they should be doing everything they can to encourage it to continue to call San Francisco home.
For the past three years San Francisco's been lingering at the back of the pack, economically speaking. But things seem to be in place for an economic rebound. We've got plentiful, cheap office space. This is still a desirable place for workers and entrepreneurs to live. We have a highly educated population; we're a financial capital for the Pacific Rim and for the technology industry. And we're still one of the world's favorite tourist destinations, even if we're a destination that, just now, could use a helping hand.
In other words, we have the strength to pull off a last-minute, come-from-behind win -- and make the ghost of Hal "Snake" Perry proud.