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The Streets of San Francisco: 

A History

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
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Back in 1839, when San Francisco was Yerba Buena, a Mexican outpost of cabins and tents huddled between a bayside cove and some chaparral-covered hills, the authorities asked a Swiss surveyor, Jean-Jacques Vioget, to lay out a rudimentary grid of north-south and east-west streets around a plaza (now Portsmouth Square). The resultant blocks measured 412 feet by 275 feet, just as most downtown-to-Arguello blocks do today. Vioget's streets were eventually named Kearny, Grant, Sacramento, Clay, Washington, Jackson, and Pacific.

Eight years later, just a year before gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills, Irish engineer Jasper O'Farrell codified and extended Vioget's grid plan over Telegraph, Russian, and Nob hills and out into the shallow cove itself. To negotiate the steep hills, O'Farrell wanted to terrace some roadways into gently sloping curves, but property owners insisted that the existing alignments remain. South of Yerba Buena Cove, landowners forced O'Farrell to offset Vioget's grid at a problematic 45-degree angle, with much larger, 600-by-400-foot blocks spreading over Rincon Hill to Mission Bay. To unite the two competing grids, O'Farrell devised a 120-foot-wide, diagonal boulevard, Market Street, which he aimed southwest at the summit called Twin Peaks. A century later, columnist Herb Caen characterized O'Farrell's great boulevard as "the obtuse angle that no traffic plan can ever solve."

Thus was Vioget's hills-be-damned geometry forced on the infant American city. Eccentric, enduring, and at times breathtaking, the grid has shaped the physical experience of San Francisco ever since.

By the 1880s, there were more than 100 miles of cable car lines lacing San Francisco's streets and spooking the horses. The system ferried San Franciscans over the hills between downtown and the burgeoning western neighborhoods. In the summer of 1886, it was reported that 50,000 people visited Golden Gate Park on one Sunday, most via a five-cent ride on a cable car.

The first automobile constructed on the West Coast was a two-cylinder job built by John Mayer at his machine shop at 4181 24th St. in Noe Valley. Mayer's horseless carriage made its debut as the only automobile in the city's Fourth of July Parade of 1897. By 1900, the city's population was 342,000 -- up from just 6,000 at the time of the Gold Rush. A 1905 issue of Speed Magazine, published out of the Flood Building at the foot of Powell, reported that San Francisco was averaging about 260 auto registrations per month.

The 1906 earthquake and fire flattened more than just 514 blocks of downtown San Francisco. It also squelched the grandiose Burnham Plan, the 1905 brainchild of esteemed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, which promoters hoped would reassert San Francisco's pre-eminence vis-à-vis booming Los Angeles. The plan exploded the cramped, Vioget/O'Farrell street grid and imposed a neoclassical scheme of wide boulevards and avenues radiating out from ceremonial plazas and mighty hilltop monuments, with a grand, state-of-the-art, waterfront parkway encircling the entire city. In the aftermath of the quake, however, San Franciscans shelved grandeur and simply scrambled to rebuild within existing property lines on the charred bones of the old grid -- before too many businesses fled to Oakland.

The first commercial exposition to open to the public after the earthquake was the San Francisco Auto Show, held in February 1907 at the new Coliseum near Golden Gate Park. The crowds ogled polished Wintons ("Eats up the hills! 40 mph!"), Renaults, Rainiers, Stoddard-Daytons, Elmores, Ramblers, Packards, Fords (Model K, four passengers, 60 mph, $2,800), and the De Luxe (seven passengers, 50 mph, $4,750). The show's promoters bragged that San Francisco had one car for every 133 residents, versus New York's 210 and Chicago's 377. Nationwide, the ratio was 1-to-566.

In 1928, the San Francisco Traffic Survey Committee hired a St. Louis engineering firm to study the city's chaotic mix of automobiles, streetcars, and vestigial horse-drawn wagons and make recommendations. "San Francisco has a colorful history," the engineers from St. Louis noted politely in the final report's foreword. "Its present street system reflects in many ways this romantic past but is not always equal to the pressure of modern motor cars."

The engineers called the grid a "straight jacket."

To loosen it, the report recommended widening Van Ness, Columbus, Bay, Harrison, Townsend, parts of Third, Portola, Fulton, Webster, 18th, and other streets, and removing streetcar lines (most of them electrified by this time) from all downtown and South of Market streets, as well as from Oak. It advocated chopping up the big blocks South of Market and tunneling Broadway beneath Russian Hill, and Stockton beneath Nob Hill. Many suggestions were acted upon piecemeal; others weren't.

Following World War II, when the city bulged to the breaking point, two consulting firms prepared a comprehensive transportation plan that offered up a network of freeways and limited-access expressways linking the city's downtown to its western neighborhoods and to the growing suburban counties north, south, and east via freeways and the two great bridges, both completed before the war.

To post-WWII transportation planners, speed was destiny, and the elevated freeway promised to liberate the ever-sleeker Thunderbirds, Futuras, and Roadmasters from the stop-and-go world below. Without the freeway, it was argued, old cities like San Francisco would strangle in traffic congestion, wither, and die. The city's Planning Commission went the consultants one better, proposing in 1951 an even more ambitious network of freeways to serve San Francisco. Alignments of the freeway web would have followed, roughly, Bayshore Boulevard, Alemany-Mission, Van Ness, Fell-Fulton, and Junipero Serra-Park Presidio. The Holy Grail of Bay Area planners was a direct freeway link between the two bridges, via an elevated roadway from the Bay Bridge north along the Embarcadero around Telegraph Hill to Bay Street, the Marina, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The entire system was formally adopted in the city's 1955 Master Plan.

Thus began San Franciscans' historic "Freeway Revolt." Despite heavy support in the business community, most of the proposed freeway alignments were flat out rejected by the Board of Supervisors after determined opposition from affected neighborhoods. The biggest fight, over the bridge-linking Golden Gate Freeway, lasted until 1966, when, after countless meetings and revisions and much hair-raising, last-minute maneuvering, the supervisors voted it down as well. Mayor Jack Shelley concluded at the time that as far as San Francisco was concerned, "freeways were yesterday's business."

The notorious Embarcadero Freeway to nowhere, built in 1959, was deemed unsafe after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and torn down in 1991. Similarly, the quake hastened the retreat of the Central Freeway, the bane of Hayes Valley, to South of Market -- a retreat that is being finalized this year. -- C.S.

About The Author

Curt Sanburn

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