Borrowed Time in San Francisco

kyle.jpgMatt Stone and Trey Parker are the greatest satirists of our era, and like the true satirists of centuries past, they are essentially conservative, in the classic sense of the word. Whatever is new, trendy, popular, wherever they find complacency or conventional wisdom — that's where they attack.

Some non-classic conservatives have embraced them (there is actually a book entitled "South Park Conservatives") as allies, but the Stone/Parker version of conservatism has no more respect for the religious right or neocon policies than it does for liberal pieties.

It was two liberal sacred cows that got savaged in this week's South Park: Hybrid vehicles — or to be specific, the pompous vanity of some hybrid owners — and the city of San Francisco.

As Kyle discovers, not only does everyone in San Francisco drive a hybrid; every time a San Franciscan passes gas, they bend over and take a big whiff of it. In one scene, Kyle's father offers a party guest a choice of wines, but the guest only wants a empty glass, which he proceeds to position behind him. He lets one rip, brings the glass up to his nose and inhales deeply. The children of San Franciscans are so repelled by their extremely self-satisfied parents, they have no choice but to take drugs in massive quantities.

As ridiculous as some San Franciscans might be, in the next few weeks there will be many opportunities to worry about their fate. April 18th is the 100th anniversary of the great 1906 quake and fire. A nearly 300-mile rip along the San Andreas Fault that, in a matter of seconds, shifted one part of California up to 24 feet, the quake has had no parallel in California since then. The only U.S. comparison in immediate memory would be Hurricane Katrina's massive devastation of New Orleans. In terms of loss of life, it was about the same as 9/11.

Bay area quakes since 1850.jpgSince 1906, the Bay Area has been relatively fortunate. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake was a major, catastrophic event, but nowhere near as powerful or widespread as '06. But Loma Prieta was the first major quake to hit S.F. since 1911. By comparison, as this USGS chart shows, there was a relative flurry of large and damaging smaller quakes in the area. From 1836-1911, there were eight quakes of magnitude 6.5 or higher.

This month's American Heritage magazine has an essay written by former U.S. Geological Survey official John Dvorak. He takes us on a walking tour of San Francisco and looks for traces of the pre-1906 city, the quake's damage and, chillingly, the areas most likely to suffer massive damage in the next big one.

The whole essay's worth reading, but I found this passage especially haunting:

I hurry west along Washington Street three more blocks, passing the dazzling white Transamerica Pyramid, the most distinctive building in San Francisco’s skyline, and reach Montgomery Street. At last I am standing on firm ground. Montgomery Street, often called the financial center of the West, roughly follows the original shoreline of San Francisco Bay, which ran close to the base of Nob Hill. The six blocks from here to the current waterfront are all “made” ground, land literally manufactured by filling the bay with sand, garbage, rotting trees, and other detritus. Scores of abandoned wooden ships were scuttled and lie beneath this section of San Francisco. Made ground is loose and unstable. It takes on the character of a liquid when shaken, such as during an earthquake. Imagine standing on a pile of loose sand. Shuffle your feet back and forth quickly. They sink into the sand. The same thing happens when the ground shakes around a building that is not set on firm ground.

Most of the destruction and the five deaths in San Francisco caused by an 1868 earthquake, which originated across the bay in Hayward, happened here. Extensive damage also occurred here in 1906, as well as in other areas of the city built over made ground. The City Hall, then at the corner of McAllister and Larkin Streets, had been built on shaky underpinnings—the site of the city’s first cemetery. The 1906 City Hall was the grandest and largest municipal building on the West Coast. It took more than 20 years to build and only two minutes to collapse. Today the main branch of San Francisco’s library occupies the site, housed in a six-story building that looks more like a bunker than a municipal ornament. Its inside is braced with steel rods and girders, some set at inconvenient angles. At the main entrance, inside a glass case, are artifacts, including bottles, broken chinaware, and a wedding ring.

For 30 years I have walked the streets of San Francisco, taking photographs. My goal is to document the city before the next major earthquake. I have often wondered how San Francisco will look after that. Which buildings will fall and which will still be standing?

The South Park parody of San Francisco is dead-on, but the other side of all that city's silliness is that its people know, at least subconsciously, that their idyllic home is in the path of nature, and that they could someday be required to act as heroes to save their neighbors and their beloved, smug, self-satisfied metropolis. And we know that's what they'll do. San Franciscans are tenacious and loyal to San Francisco above all.

It's interesting to note that America's two most beautiful cities (New Orleans being the other) are also its two most perilous. Is it beautiful in those places because they are so close to nature's unfathomable power? Or does their beauty assure they will survive even the deadliest blows?


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