Locked Down: San Francisco's Growing Historic Districts

I've written before about San Francisco's (and California's) tendency towards overrating and over-celebrating their "history." The fact is that modern California history began in 1849, which is not that long ago. By contrast, Englishmen were building permanent settlements on the East Coast during Shakespeare's lifetime. If, like me, you grew up in Virginia, you go on field trips to Civil War battlefields and Founding Father plantations. If you're a kid in SF, your field trips are visits to Spanish Missions (most of them are modern buildings built on the sites of old missions) and Indian burial grounds. Big whoop. The latest effort at preserving useless history is in San Francisco's South of Market area, or what my Dad used to call "Bumtown"

The buildings lining the lone block of Sumner Street in San Francisco's South of Market district will never be mistaken for the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

The entrance off Howard Street is flanked by two-story warehouses from the 1920s, one concrete and one brick. The alley itself displays small buildings of various styles, including a one-story wooden home from 1906 with columns framing the door and a huge bay window.

Yet 11 buildings on the block, and 467 more on the blocks around it, are deemed "contributors" to what could become the city's largest historic district - a collection with few obvious landmarks that instead offers clues to the blue-collar city of the past.

This and similar landscapes deserve such attention; for too long they were taken for granted. The double-edged sword is that new layers of protections could undermine the varied architectural character that makes such areas distinct.

In the case of the proposed Western SoMa Light Industrial and Residential Historic District, that character is easy to miss.

The rational is that SOMA's buildings are part of the City's "blue collar" history. Maybe. But, we're talking about an area filled with warehouses, flophouses, and dive bars. There are some stray urban hipsters living there, but mostly it's bums and low-income housing types. And if SF cares about its "blue collar" history, why does the City otherwise pursue policies - high tax, high, environmental regs, rent control - that are practically designed to drive blue collar jobs out? Mostly, though, I don't think any of the proponents for this "historic" district can identify what historically important events or persons are linked to the site. At the bare minimum, the standard for preserving any building should be: is there a PhD thesis attached to this site?

Of course, the point of declaring this useless area "historic" is not so the City can fill it up with historic re-enactors playacting as Wobblies and longshoremen. It's to stop the dreaded "development," and SOMA is a place that is perpetually ripe for development, but which always seems to miss the development bus, mostly because busybody progressives declare SOMA to be off-limits for one reason or another. During the Internet Bubble era, for example, there was a big local stink over the construction of a few condo-lofts in the area, some of the few nice areas in SOMA and thus thoroughly objectionable.

Historic or not, the place is an eyesore. If SOMA was truly historic, locals would have "preserved" it on their own. You don't need some mayoral proclamation declaring the place to be "historic."

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