In my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.
An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.
Luxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.
Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.
Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.
The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.
Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.
Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.
The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.
This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.
For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.
As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.
Seismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.
On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.
There is , of course, constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists.
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.