Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and Potrero Hill know about being knocked down, pushed to the ground, staying there for years before climbing back up, head held high. For the last third of the 20th Century, as the industrial age and wartime winds that created portside prosperity faded, these neighborhoods, economically dependent on the waterfront, suffered high levels of un- and underemployment, blocks of derelict buildings, and intermittent bursts of frequently drug abuse-related crime. It never was as bad as the Tenderloin’s worst years, but sufficiently difficult to induce then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to call for Dogpatch to serve as the City’s Red-Light District. Art Agnos was shot on his way to his Connecticut Street home before he was elected mayor.
For some these years were the best of times. Artists, homespun naturalists, and other creatives and old-fashion disrupters populated the hills and bayfront, occupying working class homes and hollows made more attractive by their funkiness. Families thrived, strengthened together by a shared sense of being cloistered within neighborhoods walled by freeways, forgotten by the rest of San Francisco. Community gardens and green spaces were volunteer cultivated. A diversity of ethnicities kept to themselves and mingled together: Italians, Irish, Russian, from Africa. Red diaper babies railed against the machine and helped elect such luminaries as Nancy Pelosi and the aforementioned Agnos.
With a commercial occupancy rate that hovers at around 40 percent, Downtown is struggling with its own hard times. It’s unknown when or whether demand for cubicles and corner offices will return to pre-pandemic levels. Some large employers are calling their labor force back to the workplace, with a steady trickle into the City and return of “Google buses.” It’s also possible that ship has sailed, at least in its previous form. Lawyers, financiers, technologists and the like no longer need to congregate around the water cooler to discuss what show to stream, what clients need comforting, or what new products to launch. Gigantic high-rise buildings that reach to the stars may be today’s vertical derelict warehouse, workhorses at least temporarily past their prime.
If so, Downtown can learn loads from Dogpatch and its adjacent neighborhoods. Lesson one is, “oh, well,” as conveyed to the owners of the edifices, whose value – temporarily held in the air by long term leases, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff – has plummeted. Sometimes what goes up must go down, like the worth of one’s portfolio. Move past denial and deal with it, including by securing property tax reductions tied to devaluations, and becoming open to new ways of using big box space.
Lesson two is to cultivate life amidst the ashes. The City should rezone a chunk of Downtown “live-work,” enabling property owners to rent former office space as artists, small enterprise, and other creatives’ residences. Shared bathrooms and communal kitchens were not a barrier to the various forms of living that thrived in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill last century. The opposite, helping to create collaborations and accidental interactions which helped catalyze a plethora of new ideas. Allowing some amount of chaos and even more freedom will enable whatever comes next to emerge.
Another Downtown slice should be carved out as a kind of new age health care district. Biotechnology lab space should be authorized to be developed alongside bleeding edge therapeutic approaches, including legalized, disciplined, production and use of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and other medicines with healing potential. The high-tech industry could be supplemented with the high tech industry, so to speak, again catalyzing creativity, in ultimate service of science and better living.
Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and Potrero Hill demonstrated that the future need not be scary. And neither need the present. Hard times are never just hard. They can also be illuminating and catalyzing, especially when the right set of matches are lit, with the attendant flames given some room to roam. Take wing, San Francisco phoenix.