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Port City Is vital chronicle of S.F. waterfront

By Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
May 27, 2011

The San Francisco Heritage Foundation maintains that Port City (by Michael Corbett; San Francisco Architectural Heritage, 248 pages; $65.00) represents a first in terms of providing a comprehensive story of the Port of San Francisco. And while that may be arguable, it certainly takes readers on a compelling journey. Illustrated with historical photographs, drawings, maps, and new color photographs commissioned especially for the book, Port City details the planning, infrastructure, and engineering of the port.
In one of the opening chapters we are reminded that because the port does not control its own tax base, and has no guaranteed revenue, the city has been unable to repair its crumbling infrastructure since it acquired the property from the state in 1969. As the port recovers from California’s deep economic downturn, persistent competition for public funds remains intense and still more daunting.
“The tragedy for maritime use at the port is that you can prevail over particular issues hundreds of times but you only get to lose once and then what you fought for is gone forever,” notes one former engineer. LM has noted in recent news updates that this situation may be spreading across the Bay, too.
During the nineteenth-century development of the port, little if any attention was paid to appearance of the housing structures, with the notable exception of the Ferry Building. The long waterfront north and south of this iconic temple was a working area made up of railway yards and industrial plants. As Corbett notes, “There was no public interest in improving the appearance of an area that was frequented primarily by port workers.”
Obviously, the impressions of ship passengers were not a major concern. The designers and builders of the port facilities had one overriding objective: to build practical structures as cheaply as possible.
“In this endeavor, the port had to contend with the frequently changing requirements of shipping and cargo handling and with the short life expectancy of wooden structures in water,” the author observes. “Even if someone had proposed architecturally embellished buildings, it would have been impractical to build them because waterfront structures had to be replaced so often.”
Yet wiser minds prevailed. The Ferry Building is still a beacon of light in what was once a lonely piece of industrial real estate populated by the city’s dispossessed and criminal class. Before the Transamerica Building dominated the waterfront, it was the single most recognizable structure around. Now it no longer houses the World Trade Club, or offices of prominent custom brokers and freight forwarders. Even the Port of San Francisco has moved its headquarters a block east of the place. Instead, the building houses passenger ferry companies and ancillary retail boutiques.
And just as character determines destiny, the reshaping of this waterfront dictated why San Francisco has become a Disneyfied port suburb. Once—not so long ago—the port really did touch upon the lives of almost everyone here. Today, that’s rarely the case. From an architectural perspective, this book does a good job of showing how factories, warehouses and waterfront offices created a complex network of portside society. One only wishes that they had found a way to remain.

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About the Author

Patrick Burnson
Executive Editor

Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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