Port of San Francisco’s legacy examined in new book, “Port City”

The next home to America’s Cup was once a vibrant ocean cargo destination too. What happened?

By ·

A short century ago, the Port of San Francisco had every advantage of a major ocean cargo gateway. An open channel, deep water, and a ready workforce truly defined this growing metropolis as the West Coast destination for goods and services shipped and sourced worldwide.

But in contrast to the equally disadvantaged hemispheric ports of New York, Vancouver, and Seattle, it failed to seize the moment. Today, it’s almost entirely reliant on tourism, while the port across the Bay – Oakland – remains a vibrant commercial entrepot.

Why that came to be is not explained in any great detail in this book, nor is there much mention of the storied commercial vessel operators who went broke in San Francisco or fled in the recent past before their fortunes were reversed.

What the author does exceedingly well, however, is chronicle the historic transformation of our waterfront from 1848 to present day. The San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation maintains that Port City represents a first in terms of providing a comprehensive story. 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,” says one former engineer.

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 comprising railway yards and industrial plants. Michael 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 as it still exists today, is 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 office a block east of the place. 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 – it 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.

The big story here now – and too current to be included in this book’s pages – is the city’s hosting of one of the world’s most celebrated international sporting events in a few years. As a consequence, a substantial piece of the waterfront will be transfigured once again to accommodate the world’s swiftest and most agile sailing vessels.

America’s Cup will have a good home here. But for cargo ships and the business they once generated, the race was lost long ago.


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 [email protected]

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