Dogpatch, Mission Bay and Potrero Hill know they were knocked down, pushed to the ground, lay there for years before coming back up again with their heads held high. During the last third of the 20th century, as the industrial age and the winds of war that created port prosperity waned, these neighborhoods, economically dependent on the waterfront, suffered from high levels of unemployment and under-employment. employment, blocks of abandoned buildings and intermittent bursts of drug-related crime. It was never as bad as the Tenderloin’s worst years, but tough enough to prompt then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to ask Dogpatch to serve as the city’s red-light district. Art Agnos was shot on his way to his home on Connecticut Street before he was elected mayor.
For some, those years were the best of times. Artists, homegrown naturalists, and other old-fashioned creators and disruptors populated the hills and waterfront, occupying working-class homes and hollows made all the more funky. Families thrived, strengthened together by a shared sense of being cloistered in neighborhoods walled off by freeways, forgotten by the rest of San Francisco. Community gardens and green spaces were cultivated by volunteers. A diversity of enclosed and mixed ethnic groups: Italians, Irish, Russians, Africans. Red diaper babies railed against the machine and helped elect luminaries such as Nancy Pelosi and the aforementioned Agnos.
With commercial occupancy hovering around 40%, downtown is struggling with its own tough times. It’s unclear when or if demand for cubicles and corner offices will return to pre-pandemic levels. Some large employers are calling their workforces back to the workplace, with a steady flow around the city and the return of “Google buses”. It is also possible that the ship sailed, at least in its previous form. Lawyers, financiers, technologists, and others no longer need to gather around the water cooler to discuss what show to stream, what clients need reassurance, or what new products to launch. Gigantic high-rise buildings that reach for the stars may be today’s vertical abandoned warehouse, at least temporarily outdated workhorses.
If so, Downtown can learn a lot from Dogpatch and its adjacent neighborhoods. The first lesson is “oh, well,” as it was passed down to the owners of the buildings, whose value – temporarily held in the air by long-term leases, like Wile E. Coyote running away from a cliff – fell. Sometimes what goes up must go down, like the value of your portfolio. Move past denial and address it, including getting property tax reductions tied to devaluations and opening yourself up to new ways to use big box space.
The second lesson is to cultivate life in the midst of the ashes. The city is expected to rezone some of the downtown “live work,” allowing landlords to rent out former offices as residences for artists, small businesses and other creatives. Communal bathrooms and kitchens were no impediment to the diverse forms of life that flourished on Dogpatch and Potrero Hill in the last century. Rather, helping to create accidental collaborations and interactions that have helped catalyze a plethora of new ideas. Allowing a certain amount of chaos and even more freedom will allow whatever comes next to emerge.
Another slice of downtown should be carved into some kind of new age healthcare district. Biotechnology laboratory space should be allowed to grow alongside cutting-edge therapeutic approaches, including the legalized, disciplined production and use of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and other drugs with healing potential . High-tech industry could be complemented by high-tech industry, so to speak, catalyzing creativity again, in the ultimate service of science and a better life.
Dogpatch, Mission Bay and Potrero Hill demonstrated that the future doesn’t have to be scary. And no need for the present. Hard times are never just hard. They can also light and catalyze, especially when the correct set of matches is lit, with the adjoining flames having room to move. Take flight, phoenix of San Francisco.