Bay Briefing: From 1989 Quake, Today’s San Francisco Emerged

by John King | San Francisco Chronicle

Imagine a San Francisco where the Ferry Building is shadowed by a double-deck freeway. City Hall is a drab warren of offices. Few people even know that Hayes Valley exists.

This is the city that existed on the afternoon of Oct. 17, 1989, and now is almost impossible to conceive.

The Embarcadero Freeway, which was never finished and never connected the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, is seen on March 23, 1985. The Ferry Building photographed Tuesday, March 6, 2018 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Gary Fong/Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

On the 29th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the 6.9 temblor that killed 63 people in Northern California, we’re reminded to prepare ourselves for the inevitability that disaster again will hit. And not just from earthquakes, as last year’s Wine Country fires showed with tragic force. They also show the difficulty of rebuilding in a region where construction workers are in short supply.

The aftermath of Loma Prieta teaches another lesson. San Francisco responded to the setbacks with an audacity that in hindsight is profound — from then-mayor Art Agnos persuading fellow politicians to tear down the quake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway and allow the waterfront to bloom, to the use of federal repair funds as the down payment for eye-popping restorations of such then-faded landmarks as City Hall and the Opera House.

None of this was easy. The demolition of the freeway that sliced Hayes Valley in two occurred only after a trio of dueling ballot initiatives. That change hastened the neighborhood’s gentrification, even though much of the housing built on former freeway land is reserved for low-income residents.

But the accomplishments were real, and they deserve to be remembered. When disaster strikes a city or region, it’s not enough to pick up the pieces. The challenge is to move forward with creative determination, in ways that will benefit the generations to come.

Exterior of the Ferry Building as work on the Embarcadero Freeway is set to begin June 8, 1957 Photo: Bob Campbell / The Chronicle 1957

The Kicker

San Francisco’s changes since 1989 included a makeover of Union Square — but, just around the corner, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel is as grand as it was on opening day in 1928, from the marbled lobby to the splendiferous crown (the faux-Beefeater doormen have only been around since 1940, by the way). Carl Nolte stopped by to preview Thursday’s anniversary bash, and reports back on one thoroughly contemporary touch: The Sunday brunch is now “a buffet featuring a bevy of drag queens.”

The main lobby of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle