San Francisco Is Sinking, or the Revenge of Mission Bay

San Francisco Focus, October, 1985

Now you see it, soon you won't. If you didn't know that parts of San Francisco are sinking, just take a closer look next time you cruise through the city's dynamic new up-and-coming neighborhood. You know which one. The early settlers called it Mission Bay; we call it South of Market, or SoMa.

Mission Bay, with its tules and duck hunting, was pretty much gone by 1906, filled with the city's toxic garbage and generous helpings from Rincon and Potrero hills to make flat real estate. On the way, laborers discovered that they did not have to drive pilings since they would sink of their own weight to unknown depths. Even if much of South of Market was, in reality, pudding, the appearance of dry land is what counted, and continues to count.

In the 1906 quake, SoMa behaved more like liquid than land, with waves five feet high and buildings pitched into buried creeks. Essential water mains snapped in hundreds of places. [Accused of causing the fire, the Spring Valley Water Company afterward issued a map showing where the water mains had broken; the breaks clearly delineated the buried creeks feeding into Mission Bay.] The ensuing holocaust erased the more obvious structural damage by burning it up, so that afterward the ground could be smoothed out and the city rebuilt just as before. Water mains were laid again over the creeks and marshes, where they will snap in the next quake. Highrises and gasoline were added to the modern city, to the consternation of a fire department unequipped to deal with multiple conflagrations.

Observant drivers along Howard, Folsom, and Harrison Streets will notice Mission Bay once again taking its revenge. Large brick and reinforced concrete buildings reel crazily against one another, sag, bow and tilt out of true. Their ground floors are often six feet below street level. But for a real thrill, see it on foot.

At Tehama and Fifth streets you'll see a beautiful new wall mural by John Wehrle, a looking-glass view of the world appropriate to reality, and realty, in SoMa. Tehama and Clementina between Fifth and Sixth both have dramatic examples of "building distress," but continue south on Fifth down the winding path of the old Hayes Valley Creek.

At Fifth and Folsom, a two-story brick and reinforced concrete building has developed some remarkable curves as it settled. On the southeast corner, a four-story wooden apartment building became so tipsy that it was demolished. The site is now vacant. The building at 333 Fifth has been extensively patched as cracks opened in its reinforced concrete walls.

Shipley between Fifth and Sixth is a great little street for seeing buildings in torment and numerous vacant lots where they have been taken out of their misery. The large greenish laundry building on the alley halfway down Shipley is self-destructing as its doors sag and windows pop. And at 277 and 279 Shipley, twin wooden apartment houses demonstrate what happens when buildings are not repeatedly jacked up, as was 277. Its mate is six feet shorter, the garage doors now vanished beneath the sidewalk. Walk-ups become walk-downs in SoMa.

On Clara off Sixth you'll see the ultimate revenge of Mission Bay. In the sunken vacant lot of a recently razed building, a lush tule marsh has reappeared in the middle of the city. Red-winged blackbirds and egrets cannot be far behind.

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