Engaging with San Francisco history as a newcomer

I moved to San Francisco from the Midwest a few years ago, and I’d been missing a strong sense of history since then. I’ve been to a few events in an attempt to learn more about my new home, such as a Dolores Park history day, or a history-relevant event in the Mission as part of Litcrawl, but I struggled to absorb a history for the city that went beyond “gold rush, earthquake, tech boom, bust, boom”.

But last week I was at the library and saw an event that was being held in conjunction with the display of the Bay Model throughout SF public libraries and Take Part SF, called Vanished Waters. It was about Mission Bay history so I skipped my regular workout to attend. It was well worth it!

Vanished Waters is also a book, so that was the loose structure that the talk revolved around, and was given by Chris Carlsson, an expert on San Francisco history and an engaging speaker. He co-founded Shaping SF, helping to maintain a digital archive of the city’s past.

My favorite fascinating facts that I learned at the talk were that in 1852, Market street ended where 3rd street is in an 80 ft tall sand dune.

SoMA was really hilly and marshy, but then some dude with a steam shovel was like “sup let me move that sand for you” and also “sup let me help you fill in this lot that you bought that is literally just water”. That’s my paraphrasing, but the actual details are to be read on Found SF.

The whole idea to fill the San Francisco Bay in is hard to imagine now because it’s not polluted, but if it was a stinky polluted putrid mess full of garbage it’s easier to imagine it being a good idea. (The whole idea to fill in the Bay is why the SF Bay Model was built).

However, my favorite part of the talk was when Carlsson discussed using this history to inform our present and future decisions. He pointed out that there is a lot of rhetoric in San Francisco about how to build more housing to manage the growth of the city, and what kinds of development is best suited to accommodating all of the people that move here.

However, there’s not much rhetoric (if any) about staging a managed retreat from climate change. San Francisco is a coastal city, built on top of marshland, sand dunes, or literal land fill. What happens when the sea level begins to rise, or more volatile weather patterns cause bigger storms and potential flooding?

I realized after this talk that some city dwellers love to judge southeastern coastal city residents that build or rebuild homes in the path of hurricanes or immediate climate change threats, and yet, New York City and San Francisco are both at high risk from sea level rise.

That’s not to mention the earthquake risk in San Francisco. Our current development plans are not necessarily smart, as this article in the New York Times points out.

It’s fascinating to explore what the city used to look like less than 200 years ago, and imagine what it might look like in 2057 in the face of climate change. I lost nearly an hour clicking around the maps on David Rumsey’s website (recommended by Carlsson).

Here’s a map of the 1857 coast, overlaid on modern San Francisco.

This map in 1869 of land lots makes it clear just how much of the land that was sold during that period wasn’t actually land. This essay in Collector’s Weekly covers how that land speculation happened and how it shapes modern real estate in the city.

This exploration all happened because of this talk and the display of the 1938 3D model of San Francisco in the San Francisco Public Libraries. If you want to help find the model a permanent home for display in the city, sign this petition. Just imagine making this map overlay of what San Francisco looked like in 1938 into a tactile experience.

The model is still on display in SF Public Library branches throughout the city, and you can stay engaged in city history through the San Francisco Department of Memory, the California Historical Society, Shaping SF, and Found SF.

Public Transit and Technology – Chicago Edition

The Chicago Tribune reports on a recent study completed by OECD on Metropolitan Governance of Transport and Land Use in Chicago. As the Tribune describes:

“The Chicago area’s transportation is hamstrung by a proliferation of local governments, the “irrational organizational structure” of the Regional Transportation Authority and the service boards and an antiquated formula by which transit agencies are funded, the report found.”

When reached for comment, the various transit organizations had no comment:

“Spokesmen for the RTA, Metra and Pace said officials had not read the 20-page report and had no comment. As it has previously, the CTA said last week that it opposes transit agency consolidation, as does Emanuel.
A superagency would be an unnecessary bureaucracy unaccountable to commuters that would divert dollars from train and bus service, said [CTA] spokesman Brian Steele.”

Per the Tribune, the report points out that:

“”The current state of transit ridership in Chicago is relatively depressing,” concludes the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research agency whose backers include the world’s richest nations, among them the U.S.

The report found a lack of coordination among the four transit agencies and their four separate boards as well as insufficient accountability. Those issues intensify the economic impact of congestion on Chicago, estimated at over $6 billion in 2011 by the Texas Transportation Institute, the report said.”

Transit organizations in Chicago aren’t well-integrated, and leadership in Chicago opposes any integration or consolidation of those organizations. In the meantime, ridership is low and congestion (and its related economic impact) is high.

Contrast that with the recent article in Citylab about the importance of the smartphone in transportation.

“As more and more of the transport system falls into private hands and becomes fragmented, multi-modalism risks declining and cities will lose out on valuable data on where people want to go, how they travel, what’s slowing them down, and how the network is operating. A publicly-operated unified mobility app has enormous potential to eliminate barriers between modes, use existing infrastructure more efficiently, and bring the entire transport network to the smartphone.”

Privatized transportation systems, especially fragmented ones, means that cities lose valuable opportunities to find out more about their riders–and thus lose opportunities to attune their systems to the needs of their riders. Jason Prechtel writing for Gaper’s Block has closely followed the public-private partnerships that dominate Chicago public transportation.As the article continues:

“Better data about movement makes it easier for officials to site bike-share docks, or re-route buses to fit travel patterns, or add an extra train during rush-hour to meet demand. Instead of operating on a static schedule that forces users to adapt to it, a transportation network that’s monitored and adjusted in real-time can adapt to users. Just as the paved road launched a transportation revolution by enabling point-to-point travel via the car last century, networked technology can shift the paradigm again by making the user and infrastructure dynamic actors who respond to one another. This isn’t a trivial improvement—it’s a dramatic reimagining of how transportation systems operate.”

Transportation systems making use of ample data across the network have the ability to reshape themselves to meet the needs of customers–thereby reducing congestion, and increasing ridership.

“if U.S. cities can move past the fractured transportation landscape and embrace the challenge, their slow start isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it might even help officials avoid the mistakes of bad apps and refine the successes of good ones.”

Chicago has a long way to go before it can embrace and make use of technology across all of its public-private partnerships. Finding a way to integrate the data on ridership from Divvy, with the public transit usage stats from Ventra-carded services Pace and CTA, as well as Metra, could lead to some public transit innovation and some cost savings alongside transit improvements. Maybe claims of creating a “smart city” with “big data” could lead to some movement, but without improved partnerships and governance across transit organizations, Chicago’s public transportation situation seems destined to fester.

9/16/14 Update:

Jason Prechtel wrote in an earlier Gapers Block column about the role of the RTA (regional transportation authority) which oversees the CTA, Pace, and Metra and which was responsible for uniting the three under one common payment system, Ventra. Prechtel on the RTA and Ventra:

“…both Gov. Quinn’s office and the SouthtownStar have called for finding ways to reduce waste and bureaucracy and eventually overhaul the entire regional transit system.

From this perspective, the need for a system like Ventra makes sense. Uniting transit fare payment under a single system is one major step towards merging the transit systems together under the RTA umbrella, and reducing overall transit costs and inter-agency squabbles.”

While that common payment system has been plagued with controversy and difficulties, perhaps the efforts of the RTA could lead to a unified transportation app for Chicagoans.