The Other Kind of Change
When my family visited San Francisco, the Embarcadero waterfront was at the top of our to-do list. We saw the historic piers and the Ferry Building. We strolled along a palm tree–lined promenade. We looked for wild parrots in a lush park. A balloon artist made a monkey for my son, Ezra, who toddled safely to show it to the harbor seals. Lots of other people seemed to be doing things they’d always remember.
It had taken an earthquake to make this unforgettable place. Well, an earthquake with some help from a woman named Sue.
Before the Embarcadero was a must-see destination, it was a double-decker concrete highway. Like so many other city-crossing highways in the United States, the Embarcadero Freeway was built after World War II, made possible by federal support for highways to move the military and serve the growing number of automobiles.
For decades after it was built, the Embarcadero Freeway had stretched more than a mile along San Francisco’s eastern waterfront, blocking precious views and access to the bay. Elsewhere in the city, community organizers—initially downplayed as “little housewives” by pro-highway groups—had stopped plans for highways that would have done more harm than good to the city. But the freeway along the Embarcadero was serving tens of thousands of vehicles per day. It was one thing to determine that a new highway was unnecessary; it was another to ask whether it might be a good idea to remove a freeway that had already been built. Fortunately, San Francisco had Sue Bierman.
After growing up in Nebraska, Sue Bierman had moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, bringing with her more formal training in music than in city planning. But Bierman was incredibly bright and driven, a high school valedictorian and incessant reader. She had learned how to get things done in San Francisco as a community organizing housewife. Based on her success in that role, she earned an official appointment, in 1976, to the city’s planning commission.
Bierman was meticulous in her public service. Her planning commission studied the Embarcadero Freeway using all sorts of metrics: how much traffic it carried, how many customers it brought to city businesses, how the freeway affected property values, and how it affected quality of life—in the neighborhoods it connected and in the neighborhoods it crossed. The commission also considered options for how they might transform the existing freeway. What were the costs and benefits of turning the double-decker freeway into a subsurface tunnel? Of extending the freeway so that it connected to the Golden Gate bridge? Of leaving well enough alone and focusing on other parts of the city? It took all that analysis and more, over nearly a decade, for Bierman’s commission to finally, in 1985, offer their plan for the Embarcadero Freeway: get rid of it.
Businesses near the freeway opposed the plan, worrying that reduced automobile traffic would mean fewer customers. More surprisingly, in retrospect at least, businesses weren’t alone in resisting. When San Franciscans voted on the proposal to remove the freeway, it wasn’t even close. For every voter in favor of removing the freeway, there were two who wanted to keep it. Whether for fear of traffic, fear of lost business, or simply fear of change, voters rejected removal. The people had spoken. Sue Bierman and her commission moved on to other projects.
The Embarcadero Freeway might still be blocking San Francisco’s waterfront if not for the Loma Prieta earthquake, which struck on October 17, 1989. As a sports-obsessed middle-schooler tuning in expecting to see the third game of baseball’s World Series, I experienced the earthquake as millions of others did, first a blank screen, then panicked announcers broadcasting from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and then collapsed highways and a burning city, all on live television.
The Loma Prieta earthquake killed more than sixty people and injured thousands. A concrete slab as big as a basketball court fell from the upper to the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. Fires swept through the Marina District, just a few blocks north of the Embarcadero. People sat stranded outside next to whatever they could gather before evacuating their homes. The earthquake caused about $6 billion in property damage alone. At the time, it was the most expensive earthquake in the history of the United States.
The earthquake changed the calculus for removing the Embarcadero Freeway. First, the post-earthquake freeway had been rendered unusable. To repair the damaged and aging structure, to have it carry traffic again, was going to cost far more than knocking it down. And second, the earthquake was a tragic warning of the risks of elevated freeways. Many of the people who had died in the Loma Prieta earthquake had been crushed when the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed in Oakland. And as a double-decker elevated concrete structure just over a mile in length, the Cypress Street Viaduct looked ominously like the Embarcadero Freeway.
Still, even in this post-earthquake reality, plenty of smart San Franciscans wanted to revitalize their ruin. Engineers suggested it be repaired, reinforced with thicker concrete columns, and otherwise remain in place. Local businesses agreed, and so did many residents. The Pulitzer Prize–winning San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, for whom the walking promenade along the freeway-free waterfront is now named, opined, “Once again, there is ‘serious talk’ about tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, an even worse idea than building it.”
This time, however, there would be no popular vote, which may have kept the freeway in place. Instead, the decision was put to the city’s board of supervisors, who, by the narrowest possible six-to-five margin, finally approved the planning commission’s original recommendation.
Sue Bierman didn’t have long to gloat. In 1991, she was relieved of her duties by the new mayor, who was keeping his winning campaign promise to get rid of the planning commissioners that had gotten rid of the Embarcadero Freeway.
It had taken an earthquake and some sacrificial public servants, but the freeway came down. With it removed, tourists and San Franciscans got the waterfront back. The decade after removal saw a 50 percent increase in housing and a 15 percent increase in jobs around the waterfront, far outpacing gains in other parts of the city. Demolishing the freeway did not cause traffic nightmares, as some had predicted. Trips were rerouted, to the grid of surface streets, to other access ramps to the Bay Bridge, and to public transit. People found new ways to move about the city. The corridor that used to cater exclusively to automobiles now serves as many walkers as it does riders.
For those who have visited, such evidence is redundant. It is obvious why the Embarcadero should not be covered with a freeway. By 2000, the ten-year anniversary of the freeway’s demolition, the San Francisco Chronicle was reporting that it had become “hard to find anyone who thinks ripping down the Freeway was a bad idea.”
Upon her death, a newspaper eulogy hailed Sue Bierman as “the quintessential neighborhood activist” across her half-century of service to San Francisco. Today, Sue Bierman Park, near the waterfront and surrounded by the hectic financial district, is a five-acre green oasis where my son, Ezra, and I looked for wild parrots.
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Around the time Sue Bierman was making a final push for the Embarcadero Freeway to come down, dockworker Leo Robinson was being thanked by Nelson Mandela during a speech to around sixty thousand people packed into the Oakland Coliseum. Robinson was an unlikely dismantler of oppression in South Africa.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1937, Robinson and his family moved to the Bay Area when he was a young boy, drawn by the promise of better opportunities for African Americans than in the Deep South. Yet the Robinsons lived in a de facto segregated, “redlined,” neighborhood and Leo’s parents found jobs only because of a perfect storm of executive orders from the president, organized protests against discriminatory hiring, and a labor shortage during the booming wartime economy. Robinson dropped out of high school in twelfth grade and joined the navy, serving in the years after the Korean War.
After an honorable discharge, Robinson went to work on the docks in the early 1960s. Initially, he didn’t concern himself much with affairs beyond his own, let alone those in South Africa. When tracing the genesis of his political activism, Robinson recalled a conversation when he felt unqualified to offer an opinion on the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. Robinson immersed himself in politics and it wasn’t long before he was taking action on a variety of global issues.
One of Robinson’s targets became the apartheid system in South Africa. Apartheid’s racist policies evoked his own struggles with segregated neighborhoods, discriminatory hiring, and income inequality in the United States. Emphasizing these parallels, Robinson helped establish and grow an anti-apartheid group of dockworkers.
When the ship Nedlloyd Kimberley docked at San Francisco’s Pier 80 late in 1984, Robinson and his group of dockworkers unloaded most of the ship and then moved on, refusing to unload the South African cargo. The “bloody” steel, auto parts, and wine—all of it sat on board, untouched. Robinson’s group was so powerful that none of the nearby ports would accept the apartheid cargo either.
Copyright © 2021 by Leidy Klotz