Sales Tower embodies best of a changing city
Monday marked a watershed in the life of San Francisco. It was the day the first workers moved into Salesforce Tower, that thousand-foot-tall landmark that dominates the city’s skyline.
Salesforce Tower is in every way a symbol of today’s San Francisco. It’s either a towering example of a new San Francisco or the worst thing that’s happened since an earthquake rearranged things in 1906.
I’ve been watching that building go up for a long time. I remember waiting for the bus at the corner of First and Mission streets, when Salesforce Tower was just a hole in the ground, where the clunky old Transbay Terminal used to be. The construction site had a fence around it with a famous quote from Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane: “San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.”
Wow, I thought to myself, that must be some building they are putting up behind that fence.
Like everybody else, I watched it go up. It’s huge. We could see it from Sausalito, from a BART train in Oakland, from the top of Mount Tamalpais in a fog so thick that the only part of San Francisco that was visible was the top of the tower.
We’ve seen it from the Richmond District, from Treasure Island, from Mount Diablo, from a ship at sea, from a jet plane. It reminds me of the old George Sterling poem about San Francisco: “At the end of our streets is sunrise ...” it begins. Now at the end of our streets is Salesforce Tower.
It’s the talk of the town. Everybody has an opinion. Here’s mine: I think Salesforce Tower is a great thing, an example of a new San Francisco. This is not just a beautiful and very different city. Now it’s a world city, one of the capitals of technology.
San Franciscans used to worry about Los Angeles. They’d chant “Beat L.A.” when the Dodgers came to town. Now we have beaten L.A. to the industry of the future. Then we worried about a resurgent San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley. But San Jose is still San Jose, and San Francisco has reinvented itself.
But that’s the crux of the problem. It isn’t just Salesforce Tower that bothers people. It’s the idea behind it. It’s high tech, it’s traffic, it’s Google buses, it’s Uber, Airbnb, Twitter, gentrification, an unaffordable city. Techies, “a new high-salaried, technology-driven class working for firms run by youthful millionaires,” as one critic put it.
What’s the alternative? The city of the 1970s, which the critics fondly remember, was in decline. The shipping industry had moved to Oakland and manufacturing was fading, done in by competition from overseas. Jobs were leaving. Remember the steel mills and the machine shops South of Market? The plants where they sewed and finished Levi’s jeans? Gone. The last one was on Valencia Street.
And there was a huge demographic shift. Thousands and thousands of San Franciscans moved away — from the fog, the bad schools, the parking problems, the old houses. See ya, San Francisco. I was at a luncheon during the holiday season. Maybe 30 people were there, all with deep roots in the city. I conducted a little poll. How many were born in San Francisco? Twenty-nine of them put up their hands. How many live here now? Just one.
And who moved into the Sunset and Eureka Valley and the Mission when the old families moved out? Asians, who finally were able to break out of the Chinatown ghetto and now make up a third of the city’s population. Gay people attracted by the city’s tolerant atmosphere — and available housing. Latinos, who found homes in the Mission.
The other pillar of the new San Francisco is the techies, who liked the city’s reputation for innovation.
The people who don’t like the new city will tell you these people are all from somewhere else. They forget that Marc Benioff, the Salesforce guru, is a fourthgeneration San Franciscan, and his company was founded in a onebedroom apartment on Telegraph Hill. And Steve Jobs, who needs no introduction, is also a native son.
St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, the Rust Belt illustrate what happens to cities and regions that stuck with the old economy and did not change.
San Francisco continues to have problems, which are obvious to everyone. The trick is to solve them by blending the new San Francisco with the best traditions of the older city. Is this possible? Sure. The best day of the week is always tomorrow. Carl Nolte is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His column appears every Sunday. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle. com Twitter: @carlnoltesf
Salesforce Tower, flanked in the foreground by Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, rises high.