The Ironies of History

Armed with knowledge of the past, how do we move forward with our own urban agenda?
July 1, 2009

We began work on the first exhibit in the Urban Center with the modest goal of telling the story of San Francisco. Not just the traditional story of mayors and business tycoons, and not just the traditional planning story that follows the movements within the design professions — but the story that weaves all the strands together. The story that can comprehend the General Strike and the civil rights movement; the invention of the elevator and the automobile; City Beautiful and bioregionalism; wartime migrations and Prop. 13; all of it.

We worked the way SPUR always works, by gathering together some of the best thinkers to pool their knowledge and perspectives, and added to that the stories that other historians have gathered. And eventually, we re-learned what every historian knows: that it is impossible to truly understand what actually happened in the past, because even when we narrow our focus to one place, so many forces were at work, so many accidents turned out to matter, and so many dramas have been lost to time.

The Ironies of History
Walter Benjamin, writing about the impossibility of ever understanding how the dark episodes of modernity could happen, describes the despair of trying to comprehend history:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.1

Society changes in ways that escape the understanding of the very people who make it change, and history is filled with ironies. Think of Daniel Burnham sitting in his shack on top of Twin Peaks in 1905, devising his Parisian remake of San Francisco. The 1906 earthquake and fire seemed to present the perfect opportunity to realize some of the Burnham Plan’s main ideas, but the urgency of quick reconstruction made it impossible. Meanwhile, the power structure saw its opportunity to grab the desirable real estate of Chinatown, thinking the inhabitants would be vulnerable after the destruction. Instead, it turned out the Chinese population was more flexible, could raise capital, and could move faster to rebuild than the rest of the city. They outflanked the opposition politically by mobilizing Chinese government pressure on the federal government to ensure they were not kicked out. In the end advocates were able to convince local leaders that rebuilding Chinatown in its original location — to both house the Chinese residents and attract Western tourists — would benefit the local economy.

Another irony: BART, conceived in the 1950s, the heyday of postwar technological optimism, was designed during the transitional decade of the 1960s, and opened during the 1970s to an utterly changed landscape. No longer did every community in the region uncritically welcome the growth that BART was intended to enable. Instead, it opened to a wave of down-zonings that would have been inconceivable to its inventors, forestalling the dream of a region of transit villages for at least four decades.2

The Mystery of Social Change
This exhibit, and the opening of the Urban Center on the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association’s re-formulation as “SPUR,” the “R” originally referring to “renewal,” provides us with a moment to reflect on our own attempts to make history. SPUR has never been just an observer, but has provided a place for idealistic people, who cared deeply about San Francisco, to try to make the city better. With the benefit of hindsight, some of the efforts of previous generations at SPUR seem farsighted and wise, as in advocacy for BART, for regional government, for removal of elevated freeways, or for a new economic base to replace the older industrial economy after World War II. But other policies pursued by SPUR appear deeply misguided, especially support for the removal of “substandard” housing under the program of urban renewal. Urban renewal turned out to be the only time planners in America gained real power over private property, and the brutality of the program ensured that planners are not likely to be trusted with that kind of power ever again.

Robert Fishman, the leading historian of American planning, identifies the real engine of change in the physical landscape of our country as “the urban conversation” between civic groups, newspapers, business interests, and social movements. In a country with a weak centralized government and a distrust of government regulation, this is how change happens:

Although the specifics of the planning problems differ, the basic themes of the urban conversation are always the same: how to justify public action to a society that is deeply individualistic; how to support long-term investment strategies in a society built on short-term gains; how to justify the taxation of private profit for the common resources and the common good. This urban conversation — rather than any centralized government — has been the ultimate source of the authority that generated the outputting of investment in roads, bridges, waterworks, schools, libraries, and other public facilities…3

Fishman calls on us to return to the power of the urban conversation as the way to make progress on the problems we face today:

If the wonders of American planning have been less in evidence in recent years, and if its powers have been less robust, one explanation is that planning has forsaken the language and strategies of the urban conversation for the technical discourse of the academy and the bureaucracy, and abandoned the strategy of public persuasion for a delusive centralization that sought to bypass the need for public support.4

In other words, Fishman argues that the only way to make real progress on the great planning problems is to build civic will to solve them. SPUR’s role through its entire history has been to help facilitate this urban conversation and serve as one of the leading voices thinking about the future of the city.

But after a century of work, stretching back to the formation of the San Francisco Housing Association in 1911, how can so many things have gone wrong? How can the region have sprawled so disastrously? How can San Francisco have become so unaffordable? How can we be a city with so few children?

Here is the mystery we have to understand: as we are trying to change history according to our own vision of a good city, we are acting within forces that only become clear in hindsight — changes in the structure of the economy, cultural currents that determine how people want to live, technological advances that enable certain possibilities but not others.

At the core of our project, we want to pierce the mystery of social change. We want to understand how history is made by human beings acting intentionally, but within the context of larger forces and structures. As a great historian once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” 5

Take this exhibition as a first preface to the interpretation of the layers of structure and agency that were involved with the creation of the city we know today, with its complicated mix of good and bad.

Generations of Civic Idealism

We have organized the exhibit into a series of generations of people, loosely representing social movements that tried to remake the city and region in particular ways. At various points these generations built on each other’s work or came into conflict with one another. And from this interplay of agendas, the city changed over time.

In our version of the story, the City-Builders create the initial framework for urban growth, largely in the service of private profit. The Progressives and Classicists try to reform the excesses of 19th century capitalism in various ways, creating new institutions of self-government and trying to beautify the city.
The Regionalists gain prominence in the 1940s and continue until the present, in many ways representing the path not taken. The Moderns envision a complete redesign of the city according to rational planning principles to solve problems of affordable housing and congestion. The Contextualists begin as a reaction against the abuses of the urban renewal and freeways, but are so successful that they become the dominant viewpoint in the city. They are now being challenged by a new generation, the Eco-Urbanists, with a sensibility that embraces urbanity as the key to ecological sustainability.

The Eco-Urbanists accept the lessons of many previous generations including the careful understanding of place-making that the Contextualists taught, but, given the urgency of larger-scale environmental problems, they take these lessons in a new direction. It became clear to the Eco-Urbanists that defending cities the way they already were was not good enough—that some radical changes would be necessary in order to cope with the global climate crisis. For the first time since urban renewal, perhaps, a younger generation feels permission to imagine a better city, rather than only fighting to preserve the preexisting city against the forces of destruction. The Eco-Urbanists are perhaps naïve in their hope that we can have it all: economic prosperity, social equity and ecological balance. But this is, in fact, their ambition.

It should come as no surprise to people who have followed SPUR closely that many of us identify closely with the ideals of the Eco-Urbanists.

We hope that you come away from this exhibit with the curiosity to know more, and that you will be inspired to add your own contribution to the ever-changing city.

There is a cliché that city planning is simply fixing the mistakes of past planners. And this is true not just about planning, but also about so much of history. Social movements, even if they are victorious, tend to achieve consequences they did not intend. And yet, we cannot just sit on the sidelines. There are urgent problems to solve. We have to learn from past mistakes and approach our activism with a sense of humility about all that we can’t know. But still we must act.

The Project of San Francisco

Sir Peter Hall’s majestic book, Cities in Civilization, tries to distill from history the lessons from humanity’s greatest cities, in their periods of greatest cultural achievement, from classical Athens to Weimar Berlin. What is San Francisco’s contribution to the broader project of urbanism? What does it mean for all of us to be working so hard on a city of such a small scale, when, as Enrique Peñalosa reminded us at his talk at SPUR last year, Bogata, Columbia grows by a population equivalent to the entire city of San Francisco every five years?

There are many answers to this question and perhaps it is enough to say that each city and each region on the planet has to try to become as sustainable and wonderful as it can be. But my own viewpoint is that San Francisco has a special role within the United States. In part, it is the inheritor of the California mythology of the place where people could go to make a new start, which is itself a version of the older American mythology of the land that welcomed immigrants from all corners of the world to pursue projects of their own choosing, free from persecution. These ideals live on in San Francisco’s cosmopolitanism and celebration of difference, even as the city is pragmatically much more closed than it wants to be as a result of high housing costs. Layered onto this ideal of openness to the outside is San Francisco’s progressivism, its self-image as the place where new social movements will be born and will try out their agenda on a city scale before ramping up to something bigger.

San Francisco has a mission to demonstrate the possibilities of progressive urbanism — that it is possible to have an innovative economy and good business climate, while also fostering social equity; that it is possible to protect the heritage of the past while also refocusing the region’s growth around transit nodes in existing cities; that it is possible to have a heavily participatory democratic process while also having public services that are work efficiently. Clearly, we have not yet gotten there, have not yet transcended these contradictions into a higher synthesis. But the reason we all care so passionately about this city is because we know it stands for something, we know we are engaged with a great project to demonstrate the highest possibilities of American urbanism.


1 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History,"in Illuminations, New York: Shocken Books, 1969, p. 257.
2 Thank you to Michael Teitz for many enlightening conversations about the "ironies of history" and for supplying me with anecdotes for this piece.
3 Robert Fishman, "The American Planning Tradition: An Introduction and Interpretation," in Fishman (ed.), The American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy, Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press (2000), p. 5.
4 Ibid.
5 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, New York: International Publishers, 1963 [orig. 1852], p. 15.

About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director of SPUR.