Embracing risk is a quintessential San Francisco trait. It has been since those in search of instant fortune traveled thousands of miles in treacherous conditions to cash in on their golden dreams.
The maverick nature of those who settled in The City has been one of the intrinsic underpinnings of San Francisco since it began. As we gather today to honor those who died in the 1906 earthquake and fire, it serves to remember just how determined the survivors were to rebuild. One of the most remarkable achievements in San Francisco's history is that The City hosted a world's fair just nine years after it was reduced to rubble. Even if New Orleans were able to show the same resolve after Katrina, it would never be able to match the elegant beauty that sprang out of the ruins here one hundred years ago.
That same spirit is evidenced by John McLaren’s steely resolve to build one of the world’s great parks out of sand, in the foresight by city leaders to erect a water supply system to quench the needs of the growing masses and the vision to erect two mighty, world-class spans across the Bay. Indeed, if the Bay Bridge rebuilding fiasco tells us anything, it’s that the can-do attitude that was a hallmark of the region’s founders is sorely absent from the political landscape of today.
And time has shown that the willingness to take chances is as much a part of the civic makeup as it was a century ago. We choose to ignore concrete (breaking) evidence — denial is a mighty weapon in the face of irrefutable facts — since living in San Francisco is the equivalent of America's big spin. We know our number is coming up — we just don't know when.
The experts predict that there will be a major earthquake in the Bay Area within the next 30 years. And the response? Bidding wars on multi-million dollar three-bedroom places built on landfill that turns to Jello-O in violent earth shaking. There are hundreds of Marina District residents who chose to stay in the same area following the Loma Prieta temblor in 1989, knowing how vulnerable they are — they are the modern links to the Palace of Fine Arts building that graced the Pan-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Somehow, there’s a sense that everything can be rebuilt from the ground up — at least once the ground settles.
Is it worth the price? Of course it is — or at least that would be the response of any clear-thinking native who has been living here like an ocean boat gambler for decades. The views, the water, the culture, the people — earthquakes don't even enter the picture. What's the alternative? Tulsa? Portland? Hollister? Hell, the boredom would kill you sooner.
Marina District resident Vicki Aballo lives one block from the collapsed apartment building that became the snapshot for the rest of the nation about the dangers of earthquakes in 1989. She has moved around the corner from her building, which got red-tagged following Loma Prieta — into an apartment complex which is older, and onto a higher floor. Call it unshakable faith — you need it when you’re living on the edge.
"If something had fallen on top of me, it might be different,’’ she said. "But I grew up here and it feels like home. It’s comfortable. Besides, I’m a very good swimmer.’’
One hundred years have changed nothing except the physical landscape. Geologists look at Bay Area residents as living experiments, a fact that we regard as something of a secret thrill. Three generations have passed since my grandparents’ house was destroyed in the ’06 quake, and it’s only hardened my family’s resolve to remain. If a couple of newly arrived immigrants with hardly a nickel in their pocket could survive and prosper here, then surely we could ride out the next Big One.
In a way, by staying, we honor the memories and strength of those who founded this great city. They showed that it was possible for a town to be broken apart — and to pick up the pieces in record time. The cityleaders insisted that San Francisco was actually safer after 1906 — in large part because they never thought something like that could happen again. We no longer have that comfort, but we do have technology, science and other means by which to grapple with na-
ture’s next furious outbreak.
That may only make us slightly safer the next time the sidewalks separate. But it just adds to our belief system that somehow our bedrooms won’t end up in our basements during the next big jolt. And we’ll want to be here when it hits to prove the naysayers wrong.