San Francisco needs to continue its visionary precedent 

‘Get Your Vitamin V.” The late Herb Caen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an institution in San Francisco, often referred to this secret ingredient — a staple of one of his favorite drinks, the martini.

As this decade draws to a close in just a few short weeks, I’d like to suggest, perhaps with some impertinence, that we could use an occasional dose of another Vitamin V — vision. I am not talking about the kind of vision that involves a crystal ball. I am talking about the kind of vision that is the currency of ideas that change our community.

Andrew S. Hallidie had a vision. In 1869, Hallidie reportedly came upon a team of four horses struggling to haul a heavily loaded tram up a steep San Francisco street. One horse slipped on the rain-slicked cobbles, and the car rolled back, dragging the four beasts behind it. Hallidie vowed to put a stop to this kind of cruelty. The result? A car pulled by a cable. “Hallidie’s Folly” made its maiden run Aug. 2, 1873.

An engineer named Joseph B. Strauss had a vision too. When Strauss arrived in San Francisco in 1917, he had already built bridges around the world. He spent the next 13 years battling business and political opposition to his “impossible dream.”

Strauss won by igniting the public’s imagination. In 1930, at the depth of the Depression, voters in six Bay Area counties approved bonds for construction of a bridge over the Golden Gate by a 3-1 majority. A fellow visionary, Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, agreed to buy the materials. Construction began Jan. 5, 1933.

Strauss later said, “It took two decades and 200 million words to convince the people that the bridge was feasible, then only four years and $35 million to put the concrete and steel together.”

San Francisco’s beloved cable cars have had their ups and downs too. There have been repeated moves to abolish cable cars and replace them with more-economical motor coaches, each frustrated by an indignant populace. The last major clash with the efficiency experts came in 1947 when a resolute Citizens’ Committee was mobilized under the leadership of Mrs. Friedel Klussmann to “Save the Cable Cars” — and it did.

Some 40 years later, more than $10 million was raised from the private sector to qualify for public funding and, in 1984, a $60 million restoration of the system was completed.

One cannot imagine San Francisco without its cable cars and Golden Gate Bridge, and yet without the vision behind these so-called “impossible dreams,” they might not have happened.

This column was written a few days before we face a similar challenge that will take vision and perseverance: securing a successful bid to host the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco Bay. Months of preparation have gone into developing a proposal. In a heartening show of unanimity, the Board of Supervisors adopted a host-city agreement Tuesday, and Mayor Gavin Newsom signed the resolution a few hours later. We have all the ingredients to make this a memorable event, in fact, as Newsom said, “The best America’s Cup in history.” Those lessons from Strauss and Hallidie do not seem to have been forgotten.

And win or lose, we might be dipping into some of Caen’s original recipe.

Joe D’Alessandro is president and CEO of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. In November 2007, D’Alessandro was appointed to the California Travel and Tourism Commission.

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