When the historic preservation movement began roughly a century ago, early efforts were focused on buildings associated with the the founding of the nation and the people instrumental in it. The majority of them are imposing structures of style and substance. Today there is no lack of information about Mount Vernon, Monticello, Independence Hall, etc. It’s one of the reasons I like to post about modest and obscure structures that better reflect the less celebrated, but still influential, aspects of our collective history; the famous places aren’t lacking for recognition. (Photo credit: Eric Parker)
As the historic preservation movement grew, historic buildings lacking ties to famous people or events (but possessing eye-catching architectural detail) were in time also deemed as preservation-worthy. Many of our preservation-worthy structures are located in big cities and many of those cities are not just struggling, they’re becoming unlivable. Unlivable as in people are packing up and getting the hell out. Unlivable as in crime is rampant. Unlivable as in commercial real estate is tanking. Recently a 30-year-old office tower in downtown Baltimore, for example, sold for a fraction of its worth from just eight years ago. After fetching $66 million in 2015 the building lost nearly two thirds of its value when selling for only $24 million in July of 2023. When one considers that the dollar buys less than it did eight years ago the real loss is even greater than it appears.
Less than a month before that, in architecturally rich San Francisco, a large real estate investment trust stopped making payments on a $725 million loan involving two prominent 4-star hotels in the city. Now famous for its enormous and highly visible homeless population, the city suffers retail and office vacancies which are so legendary that one entrepreneur is even offering guided tours of the blighted downtown area. Videos abound on YouTube which document the very real and growing problem; just go to a search engine and type “San Francisco empty” or “San Francisco doom loop” or something similar.
These problems, of course, are not unique to Baltimore and San Francisco; most American cities are experiencing similar challenges but at varying degrees of criticality. While Baltimore’s tragic decline has been visible and in the making for many decades, San Francisco’s decline accelerated dramatically when Californians somehow thought that embracing Proposition 47 would “help” people.
Proposition 47, deceptively and ironically called the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” by its supporters, lessened the severity of punishment for many crimes previously recognized as felonies but which were downgraded to mere misdemeanors upon passage. Shoplifting, forgery, writing a bad check, grand theft, etc., all magically became misdemeanors as long as the dollar amount involved stayed below $950.
What could possibly go wrong?
Defenders of the measure will hasten to point out that these misdemeanors are still crimes which can be still be prosecuted with offenders potentially receiving jail time, fines, or both. What they won’t point out is that these crimes are very rarely prosecuted. The police in many jurisdictions have been defunded (another ostensible effort at “helping” people) and they simply do not prioritize “misdemeanors” when overwhelmed by more serious crimes. Rather than making neighborhoods and schools safer, Prop 47 has done just the opposite as its true effect has been to encourage theft and drive out many formerly thriving businesses. Since its passage into law, California has had ample time to acknowledge that things are not getting better, yet the law remains in place and the situation continues to devolve. Why, it’s almost as if there are people that want this to happen!
History has shown that when businesses abandon an area, the people generally follow. As one of the most famous American examples of the phenomenon, Detroit remains a palpable and stark reminder of what happens when there is an exodus of manufacturing, businesses, jobs and residents. A large amount of the historic building stock has vanished or is severely compromised and, while many valiant efforts have been made to turn the city around, it remains a far cry from its glory days of the 1950’s and is much, much, smaller in population. Is it a stretch to imagine a similar fate for San Francisco?
Someone who knows a great deal about urban real estate — and its acquisition — is Catherine Austin Fitts, former Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Housing where, in addition to other responsibilities, she was tasked with cleaning up rampant fraud within HUD. In a recent video interview, she describes the various ways in which highly desirable and sought-after real estate can be essentially stolen through a variety of tactics for the purposes of redevelopment, profit, etcetera. The bulk of the one hour and ten-minute video is germane to the topic of “alternative” real estate acquisition plans. The interview begins with discussion concerning the recent Lahaina fires in Hawaii. San Francisco is specifically addressed beginning at the 30:20 mark if you want to skip ahead. Click here to watch the video.
Regardless of the cause of San Francisco’s decline, it is now impossible to deny that it is happening. What will become of the city’s many historic and character-defining vernacular structures? Will the city decay to the point where demolition and redevelopment is the preferred option? If so, who will be the beneficiaries and principal land owners? Will affluent homeowners who remain isolate in neighborhoods which become de facto gated communities as suggested by Jennifer Sey?
Sey, a former Levi’s executive (and former San Francisco resident) notes that the city has become a place of “aggressive conformity” in contrast with its historic reputation of tolerance. The cancel culture mob, whose tactics she describes, contributed to her decision to leave. She describes a growing tyranny of the minority during her thirty-six minute interview on YouTube with Siyamak Khorrami of California Insider which, like many other videos which challenge the official narrative, was memory-holed. Sorry! Just go visit to see for yourself!
While the future for historic preservation efforts (or even basic building maintenance) in San Francisco looks grim for buildings outside of the wealthiest neighborhoods, it’s not too late to turn things around elsewhere. Other areas in the country can learn from California and avoid suffering the same fate. But will they? Despite a nation-wide war on history which became evident in recent years with the mercifully short-lived fad of toppling statues offensive to a small but vocal and violent minority (along with damage done to historic structures for the same reason), the vast majority of Americans still value our history and recognize that we cannot progress without remembering both the inspiring and shameful aspects of it. This may be the subject of a future post.
Historically the economy has had a huge impact on historic preservation. Some have suggested that many architecturally significant buildings were spared demolition or alterations during the Great Depression because of the cost required to destroy or update them. It was simply too expensive to do so and out of reach for many. Will it be the same in future economic hardship? Or will there be a growing movement to erase all history so that a new, and very different, society can more easily emerge?