February 9, 2009
1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two.
There aren’t too many people living who remember this now, but Rincon Hill was once the fanciest neighborhood in San Francisco.
You know the place, right? It’s south of Market Street, an asphalt-covered lump of rock with the Bay Bridge sticking out of the north-east side and Second Street running by, out to the Giants’ ballpark. That’s Rincon Hill. What’s left of it, anyway.
Exactly 140 years ago this month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a scheme which would destroy it.
San Francisco’s first fashionable address
As San Francisco’s Gold Rush-era population explosion of tents and rickety clapboard started to settle down, the bank accounts of merchants and lucky miners started to fill up. Men were becoming civilized, acquiring culture, and the sort of women known as “wives” were moving into town. This led to a demand for a neighborhood that was distinctly separate from the barbarous Barbary Coast, and with its sunny weather, gentle elevation, and spectacular views of the Bay, Rincon Hill filled the bill.
According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with “numerous elegant structures” — including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city.
And then in 1867 (cue evil-real-estate-developer music here) a San Franciscan named John Middleton got himself elected to the California State Legislature. According to some sources, his elevation was part of a conspiracy to push through a specific radical civic “improvement”.
Here’s the situation that required “improving”: at the time, there was a high volume of heavy commercial horse cart traffic to the busy South Beach wharves from Market Street. Second Street provided a direct route, but — since it went up and over the highest part of Rincon Hill — horse carts were obliged to take the long way around via Third Street.
Middleton’s plan was simplicity itself: carve a deep channel through the heart of the hill, right along Second Street. He just happened to own a big chunk of property at Second and Bryant Streets, and couldn’t wait to see his property values go through the roof.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “what about the owners of those lovely homes up on fashionable Rincon Hill? Won’t they object to having their front doors open up to a 100-foot canyon instead of a sidewalk? Do they even have the technology to pull this off? And what about the horrific mess the construction is going to make? We are talking high society here, right?”
Oh yes indeed. And what was even more galling was the fact that Rincon Hill property owners were going to be directly taxed for this “improvement” to their neighborhood.
John Middleton arrived in Sacramento with a plan to push legislation that would bypass the objections of these not-in-my-backyard obstructionists to progress, and that’s just how it worked out. Palms were greased, back-room deals were cut, and a bill was duly passed authorizing the project.
The citizenry of Rincon Hill did object, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — but the way I see it, the players behind this scheme were well connected, and fix was already in.
In 1869, the vivisection of Rincon Hill began. The carving started at Folsom Street and cut through to Bryant. Harrison Street was chopped in half, of course, but then reconnected by a cast-iron bridge hovering 100 feet above the chasm. The only access to Rincon Hill from Second Street was a set of steep and rickety wooden stairs.
And then the winter rains arrived, dissolving the steep canyon walls into mud. Whole sections of hillside were washed away. Homes on each side of the cut began to shift from their foundations, at least one sliding all the way down and splintering onto the street below.
Those who had houses left to sell, sold at a loss, and Rincon Hill descended rapidly from elite address to has-been.
By the 1880s Robert Louis Stevenson could accurately describe the Hill as “a new slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs, deep sandy cuttings, solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets.”
Thanks to the invention of the hill-climbing cable car, Nob Hill and the newly mapped Western Addition and Pacific Heights had become the new centers of upper-crust prestige.
The Second Street Cut became a hangout for thieves, muggers, and hoodlums, whose favourite sport was reported to be hurling stones down at Chinese cart drivers. These dangers reminded some of the perils of crossing the Western Frontier, earning the Cut the nickname of “Apache Pass”.
… and all for naught.
But here’s the deepest irony of all. The expected flood of commercial traffic that was to have raised property values and somehow make the whole thing worth it? Drivers chose different routes, and the traffic never materialized.
The Second Street project cost $385,000, a neighborhood was ruined in the process, and the slice through Rincon Hill was the first of many topographical disfigurements — and after all of that, John Middleton and his supporters never made dollar one.