California 8th District
On Feb. 20, 1915, a crowd of 150,000 gathered on the grounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to see the Spanish-Italian baroque-style structure built on reclaimed land in what was to become San Francisco’s Marina district. The Exposition ostensibly celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, but it was clearly intended to show off San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. It also spotlighted the city as the central focus of America’s efforts to open an economic door to the eastern part of the world, especially in light of the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines and of its interest in an open-door policy with China and trade with Japan. The Exposition established the physical style of San Francisco, encouraging the use of Mediterranean color, accent and detail that characterizes most of the post-Victorian houses and commercial structures in The City, as the San Francisco Examiner called it for years. It set the tone for the picturesque Marina district, whose old buildings had been among those damaged in the 1989 earthquake, and for Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. On a sunny day, San Francisco looks almost tropical, with brown mountains baking in the sun and light shining off the pastel stucco buildings. When the clouds scud in from the Pacific, it can look sinister, full of dark corners where a private detective’s partner might be ambushed by a pretty woman. The buildings can be majestic, like the monumental Beaux Arts City Hall, or tawdry, like the hotels of the Tenderloin district. It is a city that at first looks exotic but, when you look closely, can only be American.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
San Francisco has been a dynamic city. It grew from nothing to a major city in the single year of 1850, an instant product of the California Gold Rush. Within just a few years, culture was flourishing in the city, and San Francisco developed a parochial pride in the great writers who worked there—Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris—and in giving birth to the Arts and Crafts movement. Later, San Francisco newspaper scribe Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” to describe the youthful penchant for freedom in the 1950s and wrote definitively about the hippies who thronged Haight-Ashbury in 1967. In the 1970s, the city was among the first to embrace the gay movement, in the Castro district (although lately, gays have been moving to the suburbs and straights have been moving in). Over the years, the city’s booming economy-based initially on food processing, but now on finance, high-tech and clothing (Levi Strauss, the Gap)–attracted talented newcomers, though its population is increasingly polarized between high-income and low-income. The dot.com crash in 2000 took a brutal toll, but the city rallied in mid-decade, as new high-rise office buildings and condominiums sprang up on the waterfront and south of Market. Google and other Silicon Valley firms started leasing office space for their young, hip employees. The housing bust in 2008 did not hit as hard here as in California’s Central Valley subdivisions, where many modest-income Bay Area residents had been fleeing. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children (16%) of any major city, and only a little more than half the number of African-Americans it had in 1970. The population on the west side is nearly half Asian. But overall, proudly tolerant San Francisco is one of California’s whitest cities.
Politically, San Francisco was a progressive Republican town, like the two men who led the way into the Exposition: Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and California Gov. Hiram Johnson. The sour-tempered Johnson made his name as a reformer, throwing out crooked city politicians. His administration gave California primary elections, referenda and recall, and strong civil-service laws. Rolph, mayor from 1911-30 and then governor, built the civic center, parks, schools, streetcars and the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct—the antique infrastructure of San Francisco today (though the water quality is terrific). Sympathetic to the conservation movement, willing to deal with organized labor in a union town that had America’s only general strike in 1934 and, tolerant of California’s diversity, these progressive Republicans were the recognizable ancestors of, though certainly not identical to, the latter-day San Franciscans who became increasingly liberal.
The city has elected strong liberal politicians, notably Mayor George Moscone and the first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk; both were shot to death in 1978 by a political opponent, who was later acquitted of murder by a jury on the theory that he had been crazed by junk food. Over the next decade, the city’s cultural liberalism was tempered by Democratic Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who vetoed a domestic-partnership ordinance and opposed commercial rent control. In 1995, Willie Brown, ousted after 15 years as speaker of the state Assembly, returned home and was elected mayor. Brown’s political flair was always in evidence, but high taxes and an increasing homeless population drove out middle-class families and immigrants. As his successor, San Francisco installed Gavin Newsom, who in February 2004 started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, although California voters had outlawed same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court ordered him to stop and voided the marriages. In 2008, Newsom was vindicated when the state Supreme Court declared same-sex marriages legal. But his victory statement—“This door’s wide open, it’s going to happen, whether you like it or not”—was featured in ads for proponents of Proposition 8, which by a 52%-48% vote reversed the court’s decision. In April 2009, Newsom announced his candidacy for governor in 2010.
The 8th Congressional District of California takes in four-fifths of San Francisco, all but the southwest corner. It includes all of San Francisco’s high-rise downtown, the crowded and bustling Chinatown, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill and Russian Hill, North Beach, Pacific Heights, and the Marina District (which does not have a very big marina). In the valleys are the mostly black Fillmore and Western Addition areas. The district is 8% African-American, 16% Hispanic and 29% Asian. The 8th also has Noe Valley; the Castro, which is still mainly gay; Haight-Ashbury, once the bedraggled center of hippie culture and now another gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood; and Portrero Hill, with its restored houses overlooking downtown. Farther south are the old residential areas overlooking Interstate 280, with pastel houses strewn along grid streets that hug the steep hills. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic and voted 85%-12% for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008.