The Fight for San Francisco

Two photographers document labor landmarks that are forgotten in a city where workers’ histories are constantly overwritten.


What’s happening here eats out the heart of the city from the inside: the infrastructure is for the most part being added to rather than torn down, but the life within it is being drained away, a siphoning off of diversity, cultural life, memory, complexity. What remains will look like the city that was — or like a brighter, shinier, tidier version of it — but what it contained will be gone. It will be a hollow city.

— Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City (2000) 1

Fifteen years ago, Rebecca Solnit and photographer Susan Schwartzenberg surveyed “the siege of San Francisco and the crisis of American Urbanism.” Today, the city is once again swept up in a period of rapid change: globalized, gentrified, redeveloped, hollowed out by the forces shaping the “knowledge economy.”  Some call this the second tech boom, but of course it is only the latest instance in a long history of booms driven by new technologies, from dynamite to shipping containerization, that transformed entire industries and the city with them.

As we witness this change, it’s easy to forget that San Francisco was once a progressive, tightly unionized port city with a robust blue-collar workforce. Powerful maritime unions won their rights through decades of violent confrontations, notably during the labor riots that culminated in the 1934 General Strike. In the 1950s, the mechanization of shipping finally broke the grip of the unions. Workers reluctantly accepted the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement which eased the inevitable loss of jobs with payouts and retraining programs. New business moved across the bay to Oakland, and the San Francisco waterfront fell into disrepair, the piers cut off from downtown by the hulking mass of the Embarcadero Freeway, until it was demolished after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

San Francisco has a long history of booms driven by new technologies, from dynamite to shipping containerization, that transformed entire industries.

That history is preserved at the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University, whose director, Catherine Powell, is co-editor of the San Francisco Labor Landmarks Guide Book. In 2008, during the last recession, Catherine and I began collaborating with photographers Wendy Crittenden and Tom Griscom to identify locations that played key roles in the history of working people in the city. We were shocked by archival photos of police on horseback, armed with guns, facing workers armed with bricks and railroad spikes on what is now a high-end restaurant row at Steuart and Mission Streets, and photos of the National Guard setting up machine gun nests in front of the piers and roaming the Embarcadero with bayonet rifles. How many people remember the blue-collar roots of the waterfront? Aside from the occasional historical marker, these events have been relegated to the dustbin of time, ignored by shoppers rushing to buy artisanal cheese at the Ferry Building Market.

1934 General Strike, National Guard in San Francisco
1934 General Strike, National Guard stationed at Embarcadero and Harrison, San Francisco. [Sid Roger Collection, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University]

As Catherine and I supplied the history, Wendy and Tom wandered the city like modern-day flâneurs, re-interpreting the labor landmarks of San Francisco through the lens of their dissimilar yet complementary styles. Tom’s black-and-white panoramas and Wendy’s skewed-color chromogenic prints show different views of the same locations, capturing traces of past and present, the ethereal and the tangible. The photographers consciously exclude people, focusing instead on ghosts of the past. Wendy’s work is square and precise, with natural and architectural forms reduced almost to abstraction, the colors contrasting sharply against a background of open sky. Her cranes thrust heroically on a diagonal across negative space in one photograph, and peek shyly from the lower corner in another, recalling both the strength of blue-collar labor and the observer’s increasing distance from it. Tom’s epic panoramas build on the classic California landscape tradition, drawing depth and meaning from light and atmosphere. In Port of Oakland, CA, a crane lurks in the mist; shipping containers are strewn at its base like bones discarded by some invisible force. Facing an uncertain future, the maritime workers of the 1960s must have felt similarly lost, as containerization made their skills obsolete.

Of course, ghosts do not always lie quietly. In the diptych bloody thursday, Wendy focused on overhead wires at a MUNI turnaround across the street from the Audiffred Building, where two striking workers were fatally shot on July 5, 1934. The wires, she said, reminded her of “bullets flying through the air.” Tom’s Glen Park Grasses, taken at the site of Alfred Nobel’s first U.S. dynamite factory, Giant Powder, is haunted by the workers who died in the industrial accidents that pushed manufacturing further away from populated areas in the city center.

The overhead wires at a MUNI turnaround reminded her of bullets flying through the air.

Often, the photographers use distance and scale to situate the labor history within the contemporary landscape. Tom’s PG&E/Klockars contrasts the Klockars Blacksmithing building (in continuous operation since it was established after the 1906 earthquake) with the faceless monolith of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company building next door. His Beale Street centers the location of the 1934 waterfront strike on the horizon, but zooms out to show the massive, modern buildings built (by union labor) in the decades that have passed. In the North Beach neighborhood, Wendy photographed the Lusty Lady — the only unionized exotic dance club in the U.S., until it closed in 2013 — in the same frame with the Transamerica Pyramid, a sly commentary on the city’s subconscious.

Both photographers are adept at depicting the fleeting glance through fractionalization. Tom’s Red’s Java 2 looks up at the Bay Bridge from the vantage of the popular lunch restaurant, a view seen by countless waterfront workers since the bridge was completed in 1936. Wendy’s diptych jeremiah o’brien suggests a disconnect between the ship’s heroic past in World War II and its current status as a tourist attraction, as well as our disconnect from the American workers — one-third of whom were women — who built some 2,700 Liberty cargo ships during the war.

Today, San Francisco has emerged from the recession with fervor, and civic redevelopment projects are again reshaping the urban landscape on a grand scale. Major technology companies have moved in, revitalizing long troubled areas and bringing an influx of young workers and rising rents. Disruption and gentrification, symptoms of growth and change, have turned neighborhoods upside down, displacing low- and middle-income people and driving many families out of the city in search of affordable housing. The residents who remain struggle to find their place in the new order and preserve the community they call home.

As Solnit observed about the last boom:

In times of tyranny, the citizens talk of democracy and justice; in our time we talk of public space, architecture, housing, urban design, cultural geography, community and landscape  —  which suggests that the current crises are located in location itself. … As things we took for granted vanish day by day, San Franciscans’ love for their city becomes more and more evident. People speak constantly, obsessively, of what is happening and mourn what is being lost. 2

By exhibiting these photographs now, we situate the city’s current transformation in the context of changes that came before. Invisible to many, the streets of San Francisco are layered with the sweat and blood of generations of working people, who built (and rebuilt) this city, who raised their families here and fought for their rights. We celebrate what was lost, what is left, and what has grown in its place, hoping that as San Francisco moves into the future, the city will not lose the diversity, creativity, and resilience that are its heritage.

Editors’ Note

“The Fight for San Francisco” is adapted from the exhibition Dual Views: Labor Landmarks of San Francisco. Featuring photographs by Wendy Crittenden and Tom Griscom and curated by Kim Munson, the exhibition is on view through August 7, 2015, at San Francisco State University, with an opening reception on April 2. The catalog is available here.

  1. Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg, Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism (New York: Verso, 2000).
  2. Ibid., 28.
Kim Munson, Wendy Crittenden, and Tom Griscom, “The Fight for San Francisco,” Places Journal, March 2015. Accessed 08 Aug 2022.

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