And open land — and the now-closed Cliff House Gift Shop.
San Francisco is one of the most walkable cities in the country. At 49 square miles — hence its nickname, the “seven-by-seven” — SF exists as an example of how public transit, cycling lanes, and access to non-motorized vehicles can transform a city for the better. Granted, we still have a long way to go as a municipality, but the fact that anyone resident is no less than a ten-minute walk from a City-managed greenspace should never be lost. The sheer density of our public staircases shouldn’t be forgotten, either; Urban Hiker SF is here to remind you if need be.
Recently, a video of an old SF was uploaded by the YouTube account NASS, a channel that’s dedicated to restoring old films and then converting them to digital files that can be uploaded onto the interwebs. The almost nine-minute tape is a cluster of clips taken in San Francisco during the early 1940s and 1950s. Aside from the vintage autos — cars of particular, rounded beauty that universal homologation has now made nearly impossible to replicate — what strikes me most is the sideways glance at the available street parking, as well as land that’s yet to be built on.
The first half of the video shows a bustling downtown and somewhat desolate SoMa. Muni, which became the first publicly owned and operated transit agency in a major American city when it debuted in 1912, was still in its youthful thirties with now-historically-important streetcars weaving around pre-war-built Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Chrysler models.
The sidewalks were cleaner. There’s far less trash. The smell of stale urine was not yet synonymous with San Francisco. Perhaps, because of the thick smog that blanked much of SF until the 1960s, scents of torched coal and sparked fossil fuels would come first to mind.
San Francisco seemed like a less fussy place. And, as the latter half of the video proved, there were far more places to park along the street.
With the camera panning left and right, a swath of unoccupied spaces to parallel park along some SF streets is revealed. Though it’s not entirely clear which part of the city in which this specific clip was filmed, there are rolling hills in the background — unbothered and green with grass. Maybe decades prior, San Francisco’s dairy cows, which numbered in the thousands, might’ve grazed on those peaks.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the population of the City and County of San Francisco consistently sat between 600,000 and 800,000 people. Per the most recent census figures published in July of 2021, there are an estimated 815,000 residents — 58,000 less than were thought to have lived in SF back in April of 2022 before the Bay Area exodus.
So, what’s up with all this space? Frankly, as walker-friendly as SF is, car ownership has exponentially increased over the years across the board. In 1944, there were 2,451,569 motor vehicles registered in the state of California. Now? There are well over 17,765,625. And around 995,000 of them are registered in San Francisco, alone.
That means there are literally more cars in San Francisco than there are full-time residents. Let that sink in… because that’s fucking wild (and a problem).
When I stumble upon these sliding glass windows into the eras of San Francisco’s past, it brings juxtaposition. While I’m grateful for the more inclusive nature the city has since harbored, I yearn for what appears to be a simpler, more slowed-down way of navigating the seven-by-seven.
SFMTA’s car-free street corridors give us a glimpse into the future of a pedestrian-forward San Francisco, as do these clips of a city with far fewer cars crisscrossing its streets and hogging the road. Let’s not lose those visions.