Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline as seen from the early morning ferry to Oakland in San Francisco, California
Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline as seen from the early morning ferry to Oakland in San Francisco, California

by Lee Foster

Those of us who live in the Bay Area of California experienced the Earthquake of October 17, 1989, as a frightening and immediate event.

But those of you who travel to San Francisco also have a stake in these seismic upheavals. The San Francisco-Bay Area has been changed in subtle ways.

Living through a major earthquake amounts to one of the more de-stabilizing experiences of life. If the earth moves below your feet, what is secure? In my three-story Berkeley apartment, during the 20 seconds or so of shuddering, I wondered if the structure would survive. Would the 1920s building collapse onto my ground-floor lodging? It stood. Few TV watchers, when hearing that this quake was Richter 7.1, differentiate it much from, say, a Richter 6 magnitude. However, a jump of one point in the scale means a 10-fold rise in the quake intensity.

My next thought was of my two young children, Paul and Karin, visiting their mother a half-mile away. Were they OK? Fortunately, the phones in our area were still working. Yes, they were shaken and frightened, but not injured. Then my older son, Bart, at the University of Santa Cruz. Was he OK? Yes, he was uninjured, but he lost thousands in property damage. His computers, computer printer, and all his apartment furnishings had been “trashed”, as he described it, at this epicenter of quake activity some 80 miles south of San Francisco. And finally, had my friend Robert Black, the sculptor, who returns daily from his studio south on Interstate 880, arrived home safely? Yes, he had, because he left work a half-hour early, to run an errand, thus escaping the 14-block entombment when the concrete freeway collapsed. Such is the roulette of life in California’s earthquake country.

Knowing that I and my family and friends were safe, I sat back and watched the tragedy unfold, as did the nation, via TV. The magnitude of the catastrophe took a full day to sink in because communication, especially with Santa Cruz, was so slow in being restored. The full horror of the event became apparent, only a few miles from my apartment, as extrication began for the bodies trapped in their squashed cars. So moving was the scenario that only grim horror fiction could have imagined it.

Gradually, it became apparent to me that we locals were not the only victims. Every traveler who has every visited this gifted area of the world, everyone who has left a little bit of their heart in San Francisco, had a stake in the catastrophe.

Travelers who return to San Francisco on future pilgrimages will find the region changed both physically and psychologically.

Some aspects of this jolt are as follows:


*San Francisco’s Marina District would take years to re-build. This choice piece of landfill real estate, just off the Marina Green, next to the Bay at the north edge of San Francisco, is one of the pleasant places in the City to go for a stroll. The area was the epitome of the good life, filled with upscale professionals in their resort clothes, sipping Chardonnay and enjoying the brilliant October sunshine. Within moments of the quake, much of the area was a rubble heap.

Many of the corner buildings, fashionable apartments, had been reduced to twisted wreckage. A major fire blazed out of control for five hours, burning a city block and threatening to spread, because broken water mains reduced to nothing the water pressure. Only when a fireboat, on the Bay, hooked into the fire hoses did a quantity of water become available to douse the blaze. For a few hours it looked as if the San Francisco Quake of 1906 was repeating itself, with the fire, not the quake, destroying the city.

The Marina has been rebuilt since the quake, but the illusion of security and the good life apparent there has been shaken.

Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline as seen from the early morning ferry to Oakland in San Francisco, California
Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline as seen from the early morning ferry to Oakland in San Francisco, California

*San Francisco’s historic brick warehouse district and more aging downtown buildings were severely damaged. The brick warehouse district, now the home of designers and architects, would never be the same. Brick has become an evil word here. It is unlikely that anyone will champion re-building in brick again in this region. The brick structures had survived the fires of the newborn city, in the 1860s, and the fires of the great Quake of 1906, but this quake shook many of the structures down.

*Downtown Oakland was cruelly affected. People who had sunk their lives and fortunes into restoring the downtown area saw those efforts destroyed in a moment. Alice Waters, the talented culinary artist of Chez Panisse restaurant, was about to open a market and restaurant in the area, but the brick edifice was shaken down. The elegant Capwell Building, the major department store, needed to be re-sheathed.

The buckled streets, damaged buildings under construction, and the horror of the freeway collapse nearby took private and public fortunes to repair. The pity is that those diverted funds will not go into the other local crises, such as funding of schools or waging the battle against drugs.

The immediate damage of the quake has been repaired, but the expenditure of resources to solve those problems, and not other more mundane problems, has left invisible scars.

*On the Peninsula, the area south of San Francisco, one of the charming small mountain towns, Los Gatos, was lain waste. Los Gatos was a civilized enclave of old Victorian structures and a carefully nurtured downtown of historic brick structures. This tony environment was damaged severely as some houses jumped four to six feet sideways from their foundations. Rebuilding was out of the question for many. How do you recreate a crafted Victorian house of the 1890s? Who could afford the materials or workmanship required?

Travelers and locals lost a little bit of the California heritage with each building that had to be demolished.

*But worst hit of all areas in the seven-county disaster area was the small coastal gem of Santa Cruz, at the epicenter of the quake, 80 miles south of San Francisco. Travelers with memories of this gracious coastal town has to prepare themselves psychologically for the trauma of their return to the site.

The pride of Santa Cruz was its downtown Pacific Garden Mall. This was an architectural monument, a downtown that was never “improved” with boosterish modernism, a downtown that languished until the 1970s, when the era of preservation took hold. Then the buildings, such as the Cooper House, were restored with loving attention. The area was reclaimed for foot traffic, as cars were banned. Trees were planted. Urban amenities is the term that comes to mind.

All of the Pacific Garden mall was destroyed. Trees were snapped off and overturned. Again, brick was the downfall of the area. Brick is not a suitable building material in this earthquake region. The entire Pacific Garden Mall needed to be bulldozed. One of the poignant human losses during the quake occurred when a coffee roasting company collapsed on a clerk. Santa Cruz’s mall, though it has been rebuilt, would never be the same.

*The final change, for the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of mood and perspective. The previous great Quake of 1906 had receded so far into the background that it was almost regarded with affection, a kind of conversation piece, a reference to be made with some bravado. Those of us in the San Francisco region always knew the Quake might be repeated, but when? Perhaps not in our lifetime, which is why so few of us bought earthquake insurance.

But the quake did occur. A known 69 people were dead, 2,400 injured, and seven billions of direct property damage sustained. Some element of the exuberance of life here, some lightness of spirit, some joy in passing your days in this salubrious milieu was sadly diminished. The region remains so beautiful and so desirable a place to live that the confirmed residents, such as myself, will choose to remain. But the cheerfulness of life here will be overshadowed by a new element of sobriety.

Travelers have a great stake in the San Francisco-Bay region. The cities, the Bay, and the coastal towns are beloved by millions of visitors. The rubble has been cleaned, the dead have been buried, and the repairs have been made, but the experience of coming to San Francisco has been subtly altered.

With each passing year, the memory of the Quake of 1989 becomes more distant. But the imminense of the next Great Quake also becomes more proximate. The major fear now is of a massive quake along the Hawyard Fault in the East Bay Hills, where a large population lives. But who knows when that event will occur?



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