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In the years following World War II, planners and local, state and federal officials across the United States embraced a technocratic approach to cities.

This better-living-through-social-engineering ethos took two main forms: tearing down "blighted" neighborhoods and constructing freeways — lots of them.

San Francisco confronted so-called urban renewal and freeway programs, but with very different results.

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Urban renewal policies prevailed in the Western Addition in the 1960s, resulting in the destruction of much of the neighborhood and the permanent displacement of many African Americans. Also deemed "blighted" was Diamond Heights, a semirural area where three hilltops were leveled in 1961 to make room for hundreds of housing units.

But most of the vast freeway system that was planned for San Francisco was stopped by a strange-bedfellows coalition of neighborhood activists, media figures, politicians and business people. What came to be known as the Freeway Revolt was the first, most prolonged and most successful such battle in the U.S.

As William Issel notes in an article about the Freeway Revolt that appeared in the November 1999 issue of the Pacific Historical Review, planners began to grapple with regional transportation in the late 1930s, after the Bay and Golden Gate bridges were built and traffic soared. The wartime economic boom and increased population gave still more urgency to the process.

In 1942, Planning Director L. Deming Tilton began preparing San Francisco’s first master plan. Completed in 1945, it included state highway engineers’ recommendations for numerous freeways in San Francisco.

In a portent of the controversies to come, however, Tilton disagreed with the engineers over their approach to the city’s first freeway, the Bayshore. Noting that a freeway is "a device that can make or break the city," he called for state engineers to take property values and aesthetics into account, not just traffic flow.

The 1951 Trafficways Plan that emerged from the master plan called for 11 freeways to be built in the city. In the end, only four — the Bayshore, the Southern, and parts of the Central and the Embarcadero — were actually constructed.

Until the mid-1950s, there was a broad consensus among the establishment that freeways were a good thing and that the city should embrace them. However, cracks in the coalition soon appeared.

Businesses that relied on tourism realized that freeways might ruin the ambiance that drew visitors to San Francisco. And some media outlets also began to question the freeway orthodoxy.

The Chronicle was at first a tireless freeway booster, and once ran a front-page story written by state highway department staffers. "S.F. skyways to ease traffic, open up vistas," read the headline. The story promised that drivers rounding what is now called Hospital Curve would behold a panorama of skyscrapers "with a real life suddenness to dwarf the thrills of Cinerama."

Trivia time

The previous trivia question: What Bay Area writer was known as the "prince of the oyster pirates"?

Answer: Jack London.

This week’s trivia question: What legendary sports figure worked as a bouncer at a North Beach bar in 1913?

Editor’s note

Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past tells those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history — from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond. His column appears every other Saturday.

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The paper changed its tune, however, when Scott Newhall became executive editor. Partly in an effort to supplant the pro-freeway Examiner as the city’s leading paper, Newhall began pushing the idea that freeways could ruin San Francisco.

Columnist Herb Caen, then writing for the Examiner, soon broke with that paper’s stance and blasted the concrete behemoths that would profane his beloved "Baghdad by the Bay." He later coined the phrase "Dambarcadero Freeway" to express his disdain for the elevated freeway that ran along the waterfront, cutting off the Ferry Building from downtown.

The Chronicle lambasted Gov. Pat Brown, who had made pushing expressways through San Francisco a personal crusade, as a dictatorial traitor to his city. And the paper sided with the most crucial anti-freeway force of all: the growing grassroots movement in the neighborhoods.

For years, neighborhood voices were largely ignored when it came to freeways, partly because they tended to be working class and thus lacked political clout. By the mid-1950s, however, freeway plans threatened much larger and more affluent sections of San Francisco. The residents of those neighborhoods spoke out loudly — and they were heard.

Two neighborhoods, the Sunset and Glen Park, spearheaded the resistance. The Sunset was directly in the path of the proposed "Western Freeway," which would have connected the airport, via Interstate 280, with the Golden Gate Bridge.

This eight-lane behemoth would have torn the Sunset in half. From its start at the 19th Avenue exit off I-280, it would have obliterated Junipero Serra Boulevard and required the removal of hundreds of homes along 14th Avenue from Sloat Boulevard north.

At Santiago, it would have plunged into a tunnel, emerging just north of Forest Hill Station and enter Golden Gate Park around Ninth Avenue. After blasting through the park and entering the Richmond District, it would have connected with an expanded Park Presidio Boulevard, requiring the removal of more homes and businesses on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Glen Park would have been bisected by the "Crosstown Freeway." This expressway would have started at I-280, run as an elevated viaduct northwest alongside Bosworth Street and part of O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, before barreling at an elevation of 60 feet through Glen Canyon, tunneling under Twin Peaks and emerging to connect with the Western Freeway near Seventh Avenue. According to the Glen Park history website, it would have destroyed 120 homes and 13 businesses, not to mention the landscape of Glen Canyon.

Residents of these two neighborhoods, few of whom had any experience with activism or politics, united to stop the concrete juggernauts that were heading at them. The next Portals will tell their story.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book "Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco," awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to For more features from 150 years of The Chronicle’s archives, go to Email: [email protected]

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