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In the Public Interest: Space, Ethnicity, and Authority in San Francisco's Mission District, 1906-1973


This project examines the role of neighborhoods in the making of the twentieth-century American city. Using San Francisco's Mission District as its case study, "In the Public Interest" demonstrates that the city cannot be explained without reference to neighborhoods--neighborhoods considered not as mere backdrops for processes like "ethnic transition," land use, and inter-generational conflict, but rather as units of authority whose interests often prevailed over those of municipal, state, and federal agencies. The Mission was an economically diverse, multiethnic neighborhood, and a site in which all of the twentieth century's major urban planning programs were contested, including the City Beautiful, the New Deal, the highway acts, urban renewal, and Model Cities. The neighborhood was also the site of many struggles for authority, both within the neighborhood--among Anglos and Latinos, unions and merchant groups--and in larger political and economic structures like municipal government, regional economies, and state and federal agencies.

This project begins in 1906 and concludes in 1973 because within that frame can be traced two arcs of neighborhood authority: in the wake of the earthquake and fire of 1906, local merchants and unions secured a semi-official authority to make urban planning decisions for the neighborhood, but that authority was stripped from the neighborhood by San Francisco's postwar planning regime; an official neighborhood-based planning authority was restored through the Great Society's Model Cities Program, but was stripped again when the Nixon administration halted funding for the program in 1973. While the influence of neighborhood-based groups ebbed and flowed in larger political and economic structures, contests over who would be permitted to speak on behalf of the neighborhood persisted throughout the period under study.

Within the neighborhood, the ideas of "the public" and the "public interest" furnished the conceptual terrain on which access to neighborhood authority was contested. For the key actors in this story, the public was composed firstly of those people and institutions who were allowed to make decisions, and secondarily of the broader collection of individuals and institutions who were intended to benefit from the decisions made. The public interest was not what was good for everyone, but rather the specific benefits that were to redound to those who counted as the public. In the early twentieth century, neighborhood-based merchants and unions agreed that the public interest was served by ensuring continued economic prosperity and by maintaining the (white) racial homogeneity of the neighborhood. In the postwar period, a growing Latino population formed coalitions with predominantly Irish institutions--Catholic parish churches and merchants groups--to insist on racial and economic equality as criteria for determining the public interest. In so doing, these coalitions untethered the public interest from the processes of production, and aligned the concept with residence, without regard to productive capacity, consumption patterns, class, or ethnicity. In the process of telling the local history of a single neighborhood, this study makes interventions into many national stories, including redlining, race in federal public housing policy, the freeway revolt, urban renewal, Model Cities, Third World Defense organizations, Latino urban history, multiethnic alliances and the making of urban America.

This project draws on reportage (English- and Spanish-language), mayoral papers, and the records of key institutions like labor unions, federal agencies, municipal departments, and the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. The project also draws upon historical photographs, fire insurance maps, tourist maps, architectural renderings, urban plans, novels, and popular films.

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