How the Bay Defines Not Just Our Region, but Our Soul

By Gary Kamiya

Illustration by Olivia Wise.

In the first chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville writes of the profound human need to be close to water. Wander on any given Sunday afternoon through the streets of Manhattan, he writes, and you will find at the water’s edge, frozen like statues, “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.

And that was just the Hudson River. If Melville had ever set eyes on San Francisco Bay, he would have made Captain Ahab chase Moby-Dick through the Golden Gate.

In San Francisco Bay, the 1957 book that remains perhaps the finest one ever written on the subject, Harold Gilliam wrote, “[N]ever was a metropolis more dominated by any natural feature than San Francisco by its bay.” As Gilliam noted, London, Paris, Rome and New York stand on great bodies of water, but as soon as you leave the Thames, the Seine, the Tiber or the Hudson, you lose track of them. In San Francisco, you can never forget the Bay, because no matter where you are, you have only to walk a few steps and it will appear. Los Angeles and San Diego have much longer and more inviting coastlines than San Francisco, but in neither of those beach cities is water as omnipresent as it is in their cool, gray northern cousin.

And it isn’t just San Francisco, aka the City by the Bay, aka the Bay City, aka Baghdad-by-the-Bay, that takes its identity from the great estuary. It defines the 46 other cities, and their seven million people, that following a Melvillean instinct have sprung upon its shores. The Bay provides our regional identity: Without it, there would be nothing to hold this area together. In their comprehensive guidebook, Natural History of San Francisco Bay, authors Ariel Rubissow Okamoto and Kathleen M. Wong quote longtime conservationist Will Travis, who calls the Bay “our Eiffel Tower, our El Capitan, our Big Ben. It is a visual icon which gives our region an identity as a place different from everywhere else.” The Bay is a liquid link, the only point of commonality between Mill Valley and San Jose, San Pablo and Palo Alto. What geographical concept would replace the “Bay Area”? The“central coast region”? That would have all the romantic specificity of a form letter.

It’s almost too obvious to point out, but the greatest gift the Bay gives to the region is the fact that it creates so much waterfront. As a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water —the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Golden Gate strait to the north, the Bay to the east — San Francisco is the most dramatic beneficiary of this watery largesse. From the City’s central hills, you can see both the Bay and the Pacific, an azure panorama matched by few places on earth. But the inland cities are justas fortunate. For them, the Bay is the geographical version of Harold’s purple crayon, magically turning what would have been drab stretches of flat land into water-view Shangri-Las. OK, Union City and Fremont aren’t textbook Shangri-Las, but imagine what they would be like without the Bay.

And this is no ordinary body of water. It is an estuary, a wonderfully dynamic and ambiguous entity halfway between a lake and an ocean. The Bay is alive in a way that no lake is. Within its wildly varied 470 square miles, salt and fresh water come together in ever-changing ways, starting and ending with their collision in that heart-stoppingly narrow gap in the coastal range thatJohn C. Fremont christened the Golden Gate. With that almost absurdly dramatic place as its portal, how could the Bay not be one of the most fascinating bodies of water on the planet?

Today, most dwellers by the Bay have a recreational and/or aesthetic relationship with it. We swim, surf, boat, fish, crab, stand-up paddle, boogie-board, and hang-glide on it, we walk the 356-mile-and-counting Bay Trail that circles it, we wade through its gloriously squishy wetlands, or we simply gaze at it from countless homes, offices, hills, streets and open spaces. Comparatively few people actually make their living from it — unless we count those who work in tourist-related businesses, which would be only a fraction of their size without it.

This is a relatively recent development. Until half a century ago, the Bay played a far greater role in the region’s economic identity and daily life. San Francisco, in particular, was utterly shaped by the Bay. As late as the 1950s, one out of three San Franciscans had a job that was related in some way to shipping or the water-front. Longshoremen, who muscled the break-bulk cargo that arrived in the thousands of ships from around the world that tied up at the City’s piers every year, were a major component of the City’s workforce. The centrality of the Bay was reflected in the old nickname for the Embarcadero: The City Front. As that moniker indicates, San Francisco’s front door faced the east and opened to the Bay. Until the Bay Bridge was built in 1937, the vast majority of people coming to San Francisco arrived by ferry and disembarked at the Ferry Building. In 1930, 43 ferries, plying a dozen different routes, carried a staggering 47 million passengers.

The doom of that muscular, blue-collar era, with its predominantly male workforce, was ordained in 1959, when the first container ship sailed through the Golden Gate. The City lacked the open space needed to store the containers, and it was too congested for them to be easily transported. San Francisco’s working port withered. Corporate headquarters replaced wharves. Secretaries, waiters and clerks took the place of longshoremen, sailors and pilots.The bustling finger piers where copra and coffee and bananas were once unloaded gave way to tourist attractions like Pier 39.

Although the transition was inevitable, much was lost — not least the gritty, functional, intimate relationship with the water that so many Bay Area residents had had for so long. But perhaps even more was gained. By what was only partly a coincidence, at the same time that the Bay began its irreversible decline as the center of the area’s economy, a people’s movement saved the Bay itself.

In 1961, three faculty wives in Berkeley looked out from their houses in the hills and saw trucks lumbering down University Avenue and dumping fill into the Bay. They discovered that officials were blithely planning to fill in several thousand acres of water in the name — as always — of “progress.” They also discovered that the Bay’s shoreline was almost entirely owned by corporations like the Santa Fe Railroad, and almost none of it was accessible to the public. And the Bay itself was so polluted by raw sewage dumped from 80 different locations that it was dangerous to swim in. Its dreadful water quality inspired mordant songwriter Tom Lehrer to pen the deathless lyric “The breakfast garbage that you throw into the Bay/They drink at lunch in San Jose.”

Those three women —Kay Kerr, Esther Gulick and Sylvia McLaughlin — formed a grassroots organization, asking people to donate $1 apiece to save the Bay. Their fledgling group grew to 18,000 members, gained political clout, and successfully lobbied for the creation of a governing body, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, to take stewardship of the Bay. The movement saved the Bay.

And that salvation has allowed the people of our region to continue to enjoy the Bay’s greatest gift: nature itself. One of the wonders of the world stands at our front door. This mighty estuary, moving, slapping, ebbing, surging, constantly in flux, has shaped more than the design of our cities and parks, our lifestyles, our economy. It has shaped our collective spirit. What we think of as the Northern California sensibility— openhearted and openminded, attuned to the environment, untrammeled by convention — would surely not exist in the same way if the Bay was not here. It is a permanent baptism of wonder.

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