Chill wind ruffled the flags atop the pier fronts and drifting fog penetrated my sweater as I skated along the bay toward my office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. August days aren’t like this in many places, but this represented the cliched San Francisco summer we’ve all heard Mark Twain supposedly comment on. Cold. Damp. Dreary. And it wasn’t even 9 a.m.I followed the broad walkway of the Embarcadero that hugged the waterline past joints that had been here for decades, reminding us that San Francisco was first and foremost a port city built on the strength of shipping and gold: The Boondocks, Red’s Java House, the Java House. These places are relics, but they’re lively ones, where retired longshoremen mix with lawyers, judges, journalists, techies, the occasional skateboarder, and office workers who know a good thing when they see one. Weatherbeaten wood, patched roofs, pilings that may have gone in in the 19th century holding these shacks above the water: joints like this aren’t made anymore. Every morning on my skate to work I pass them. Every evening on my way home I see them from the other side. Occasionally I drop in for a meal, a snack, a drink. Like the Bay Bridge towering above me, these places give the San Francisco waterfront its personality.
Just past the Java House the Embarcadero bends west toward the giant coke bottle, huge 1930s baseball glove, and faux brick façade of Pacific Bell Park, the best modern shrine to the game this country has to offer. I never tire of seeing the ballpark rising from the roadway on one side, the bay on the other. Often I skate out of my way to circle around the outfield past the new marina and along McCovey Cove, named for Giants Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey, getting glimpses through the portico of the green grass and white lines and red dirt of the diamond. This morning, though, the chill forces my head down as I make the final turn toward my office three blocks away. Only then do I hear the horrific rending of something large, the shriek of splintering wood like a redwood ripping out of the earth and taking half a forest with it as it falls. I slam on my heel brake and snap toward the bay and my breath catches.
The sight is a stab to the heart. A giant back-hoe, its huge maw rising, crashing, biting, tears a 19th century sailing ship apart like an old rag doll, scattering her beams and planks as if they’re scraps of kindling ready for the fire. The Dolph Rempp, proudly making her way in the world for 135 years, is being torn to shreds before my eyes.
The shock immobilizes me and minutes pass before I can move my legs to skate closer. Anger rises, but there’s nothing to do but watch the desecration with the handful of others who are there out of curiosity, heartbreak, or indifference. The ship is almost half gone now, its stern devoured by the ghastly machine. Watching becomes too painful as this historic vessel groans helplessly. I turn away and start the slow skate to work, knowing the ship will be gone when I pass at the end of the day.
When I first came to San Francisco in 1975, the Dolph Rempp Sailing Ship Restaurant was an exotic place for a special dinner, a 19th century vessel on the dreary end of San Francisco’s waterfront, the antithesis of touristy Fisherman’s Wharf. South of Market Street was skid row. The waterfront was a den of warehouses, rough bars, empty buildings, uncertain means. It was the kind of place Dirty Harry would find his nemeses, a part of town you didn’t wander alone at night. But the Sailing Ship Restaurant was a dream. The food wasn’t great, but where else could you dine in a vessel from a past era, with décor that was authentic if not original? I didn’t go there often, but I knew and appreciated that it was there.
Over the years development inched toward the ship, and when a new marina was completed the vessel fit right in, up on its bayside perch overlooking the sailboats nestling there. It was a throwback, a reminder of pedigree, a great-grandmother telling these glossy new boats that they are part of an honored tradition. When the ballpark opened in 2000, the Sailing Ship had a renaissance as the perfect place for a drink before or after the game. There it sat, just beyond left field, beckoning fans and sharing its generous spirit. Friends and I even talked dreamily of somehow buying the ship from the owner and speculated on its cost. “You’d probably have to come up with five million bucks,” one friend said. Who knew? With its location at the ballpark, on the bay, perched above the marina in a neighborhood that was now booming toward upscale mixed residential, offices, and light industry, this place was a gold mine.
Imagine our surprise, then, when barely a year later we learned that the Port of San Francisco had decided not to renew the ship’s lease but turn it over to the Redevelopment Agency. What morons run this place? I wondered. They proposed to remove the ship to make way for a continuous sidewalk, so strollers could amble along the marina without encountering the historic, still functioning artifact that tied the whole area to its past. They wouldn’t have to detour around the ship, adding maybe twenty steps to their journey and the chance to ruminate on the marvels of seafaring.
Petitions were signed, rallies were held, decisions were defended with the lamest of possible explanations. The fate of the ship fell into limbo. The last word was that the port would find another location for it, but then, marooned somewhere without foot traffic, without the ballpark, without a neighborhood of people around it, it would rot if only from its own depression.
I had just witnessed the true last word. As I skated away I knew that when I returned, the view that would greet me, without that stately old vessel to anchor it, would be a pretty, clean marina of boats, with nice new sidewalks and piers, and it would have the character of an empty cereal box. Without the Dolph Rempp Sailing Ship it would look like any other marina anywhere it the world. Newcomers would walk by and say, “This is nice,” but no longer would anyone say, “Wow, look at that!”
San Francisco has lost its moorings. It long ago ceased being a port city, a waterfront town. But it seems not to know what it is, casting off its treasures to become like anyplace else.
My mind full of the horrible vision of the ship chewed down to a stub, I finished my skate to work, vowing to stop soon and often at Red’s, the Java House, and the Boondocks, to savor them before they get mauled by the priests of civic improvement and vanish from the bay’s shore, diminishing me, the city, and all of us.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.
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