Chill wind ruffled the flags atop the pier fronts as I skated toward my South of Market office. The broad walkway of the Embarcadero led past joints that had been here for decades, reminding us that San Francisco was first and foremost a port city: The Boondocks, Red’s Java House, Java House. These places are relics, but they’re lively ones, and they give the San Francisco waterfront its personality.
Just past Java House the chill forced my head down when I heard the rending of something large, the shriek of splintering wood. I snapped toward the bay and my breath caught.
The sight was a stab to the heart. A giant back-hoe, its huge maw crashing, tore apart a 19th century sailing ship like an old rag doll. The Dolph Rempp, proudly making her way in the world for 135 years, was being ripped to shreds before my eyes.
Anger rose, but there was nothing to do. The ship was half gone, its stern devoured by the ghastly machine. Watching became too painful. I turned away, knowing I would never see it again.
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 South of Market shoreline was the kind of place Dirty Harry would find his nemeses. But the Sailing Ship Restaurant was a dream. The food wasn’t great, but the ship provided the chance to dine in a vessel from an era long past, with décor that was authentic if not original.
Over the years development inched toward the ship, and when a new marina was completed the vessel fit right in. It was a throwback reminding these glossy new boats that they were part of an honored tradition. When the ballpark opened in 2000, the Sailing Ship became the perfect place for a drink before or after the game. Friends and I even talked about somehow buying the ship and speculated on its cost. With its location at the ballpark, on the bay, perched above the marina in a neighborhood that was now booming, 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. They proposed to remove the ship to make way for a continuous sidewalk, so strollers could amble along the marina without encountering the historic artifact that tied the whole area to its seafaring past.
Petitions were signed, hearings were held, decisions were defended. The fate of the ship fell into limbo. The last word was that the port would find another location for it, but where?
I had just witnessed the true last word. I knew that, without that stately old vessel to anchor it, the area would be a pretty marina of boats with nice new sidewalks, 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, what, Coral Gables, Marina Del Rey?
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 Boondocks and Java House, 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’s Corner:
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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