Visionary San Francisco Environmentalist Alvin Duskin Dies at 90
A Alvin Duskin died on July 25, 2021 at 90 years of age in his home at Tomales in Northern California. His activist colleague, as well as Bay Guardian Editor and West Portal resident, Bruce Brugmann, said “Basically, I think we have been fighting ever after on many of the questions and issues he and his movement raised back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—and they are still pressing on us even more today.”
San Francisco Awake
For many San Franciscans the wake-up moment—the moment it became obvious that the Planning Commission was leading the City down the wrong track—was during the postwar freeway frenzy. The Comprehensive Trafficways Plan of 1948, sought to bulldoze neighborhoods and carve up communities to make room for more cars for the convenience of commuters. The proposed network of massive citywide freeways splitting several neighborhoods, sometimes with elevated bulky monstrosities like the former Embarcadero Freeway. Plans for the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park disturbed even San Francisco’s most restrained residents. 30,000 citizens signed a petition and presented it to the Board of Supervisors, demanding an immediate halt to their construction. Amit Ghosh, Chief Planner 1992-2008, told a reporter “these big new planning ideas — about accommodating cars and street space, moving people here and there and everywhere, filling up the bay … all those things came together and people said ‘Look, this juggernaut needs to be stopped.’” And it was stopped. In 1959 the Board reversed the decision and halted the Embarcadero Freeway and cancelled several other freeway projects that had not begun construction. (The Loma Prieta earthquake of ‘89 closed the 1.2 mile stub of the Embarcadero Freeway that had already been constructed and it was finally removed in 1991.) “Once citizens succeeded in stopping the freeways,” Ghosh said, “that confirmed the power of the people in a place like San Francisco.”
...that meant giving up what San Francisco was—a city of people who lived here, who raised their children here and who spent a lot of time playing, eating, walking, living in the city.”
The Freeway Revolt refocused on the new giant buildings dominating San Francisco’s skyline. “Duskin gave them focus and high voltage and popularized the crucial concept with the appropriate term: Manhattanization, the Manhattanization of San Francisco, said Brugmann, “in the Bay Guardian’s timely and prescient 1972 book, ‘The Ultimate Highrise, San Francisco’s mad rush to the sky.’ He puts his thesis in an excellent foreword:
“So San Francisco was going to become the headquarters city for the western states and for the Pacific. Winning that meant giving up what San Francisco was—a city of people who lived here, who raised their children here and who spent a lot of time playing, eating, walking, living in the city.
“And winning a headquarters city of the Pacific meant—because San Francisco is so much smaller in land than New York—building an even more concentrated city: ‘The Ultimate Highrise.’”
At the end of World War II San Francisco had only a few “skyscrapers,” but they began to multiply after 1948 and in 1952 citizen dismay, exhibited in frequent public testimony, became a concern of the Planning Commission, which considered a proposal to limit heights as well as bulk, but the Commission took no action.
By 1960 development began to escalate, running riot throughout the financial district and along Market Street. Hotels towers sprang up along Union Square.
Then, in 1962, the Fontana reared up at Van Ness and Bay. Dubbed “buck-teeth on the bay,” neighborhood activists realized that over-sized developments were coming for their neighborhoods if they stayed in the “wait and see” mode.
The seeds were sown for organized and local community movements. In ’63 and ’64 sit-ins at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel and at Mel’s Drive-In by the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination successfully used confrontational tactics to improve employment prospects for the City’s Black population.
Neighborhood groups like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers were ill-equipped or unwilling to protest finally came out of the shadows and groups like San Francisco Tomorrow (SFT) began to take form to address city-wide urban planning problems. Sue Hestor, an early environmental activist, said “nobody imagined that Planning, a small department of the City government, could make such a big change in people’s lives, but they were beginning to wake up.” Adding insult, plans were in the works for a 1041-foot Transamerica pyramid, which opponents were able to scale back to 853-feet. Regular citizens were learning that they could organize and prevail.
The plan to fill in the Bay to build an overshadowing development, half the size of Alcatraz, for a Miami-style high-rise on a new island became a rallying point. The opposition prevailed against the U.S. Steel Tower and Ferry Port Plaza. Former Supervisor Jack Morrison summed it up: “If San Francisco is to remain a livable city at all, it will be through a new alliance—a coalition of resident urban conservationists so strong that it can cope with the clique of special interests which today is virtually running the municipal show.” U.S. Steel’s plans went the way of the dodo after Port Commission President Cyril Magnin called on Port Police to break up an SFT press conference in opposition. It went ahead on the sidewalk in front of the Embarcadero and the plan was dead.
Then in 1966 the black Bank of America tower – the giant tombstone — topped out at 52 stories.
Enter Alvin Duskin
It was these “big new planning ideas” that mobilized grass-roots environment groups to push back against limitless developments, even as they do today. Developers struggle to turn the sleepy and serene City everybody loved into Manhattan II. Just in time, San Francisco discovered the whirlwind that was Alvin Duskin.
Duskin had previous experience fighting City Hall. His first fight was the Board of Supervisor’s sale of famed Alcatraz Island. The Contract, sold to Lamar Hunt, a millionaire amusement park developer for a pittance, seemed like a done deal. Hunt presented his vision for the island—a monument to the Apollo 8 Mission on one side of the island and a plastic recreation of Victorian San Francisco on the other. “Duskin dramatized the problem with a full-page ad campaign,” Brugmann said, “that defeated the plan of a Texas billionaire to build a monstrous wrong-headed development on Alcatraz.” The ad for Duskin’s campaign was clear “A little bit of Texas right here in the Bay — as big a steal as Manhattan Island.”
As he was dealing with the press, a tugboat operator called him with a clue to the inside truth. It seems that the deepest part of the Bay was on the south side of Alcatraz, and the new and larger oil tankers — because they were too large, and the Bay was too shallow beyond Alcatraz to navigate to Richmond to offload their cargo. Ergo, the real plan was to turn Alcatraz into oil storage. After a few tv interviews the deal went sour.
Perry-Lynn Moffitt, a writer and editor who now lives in Brooklyn, as well as a long-time friend, remembered “Alvin's vision involved returning Alcatraz, which means "gannet" or "pelican" in Spanish, back to these large seabirds which had once nested there. The response from Alvin's fund raising and awareness campaign, aided by eye catching ads created by Jerry Mander, was astounding, and eventually the U.S. Government discarded the theme park concept and turned the historic jail into a National Park. As a result, many species of birds have indeed returned to the island, along with bird enthusiasts and tourists.”.
The plan, Duskin wrote, “had a high-rise side that would be a monument to technology, industry and finance.” The other side “would recreate what we once had but lost.” The new San Francisco would have an expanding Manhattan-style core of highrise office buildings. The old residential neighborhoods with their spacious flats and Victorians would be ‘developed.’ bulldozed into highrise apartments for middle income people without children. And then there would be the city of tourists…” The Board rescinded the sale — it was an easy win because as Duskin put it, “8,000 people who live here suddenly decided it was their island and they could decide what it could become. Who else should decide? The Chamber of Commerce? A developer from Texas? The Mayor? The Board of Supervisors? Duskin wrote that the Alcatraz victory “reawakened in San Francisco the idea that when our politicians betray the trust of the voters, the people can still win.”
Protecting the skyline was not so easy. The question split the City into two camps. The Loyal Opposition, a term anti-highrisers used to describe themselves, versus the developers—often in league with unions on the other side. Mayor Joe Alioto was gung-ho for skyscrapers, “they bring jobs and prosperity.” He denounced the opposition, remarking to the press that they wanted “to turn San Francisco into another museum like Williamsburg, Virginia.”
Alvin Duskin was not a politician, he was a wealthy manufacturer of women's clothing, selling mini-skirted “peace dresses.” He was born in San Francisco to a middle-class family. He emerged as the leader of the first of three major attempts to get voters to ban high rises. All the attempts failed.
As he remarked to his son, Marcus in 2006, “There was just a whole interest in development, the idea being that the more you develop the more prosperous the city will become, and that will increase the quality of life for the people of the city. Well, what I’ve seen happen as San Francisco becomes overdeveloped is that people who aren’t part of the process are forced out. You can’t buy a house in the city for under 600 thousand dollars now. So, the typical blue-collar family is simply pushed out, you get people commuting from Modesto, Escalon, and it’s just very difficult for people to stay. That’s the process we call the Manhattanization process, where the city will be a city of people who can afford to stay here. People who are very poor are put in public housing or low-income housing and middle class people simply are pushed out.
Sue Hestor remembers Alvin as “a very independent thinker, not inclined to get involved with groups like SFT (San Francisco Tomorrow) though he was often aligned with them. He was a vivacious and outgoing person who saw a problem and said ‘we’ve got to fight back—we’ve got to draw a line.”
“He worked tirelessly to build a strong ‘anti-highrise’ campaign,” Brugmann said. “He held big organizing meetings in the building where he had a highly successful business … the meetings were raucous and full of contention, always going late into the night and he wearily conducted many of them personally. He lined up a slate of candidates for the fall supervisorial election and ended up running himself though he lost by a small margin.”
“A friend invited me to one of Alvin's speeches that summer,” Perry-Lynn remembered, “about his newest cause, limiting high rise development to preserve not only San Francisco's architectural charm, but also to maintain light, air, and the stunning views of the bay and its majestic bridges. I introduced myself to Alvin after his speech, which was the only time I ever saw him in a suit and tie during all the years we remained friends. Blue chambray work shirts and jeans were his signature attire. I asked him what he needed for his current campaign and he said he was looking for a writer on a coloring book, which would be distributed for free to help spread the word to voters and their children about why limiting highrises was a good idea. Although I planned a career as a performing arts administrator, I was volunteering my talents, so I told Alvin that my price was right and that I was the person for the job. He chose to believe me.
“Alvin had already recruited sixteen local artists to donate black and white drawings based on the text I would write in the cadences and simple words of a child's coloring book, a style Alvin called "coloring bookese." There was planned hoopla connected to the publication of the initial run of 50,000 free copies of the Vote on High-Rise Coloring Book, including a campaign fund raiser in which the original drawings were auctioned to the highest bidders.
“Eventually, I needed a full time job with a salary. One of Alvin's fellow volunteers knew I was interested in a career in the performing arts, and she had a part-time job at San Francisco Opera. She had heard there was an opening at their touring company, Western Opera Theater. I interviewed and was hired for the job, for which I thank my writing credit on Alvin's coloring book, as well as my education and devotion to music.
“During my tenure with WOT, I made a mistake in booking the company, and was devastated by my error. I turned to Alvin for support and understanding. "It was an accident," he told me,."You've already apologized. You can't even say that you will never make another mistake like that, because we all make mistakes in our careers from time to time. We actually learn from them." From then on after I became a boss, I always quoted Alvin when one of my staff members made a mistake.
“I have often referred to Alvin as my mentor and California guru. He taught me endless lessons about business, about non-profits, and about life. He was a compassionate friend, and was so pleased with my work on the Vote on HighRise Coloring Book, that he tried to hire me away from my managerial positions in the performing arts world, but I was determined to stay. As one of the great cultural capitals of the world, New york City beckoned me to return, and I did. But Alvin and I stayed in touch, either having lunch in San Francisco on my work trips there, or in Manhattan on his work trips East.”
His anti-highrise initiative, Proposition T, limiting the height of buildings to 72 feet lost — only 37.8% of voters approved it in 1971, but his full-page newspaper ads publicly denouncing turning San Francisco into "a skyline of tombstones” and predicting “The Manhattanization of San Francisco,” with dramatic photos comparing the previous San Francisco to its current skyline were making San Franciscans think about the power they had to control the future. Undaunted, in June of 1972 his second anti-highrise initiative that would limit heights to 60 feet also lost, but 43.2% of voters approved. Encouraged by that gain, he announced that he would launch a third campaign, this time limiting the height to 50 feet, but that was not to be.
The Board of Supervisors finally stepped in, limiting high-rise buildings to the downtown area, in the long run many of Duskin’s ideas were adopted. “He has been enormously influential through the years,” Brugmann said.
“I was a child of the Depression,” Duskin said, “and I grew up in the city along the southern part, in the San Bruno Avenue/Portola District. That was certainly a working class, Jewish neighborhood, Jews and Italians and Maltese were who were in the neighborhood … And the house that my folks built for $15,000 during the Second World War is now on the market for about 800 thousand. So, who can live there?”
In 1971 to 1981, 65 high- rise buildings with 30 million square feet of office space were built here. But city officials is estimated that in the next 15 years, 85 more high rises with 25 million square feet of space will be built. Prop M passed in Nov 1986 - limiting approvals of new office space to 950,000 sq ft annually.
Duskin sold his business in 1971 to spend his time on a wide range of liberal and environmental causes and organizations, including anti-war demonstrations in the City and in Marin County. He delayed the construction at Yerba Buena Center to assure housing for displaced South-of-Market residents. He bought a house near Carmel next door to Saul Alinsky, then accepted a position with Alinsky to establish a school in Berkeley for community organizers and became manager of non-profit ad firm, Public Interest Communication.
He organized a statewide initiative to limit the development of nuclear power plants in California, which did not pass, but the California legislature included its key provisions in the Nuclear Safeguards Act, which cancelled planned nuclear plants and shut down existing plants. That success led to his appointment as a director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In 1979, Duskin co-founded US Windpower locating one of the first wind farms in the US at Altamont Pass. He went on to found and organize several power plants around the world.
He retired to Tomales, a small town near Pelaluma in Marin County.
“Alvin and I continued to stay in touch,” Perry-Lynn added, “but at some point, Alvin couldn't keep corresponding, even by email. Sara Duskin kindly kept me posted on their life together, how their three children were doing, and the progress Alvin was making on his memoir. Although I was sad when I learned of his death, I knew that Alvin had led a remarkable life, filled with cutting edge political concepts and successful business ventures. I thank Westside Observer for organizing some of our memories so those who did not have the chance to meet Alvin could learn about his drive, his solid work ethic, and his fearless risk taking, but most of all, they would know about his deep love for his native city, San Francisco.”
Doug Comstock, editor of the Westside Observer, extending gratitude to all those who contributed. If I got something wrong, please contact me.