Multiple-Unit Buildings: Invisible Homes, Visible Publics, Derisible Lives

Historical Essay

by Richard Walker

Originally published in Ecumene, 1995, Volume 2 Number 1

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The Cadillac Hotel at Eddy and Leavenworth in San Francisco's Tenderloin, built after the earthquake and fire and opened in 1907.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

A thoroughly neglected residential type in American cities are multiple-unit buildings serving as hotels, apartments, flats and rooming houses. Multiples allow the highest density of dwelling and serve as housing for single people, people on the move, the young, the elderly, those of modest means, and non-conforming families. Cutting against the grain of American bourgeois ideals of home, propriety and familialism, they have been the outcasts of urban housing, denied even the name of ‘home’ fit and proper, cordoned off from single-family zones of residence, and targeted for demolition in vast numbers. The multiples and their accompanying way of life have not been an upper-class project in the same way as Victorian and suburban homes, and have suffered for their transgressions, yet apartment and hotel districts constitute perhaps the most vital ecology in the urban landscape, and give the inner Bay Area its continuing sense of urbanity. (36)

San Francisco still has 56 percent of its housing units in apartments and flats and 17 per cent in hotel rooms. (37) The city's reputation as a vital and attractive place rests heavily on its apartment and hotel districts, which fill up the whole of its northeast quadrant (coating the flanks of Nob, Russian and Telegraph hills from the Van Ness corridor east and Market Street north, as well as several blocks south of Market). This is all that most tourists ever see, the charming city of cable cars, street life and public entertainment. Here the building stock consists overwhelmingly of three- to six-storied buildings. Just north of Market, the Tenderloin boasts the largest concentration of hotels, including both luxury tourist and a multitude of long-term residential hotels, many cheap single-room occupancy lodgings. Other tourist clusters can be found downtown and near Fisherman's Wharf, and Chinatown is packed with residential hotels. Residential hotels make up 40 per cent of the city's 600-plus hotels and almost 50,000 hotel rooms.

San Francisco has always been a city of transients, tourists and tenants, more so than any other American city. (38) South of Market and the Western Addition used to count scores of working-class rooming houses, but most were not rebuilt after the fire or have been torn down. Out in the Victorian neighborhoods lying just outside the fire line (the Western Addition, Hayes Valley and the Haight-Ashbury) most large old homes were rapidly subdivided into flats soon afterward. The northeast core of hotels and apartments was rebuilt virtually as a piece after 1906, far more densely than it had been before. So many multiples were built at this time that the foldaway bed came to be named after San Francisco's Murphy company. Meant expressly for multiple-unit housing, these buildings incorporated the latest standards in construction, utilities and layout. Good apartments offered a scaled-down version of the modern house, complete with ‘kitchenette’ and full private bathroom. The smaller buildings on the northern flank of the hills are wood (often stuccoed), while the larger ones on the southern flank of Nob Hill are usually brick. Stylistically, many of the smaller buildings appear to be stripped-down Victorians, thanks to retention of the ubiquitous bay window.

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Victorian flats at Liberty and Church, just uphill from the famous golden fire hydrant that "saved the city" during the 1906 fire.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Outside San Francisco areas of multiple homes are to be found, as well. Downtown Oakland was once rich in hotels, few of which survive. Apartment buildings have fared better, and still rim Lake Merritt and the surrounding hillsides. Berkeley’s student population always supported a large number of lodging houses and hotels, especially around Telegraph Avenue, but the town became much denser in the war and postwar era when old houses were broken up into apartments, rented out as group homes, or torn down by the hundreds for in-fill apartment buildings. Every major automobile corridor in the region (such as the El Camino and Bayshore Freeway corridors on the Peninsula) is blessed with legions of old California motels from the 1920s to 50s and slap-up apartments of the 1950s to 70s. Silicon Valley is bursting with apartment buildings along its industrial arteries, though little remains of San Jose's downtown residential hotels after thoroughgoing urban renewal. And today new nodes of residential density are popping up in response to rising land values, the squeeze on incomes, and new-found prosperity around some retail centers (such as old downtown Mountain View in Silicon Valley or the Highway 680 hub of Walnut Creek in the East Bay).

Residential hotels and apartments burst on the Bay Area scene in the 1890s. Most rentals before that time were rooming and boarding houses, often the homes of workers and widows. Up to the end of the 1920s, multiples became a major outlet for property investors operating around the cores of large cities (George Smith and Edward Rolkin made millions on hotels, luxury and flophouse, respectively). Construction of multiple dwellings occurred as part of a general concentration of people, employment and capital in urban centers of the time. This was not a simple continuation of the nineteenth-century city, but the high tide of urban concentration. Downtown was less densely populated earlier in the nineteenth century and became so again later in the twentieth century. The dense central city was no more the natural order of capitalist cities than present-day sprawl. Its apotheosis was the product of at least four things: the splitting off of corporate offices and the building of skyscrapers; the radial trolley systems focusing large commuting fields; big department stores concentrating retailing; and mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe fuelling garment factories, workshops, cheap hotels and overcrowded tenements. Under such circumstances capitalism was congruent with dense urbanism.

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Single-room Occupany Hotels on Eddy Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin, 2014.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Hotels led the way, with apartment buildings overtaking them by the First World War; in the 1920s apartments passed up single-family homes as well. These were often of very high quality, with names such as The Normandy, as developers jockeyed for respect with single-family dwellings. After the collapse of 1929, the residential hotel market revived during the Second World War, then dried up. Apartment building did not enjoy another burst until the 1960s, when their numbers again caught up with single-family homes (in California apartments peaked in 1963, six years earlier than the rest of the country). A glut of single-family homes and growing legions of students and young people striking out on their own tilted demand towards low-priced apartments; tax breaks accelerated the trend. LA-style 'dingbats' became the rage—drab slabs on sticks v.ith garages underneath, thin walls, poor heating, and doors opening directly onto outside breezeways. Thus, in each of the long waves of growth in this century, stand­alone houses did best in the early years, only to be overtaken by apartments. Shrinkage of house size also accompanied this squeeze on single-family dwellings, as did feverish efforts to rationalize house building and the layout of large-scale developments; total housing starts fell off by the 1920s and 1960s, as well.(39) Investment in multiples came in waves that were sharper and shorter than upturns in the construction of single-family houses. In both long waves, long term overaccumulation and falling rates of profit afflicted the property sector, as well as the whole economy. (40)

Ellis Street apartment building, 2014; Photo: Chris Carlsson

Hotel and apartment districts are notable for the urban life they support. When one's house is small, as Paul Groth has observed, home life stretches out along the street: dining in a neighborhood eatery, reading in a coffee shop, playing in an arcade, going out to the movies. Here lies the everyday substrate for a public life in urban places, making for congregations of people, assemblages of diverse activities, and the flow of feet along the pavement. The Great White Ways such as Market, Mission, and Fillmore Streets in San Francisco—major commercial streets packed with movie palaces, retail emporia, pool halls, cafeterias and dance halls depended heavily on the traffic from the denizens of the multiples. Mission Street, Grant Avenue, Upper Market and Columbus Avenue still bristle with vitality thanks to dense neighborhoods of Central Americans, Chinese, gays and bohemians. For Berkeley and Oakland, Telegraph and Broadway Avenues and 7th Street, respectively, played the same role (though only Telegraph still does).

These commercial zones of dense housing, cheap entertainment and public life have served as the great free spaces of the city, the key nodes of urbanism in the sense of promiscuous of diverse people, activities and ideas. They provide the moving panorama enjoyed by Baudelaire's flaneur; the porous spaces in which flourish the experimental lives of the bohemians, or their more recent equivalents, beatniks, jazzmen, hippies, gays, punks; and the gathering spots for political rebels and public intellectuals. (41) San Francisco has been particularly rich in such public spaces, and that cannot be separated from its vibrancy, attractiveness, and repeated use as a launching pad for social experimentation.

The most populous inner-city districts waxed fat after 1880 on a multitude of workers drawn from two broad classifications: white-collar workers such as traveling salesmen, clericals in offices and sales women in shops and departments stores, and migrant and itinerant workers such as sailors, dockers, construction tradesmen, day laborers, and harvest workers. San Francisco as a burgeoning business center and retail emporium, employed thousands of low-end white-collar workers, including a large number of women. The city was also the central labor depot for the extractive industries of the entire west and the Pacific trade routes well into the twentieth century; huge numbers of transient workers returned year after year to the same cheap hotels and friendly environs of the streets. (42)

Such concentrations of working people have always posed a threat to bourgeois tranquility. A restless working class can periodically erupt in riots, as in the 1870s anti-Chinese mobs, or support opposition politics, as in the Union Labor Party victories in the 1900s, or gather itself into organized opposition, as in the General Strike of 1934. Just as insidious was the style of living enjoyed by the young, single, footloose, homosexual, or promiscuous—in short, all those who do not fit the nuclear family norm. In 1910, San Francisco had 25 per cent of its people living in non-family residences, far more than in New York or Chicago. (43) To such people, many of whom are in open flight from oppressive family, patriarchy, rural and suburban life, the city offers, ironically, greater privacy, tolerance, and the freedom of public anonymity, whether a sexually liberated youth culture or a commercialized landscape of personal desire. The downtown districts allowed young women, in particular, a measure of liberation they could not find elsewhere; one could even find abortion clinics in early hotels. (44) On the darker side, droves of single men fed an undercurrent of vice associated with alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Dense urban life flew in the face of the conservative cult of family values that has been a guiding beacon of American politics from the Jacksonian era to the Reagan age, resulting in ritual condemnations by the guardians of order of the evils of hobos and vagrants, the dangerous classes, the Barbary Coast and Skid Row, the rowdy commercial thoroughfares. A moral and political counteroffensive began as soon as the hotel and apartment districts went up at the turn of the century, reaching a fever pitch by the flapper era of the 1920s. (45) Although Settlement House workers were sympathetic to the plight of the working poor, Progressive era reformers mostly railed against the sins of density and urban popular culture. The discourse of planning is replete with terms of censure for areas of forbidden housing: 'urban blight' where single-family homes had been turned into rental housing, 'the slum' for working class and immigrant neighborhoods, 'zone of transition' for the hotel and apartment districts, and 'congestion' as the central ill of the teeming city. (46) The pioneer urban sociologists came to the task blinkered by small-town ideas of sociability that mistook urban anonymity and energy with alienation and psychological disorders. Decongestion, the single-family home, and suburban spaces became the mantra of twentieth-century bourgeois ideology towards the city. Activists like San Francisco's Simon Lubin could not hold back the flood of multiple-unit buildings up, as yet, but they could throw a cordon sanitaire around the downtown to protect the outer regions of single-family homes. Nonetheless, the moral discourse of family, home and suburban life proved to be a great resource in taming capitalism’s taste for cities. (47)

The Great Depression dealt a body blow to downtown built around great department stores, streetcars, pedestrian throngs and hotel districts. Investment dried up for the multiples, the movie palaces, the trolley lines, and the rest, all of which had been vastly overcapitalized in the excesses of the 1920s. Manufacturing was devastated by the crisis, and when it revived after the war, new plants opened up far out in the metropolitan periphery, often in entirely new lines of business such as electronics. At the same time, changing labor processes and labor markets reduced the number of migratory laborers in construction, agriculture, forestry, and on the docks. These employment patterns robbed the cheap hotel districts of most of their young, leaving a residue of old men and women, and the mentally infirm, which further lowered the social standing of marginal residential zones. (48) Jobs remaining in the city often became more stable and well-paid, thanks to the growth of unionism after 1935, and this gave the industrial working class unprecedented buying power to expend on new and better houses. Federal housing and tax policies were put into place in the New Deal that confirmed home ownership and the single-family home as a national goal. Women, meanwhile, were sent back to the kitchen and nursery after the war. The suburbs were positioned to sweep away all competition. Tracts triumphed over transience. (49)

The postwar era engendered a mad rush away from the central city, as home seekers found bargains for the asking and capital found profits for the plucking, and financiers greased the wheels of suburbanization with the backing of the Federal government. The Second World War brought a flood of workers into Bay Area and extended the life of the old, vibrant city; but it also added more Blacks and anti-Asian sentiment to the racist boiler, turning up the moral pressure against the promiscuity of human intercourse in the urban setting. So the reformers redoubled their efforts to cleanse the city of its slums and to yolk the working classes to home and hearth. Just as the American ruling class declared permanent Cold War on communism it unleashed a war of attrition on the cities of the United States, a war on urbanity, on the poor, on the working class. No explanation in terms of economic forces alone can capture the forces assembled behind suburbanization and against the survival of the central cities in this country. A class project was launched to undo an epoch of city-building and impose a different moral and spatial order—just as was done at the dawn of the Victorian and Ecotopian eras—and those whose plans did not fit this mold would feel the brunt of class power as surely as the victims of the Committees of Vigilance.

The assault on the old downtowns was planned in the 1940s and begun in earnest after 1950. The bulldozers were unleashed with military efficiency on the city's weakest constituencies. Down came the old waterfront dives. Down came Skid Row. Down came half of West Oakland. Down came the Western Addition, after Geary Boulevard and freeway onramps cut it into pieces. Up went the concrete traffic jetties over the uncharted sea of working-class San Francisco and Oakland. Down came Market Street's Fox Theater, grandest of all movie palaces. Down went BART into the bowels of the earth, leaving retailers gasping for customers. Down came the tawdry signs of the Path of Gold, and up went proper brick benches and street trees. Down came the heart of Fillmore Street. (50) This was modernism at its most destructive. It was high­handed, totalizing in vision, and delighted by the summary execution of the past. But was it rationalist or enlightened? Quite the contrary, it was based on almost total ignorance of the city and its people, moral zealotry of the kind associated with religious fanatics, and reactionary opposition to the liberatory tendencies in the capitalist city. The bourgeoisie, trying to prove that capitalism and the city were not synonymous, dismantled the downtown to save its soul. (51)

Miraculously, San Francisco survived the onslaught, thanks largely to the massive, cross-class protest movement against demolition and freeways. Russian Hill élites fighting the Embarcadero freeway joined forces with poor old men south of Market whose hotels were being razed. Chinatown never fell to the wrecker’s ball. North Beach provided a home for the beat, and held off the advancing wall of downtown highrises (even though the Montgomery Block, bastion of the old bohemians, fell, as did the International Hotel, home of the Hungry I, Beats like Lawrence Ferlinghetti were there to protest). Bill Graham made the old Fillmore Auditorium into the west coast home of rock and roll. The hippies took over the derelict Haight, after the Panhandle freeway was stopped, and deadheads still abound there. Most Tenderloin hotels still stand, thanks to rent and conversion control, and are now home to a thriving community from Southeast Asia. Mission Street’s merchants continue to proclaim their wares from a thousand marquees, now in Spanish. In the East Bay, Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue still gathers together the currents of young ambitions and discontents by the thousands each day. Oakland's heart was cut out by freeways and redevelopment, but the Chinatown and Lakeshore districts have revived thanks to Asian newcomers and the African-American middle class. Thus, to a surprising degree, the city of multiples lives on in the face of the arch hostility of a 'nation of homeowners'. Despite the postwar supernova of suburban growth, San Francisco and the inner Bay Area retain much of the tradition of living densely, publicly, freely—of urbanism as a way of life. This is why it feels the most European of any American city.

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36. On hotels see P. Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994), whom I thank profusely for letting me see his manuscript as it went to press; many of the ideas in this section are due to his reading of the early twentieth-century city. On apartments, see J. Hancock, ‘The apartment house in urban America,’ in A. King, ed., Buildings and Society (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 151-89; and Elizabeth Cromley, Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990). A hotel offers rooms by the day, week or month, often with shared baths, toilets and dining rooms, and has on-site management and services (except the cheapest flophouses). Apartments have their own bathrooms and kitchens (or kitchenettes) and often separate entrances. Flats are rental units carved out of houses, usually occupying a floor each. Small establishments were generally known as lodging houses before the First World War, rooming houses later.
37. Of 280,000 units, 156,000 are apartments, 28,000 tourist hotel rooms and 19,000 residential hotel rooms. Data from San Francisco Planning Department. Hotel rooms peaked around 1915, when there were 65,000 in all.
38. Nineteenth-century observers remarked on the large number of people living in hotels and eating in restaurants, but the numbers do not exist to prove the case. The number of rooming houses in 1900 was higher than most eastern cities, as was the case throughout the west. The figures remain high right through the twentieth century (Groth, Living downtown).
39. On the first property long wave, see Weiss, Community builders. On the second wave, see E. Eichler, The merchant builders' (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1982). Evidence suggests that the same late boom in apartments can be found in the Victorian era, too.
40. See G. Dumenil and D. Levy, The economics of the profit rate: competition, crises, and historical tendencies in capitalism (Aldershot, Edward Elgar, 1993); and F. Moseley, The falling rate of profit in the postwar US economy (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992).
41. Russell Jacoby, The last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe (New York, Basic Books, 1987) makes a compelling case against the loss of such urban spaces. 42. On the growing numbers of women in sales and clerical work downtown, see S. Benson, Counter cultures: saleswomen, managers and customers in American department stores (Urbana and Chicago, University of lllinois Press, 1986); M. Davies, A woman’s place is at the typewriter: office work and office workers, 1870-1930 (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1982); and E. Rotella, From home to office: US women at work, 1870-1930 (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1981). There is not, to my knowledge, any significant work on migratory labor in the west.
43. Data from 1910 manuscript census, thanks to Phil Ethington, History Department, University of Southern California. Conversely, 95 per cent of San Francisco homeowners (living mostly in the outer districts of small homes) were married and 81 per cent had children in 1900 (Groth, Living downtown). Flats also tend to be more family-oriented than apartments and hotels.
44. On working women living in the city, see Joanne Meyerowitz, Holding their own: working women apart from family in Chicago (unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of History, Stanford University, 1983).
45. Groth. Living Downtown. On the fear of women’s freedom in cities, see E. Wilson, The sphinx and the city (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991). On the American cult of the family, see S. Coontz, The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap (New York, Basic Books, 1992).
46. Such terms easily overlapped, as when the crucial Conference on Housing and Home Ownership of 1930, called by President Hoover to determine urban policy, cited cheap hotels and entertainment districts as their chief example of 'urban blight'.
47. On the tenor of US urban reform over the years, see R. Walker, The suburban solution: capitalist urbanization in the United States (unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, John Hopkins University, 1977). On the discourse of the early twentieth century, see Groth, Living downtown; R. Fischler, Standards of Development (unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley, 1993). R. Beauregard, Voice of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities (Cambridge, MA; Blackwell, 1993). Compare this with Edward Bellamy, the Utopian author of Looking Backward, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who were proponents of dense, multiple living in cities. On the preference of many women for denser urban living, see M. Marsh, ‘From separation to togetherness: the social construction of domestic space in American suburbs, 1840-1915.’ Journal of American History 16, 2 (1989), pp. 506-27; and D. Hayden, The grand domestic revolution: a history of feminist designs for American homes, neighborhoods, and cities (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1987).
48. Cf. C. Hoch and R. Slayton, New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1989). And in the 1960s and 70s, some 30,000 mental patients were unloaded from the state hospitals to the inner cities with little provision for continuing care.
49. No one, to my knowledge, has worked out the economic changes in the urban base in the 1930s and 40s. On changes in Federal urban policy, see M. Gelfand, A nation of cities: the Federal government and urban America, 1933-1975 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1975); and Walker, Suburban solution.
50. On the destruction of San Francisco and Oakland, see C. Hartman, The transformation of San Francisco (Totowa, NJ, Rowman and Allenheld, 1984); and E. Hayes, Power structure and urban policy: who rules Oakland? (New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972). A key planning document was the work of the estimable Mel Scott, later to become an environmentalist. See M. Scott, Western Addition District: an exploration of the possibilities of replanning and rebuilding one of San Francisco's largest blighted districts. (San Francisco, Department of City Planning, 1947).
51. See M. Berman, All that is solid melts into air (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982) on modernity, urban renewal and the bourgeois fear of dealing with the devil (from Goethe's Faust onwards).