‘SF89’ Doc Opens the Jewel Box That was San Francisco 30 Years Ago

Ed Johnson, Shari Little, Peter Jacques and Darwin Bell in 1989. (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

That headline, friends and neighbors, is intended to be slightly provocative and completely ironic. Join me, for just 24 hours, in abandoning the tired cliché that the good old days (especially hereabouts) were all that great.

Sure, those of us who’ve lived here for any length of time are convinced that San Francisco used to be a kinder, classier, quirkier and more affordable city. But perhaps that says more about us, and the way human beings react to the inevitability of change, than it says about the city.

“I remember my grandparents doing this in the car,” recalls filmmaker Peter Paul Jacques, who grew up in San Diego before relocating at the beginning of 1989 to study film at San Francisco State. “‘That used to be an ostrich farm.’ I’d go ‘Ugh, who cares, Grandma?’ Then you hit 50 and you go, ‘Ohhhh.’” Jacques’ forthcoming documentary, SF89: San Francisco Before the Internet, excavates and revisits the San Francisco of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a pivotal era in the lives of Jacques and his friends.

Of looking back over a period of massive change, Jacques muses, “What does that do to you inside? I think the theme of change is universal. We romanticize, ‘It used to be so great.’ People come up to me about this film, ‘You’re doing it about San Francisco in the good times.’ Well, it wasn’t that good.” Jacques laughs. “If we weren’t having a major earthquake, there were all kinds of [other] terrible, horrible [things].”

The Loma Prieta earthquake that Jacques is referring to shook, rattled, rocked and rolled every creature in the Bay Area 30 years ago today. It immediately became a national story, thanks to the interrupted broadcast of the third game of the Bay Bridge World Series at Candlestick Park. But it took a good deal longer for locals, and the country, to come to terms with the fact that 63 people lost their lives in quake-related events.

As Jacques notes, it wasn’t the only unexpected tragedy during that period. The month after the quake, a construction crane collapsed at Kearny and California, killing five people. (“My friend John helped pull people out of that,” Jacques says.) The first Gulf War began a year later. (“I was of draft age and they were talking about [reinstating] the draft. We took to the streets.”) The mass shooting at 101 California that left eight people dead occurred three years after that. (“I was down the street,” Jacques notes.)

Of course, for Jacques and his friends, the period was remarkable for quite different reasons. It was a time when a single person could make lattes at a Rincon Center shop for minimum wage and afford rent, food and their nightly drinks at the neighborhood bar. (Jacques lived at Steiner and Fell, for those of you keeping score at home.)

Vikki Krekler and Peter Jacques in 1989.
Vikki Krekler and Peter Jacques in 1989. (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

The late ’80s and early ’90s, for him, marked that crucial period in a young person’s life that they think will continue forever. Jacques’ circle of friends were primarily artists, which is to say experimenters and collaborators. Since creative energy, by its nature, is impulsive rather than strategic, nobody was particularly concerned at the time with the future—or the past.

Let’s not forget, though, that even then there were folks warning that chain stores were paving over San Francisco’s history and violating its character. I lived at Oak and Ashbury in 1988—just before Jacques arrived—and was awakened one September morning by sirens and smoke. A Thrifty drugstore under construction on Haight Street was in flames, and the tenor of the times was such that it was instantly assumed that an opponent of soulless corporate expansion had torched the building. (It turned out to be arson, in fact.)

The bigger point is that whenever you moved to San Francisco, and stepped into the stream that is the ebb, flow and change of a city, that’s your frame of reference.

“Someone told me about a book or an article written in 1859 about 1849 saying, ‘That was the real San Francisco,’” Jacques remarks. “I would say that that is the same everywhere, not just in San Francisco. Any big city has a lore. And whenever you arrive, someone says, ‘Kid, you missed it.’

“We were talking about doing [the film] in the form of chapters, and one of the chapters I originally wrote was, ‘You Missed It.’ I started interviewing people about that and I didn’t get a lot of reaction. ‘I don’t remember anyone telling me that.’ Gee, I do. Maybe you weren’t listening.”

Jacques has been developing SF89: San Francisco Before the Internet for several years, his thinking and vision for the project evolving along the way. While he largely relies on interviews with friends and acquaintances from the pre- and post-quake period, he’s clear about the need to reach a cross-generational audience—which means resisting the pitfall of the siren song of nostalgia.

The corner of Market and Stockton in 1992.
The corner of Market and Stockton in 1992. (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

“There is a type of documentary that I don’t want to make—and there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that I want to do something more—and it’s ‘let’s go down Memory Lane.’ What I want to do is something about the emotion of change, and watching it and being part of it, and one minute you’re the younger generation and for way longer you’re not.”

Jacques recently completed his last round of interviews, and he’s about to immerse himself in postproduction. Documentaries have a way of shifting their focus in the editing room, as a different story—or a more urgent theme—emerges out of the one the filmmaker conceived. But he imagines a structure in which the past and the present can coexist.

“The film could have the veneer of fun nostalgia, because I think that’s going to draw people to want to see it,” he says. “That’s what I would come for. Lead them in with that, then give them something more nutritious: Let’s put it in the context of life and the world. Everybody has a San Francisco. It’s the one you found when you got here.”

Still of Leigh Crow interview from 'SF89.'
Still of Leigh Crow interview from 'SF89.' (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

It’s that last bit that gives SF89: San Francisco Before the Internet the potential ability to go beyond Jacques’ peers—let’s call them the ’89ers—and speak to San Francisco’s newest arrivals.

“I think a lot of times young people aren’t listening,” Jacques says. “We’re all, ‘It’s ours!’ and you reach your arms around and you grab it and ‘San Francisco is this and this and this and this.’ Then the next generation comes along and theirs is slightly different. So there’s that friction: ‘We don’t do that here.’ And the younger generation says, ‘Well, we do now.’”

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