Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman: San Franciscans have a healthy pride in their city. Maybe their pride is a little too healthy sometimes, a little over the top, but they acknowledge this. It’s the natural result of living in the greatest city in the history of the universe, they’ll say, But even the most diehard San Franciscan has to admit, it could be better. Like, if there was a funicular transport suspended from a bridge of soaring towers over the bay connecting downtown San Francisco to Oakland.

Allison: And this basically looks like a blimp that would be attached to the underside of a Bay Bridge that would apparently cross the Bay in five minutes.

Roman: That’s Allison Arieff talking. She writes about design for the New York Times and is a content strategist at SPUR, a member organization dedicated to crafting smart solutions for cities. She and I are looking at an article from the April 17, 1910 edition of the San Francisco Call.

Allison: Fletcher Felts’s proposal with the most amazing headline from The Call building to Oakland City Hall in five minutes, subtitle who put up $16 million so that Fletcher Felts can spend the day with his suspended auto motor railway, which promises to revolutionize all kinds of traffic by rail.

Roman: The article goes on as follows. I’m going to use my old-timey reporter voice here.

It will be a case of on again, off again for you have scarcely made yourself comfortable on your seat when brr-buzz-buzz. You are flying across the bay in midair with the speed of a gun projectile, and almost before you can say Jack Robinson, you have landed in the Athens of the Pacific. Now that’s rather a startling statement, isn’t it? But for Fletcher E. Felts who has looked into the future says, “We are going to have such a railway.” “Oh Pashaw!” you say contemptuously. “It’s only a dream”, which you know, some dreams come true.

Roman: Oh man, they just don’t write them like that anymore, do they?

Allison: Which would have been absolutely amazing if that had happened. This is one that I really wish that happened.

Roman: Exact, exactly.

Allison: This is the Hyperloop of its day. [laughs] And I’m quite sad that it didn’t happen.

Roman: These are stories of the unbuilt structures. A subject which is really captured the imagination of the public recently. Unveiled San Francisco was a series of events and exhibits to explain the things that almost made it and the effect it would have had on the city. And there was also a huge exhibit called Never Built in Los Angeles, exploring the same thing. In the classification of unbuilt structures, I put Fletcher E. Felts says suspended auto motor railway in a group I call, “Jetson’s Shit.”
The retro feature pictures are super cool and they remind us when we used to dream big. But in the parallel universe of unbuilt structures in San Francisco, the big fish that got away, the white whale for the urban planning nerds was a city plan from the creator of the White City.

John: For a pure San Franciscan, the one that got away was the Daniel Burnham plan for San Francisco.

Roman: That San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King. Daniel Burnham was a Chicago architect who oversaw construction of the White City at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

John: That World’s Fair brought about the “City Beautiful” movement in America.

Roman: The City Beautiful movement, with big civic centers and grand neoclassical structures that stir the soul.

John: Burnham years later, did a Chicago plan. He did a Washington plan, which was implemented in a lot of ways.

Roman: Burnham was hired by a big-time downtown business owners of San Francisco to turn this raggedy rickety, but still pretty well-off city into something majestic.

John: Who better to chart the course of the city than Daniel Burnham?

Roman: So Daniel Burnham’s team shows up and they set up shop in a cottage on the highest point, the summit of Twin Peaks, so they can survey the city and craft the perfect plan.

John: And here is this plan on how to take San Francisco, the rich Queen City of the Gold rush and the Silver rush, and so on and so forth, and remake it with this Imperial order, with diagonal boulevards connecting all the different neighborhoods in the city, the main hills, Telegraph Hill, Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks, one or two others turned into these open civic markers, so on and so forth. Basically this city as a work of urban art.

Roman: Burnham turns on the plan to the Civic Fathers in the fall of 1905. You might be able to tell where this is going.

John: There’s a banquet, everyone says, “This is wonderful!” The project is printed up in books to distribute to begin making the case.

Roman: And the legend goes that all the books were delivered to City Hall for distribution on April 17, 1906.

John: Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration but basically, the whole plan was done, printed up, ready for distribution and the 1906 earthquake hits.

Roman: On the very next day, April 18.

John: And the city’s leveled.

Roman: And so this is the opportunity, this is San Francisco’s chance to enact the Imperial Burnham plan.

John: And The Chronicle, which was the big paper at the time embraced it. Everybody said, “This is great, let’s bring out Burnham. This is the way to start.” And everybody blessed it and endorsed it.

Roman: But instantly the plan unraveled.

John: It’s something every city ravaged by disaster has seen. There’s the way to do it, and there’s the way to rebuild quickly. Everyone who had embraced it at first, pretty soon they’re then saying, “Well, the business of San Francisco is getting back to business and rebuilding and showing people things. We don’t have time to do these crazy things.”

Roman: Burnham and his supporters kept trying to do these crazy things from near and far.

John: But none of the real things he proposed stuck at all because they just–what had seemed to be an opportunity for them to be done, in fact, created the pressure just to go back to the way things were. It’s lower Manhattan after 9/11, it’s New Orleans after Katrina… Again, and again and again.

Roman: So those are two things, high speed hanging bullets over the bay and a logical city that we can hold in our imaginations and curse our forebears for being so short-sighted. But quite honestly, a lot of things, in fact, probably most of the things that we don’t decide to build would have been just terrible. I mean, here in the Bay Area alone, there were plenty of near disasters that came this close to becoming a reality, stuff so bad they’ll make you want to reach out and hug and a NIMBY. And the culprit in the most terrible plans for the city was the automobile. They were proposed highway systems that would carve up San Francisco in unimaginable ways. But here they are certainly not alone. The Invisible never built parallel universe bands coast to coast.

Sam: And there are cartographers of these unbuilt worlds.

Roman: Our producer Sam Greenspan spoke with one of them, a guy who calls himself Vanshnookenraggen.

Andrew: I go under the name of Vanshnookenraggen. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s pure gibberish. My actual name is Andrew Lynch.

Sam: Vanshnookenraggen aka Andrew Lynch is a professional realtor and amateur cartographer in New York City. And these maps that he made…

Andrew: They, from first glance, look like Google Maps of New York City. You have the streets and everything.

Roman: If you’ve ever looked at a Google map, you know exactly what this looks like.

Andrew: Gray for the landmass, blue for the water, arterial rose, they’re yellow, if their side streets they’re white.

Sam: It’s just like any other map except–

Andrew: Except that the map you’re looking at isn’t of what’s really there.

Sam: Andrew’s map doesn’t represent what is. It represents what almost was.

Andrew: What I’ve done is to draw what Google Maps would look like if Robert Moses had gotten his way in the mid 20th century.

Sam: Okay, so first, we got to talk about Robert Moses, the true power broker of New York. We know that Robert Moses was the true power broker of New York because the title of Robert Caro’s 1,100 page biography of him is, The Power Broker.

Roman: I’ve read it. It’s so good, it’s daunting but power through it. It really is worth it.

Sam: Robert Moses built bridges and beaches and highways and public housing and he did a lot of the master planning of New York City and its surroundings. He even restructured the city governance. But some of what he’s most famous, or really infamous for, is what didn’t get built. You see, Robert Moses was a man who loved highways.

Andrew: He wanted to build two highways through Manhattan. One through downtown, through Soho and Tribeca, and one through Midtown, just south of 34th Street.

Sam: And that’s what Andrew Lynch has drawn into the Google Map, what those highways would look like today.

Roman: Now, if you’re thinking, “This is totally insane! Who would actually want this massive, gnarled, perpetual traffic jam through Manhattan?” You have to understand what was going on at the time. Manhattan wasn’t made for cars, and a lot of people really wanted them. So just like cities today, they were trying to solve the problem of a city that didn’t function in the modern era. And also, here’s a fun fact, Robert Moses didn’t drive. He had drivers who carted him around and endured the horrible New York traffic for him. So he could just sit in the backseat and gaze out the window at the scenery.

Sam: But for us plebeians, who have to drive ourselves these highways, probably would have inspired no small amount of terrible anxiety. This was a spaghetti network of on and off ramps wrapping themselves around buildings. But real talk, driving them probably wouldn’t have been too much worse than any other giant highway interchange anywhere else.

Roman: And like everywhere else, these highways wouldn’t have worked. We know now that traffic always expands to fill whatever the capacity.

Sam: I mean, maybe you could drive from Manhattan to Jersey, like five minutes faster than you could today. But the real tragedy here wouldn’t have been the failure of the highways mission. It’s the total catastrophe that would have been left underneath.

Roman: The Manhattan expressways would only feel like a slight nuisance if you were in a car, but on the ground, lower Manhattan, in particular, would be almost unrecognizable.

Sam: It just so happened that when I was talking with Andrew, we were in lower Manhattan right on Varick Street. And as he was telling me about all this unbuilt stuff I realized that a lot of these things were mere blocks from where we happen to be. I asked Andrew, if he can give me a tour of what’s not there.

Andrew: Going off, we’re walking South right in front of us would have been, in fact, if we go down a couple blocks, we could like stand right under it. You can hear the street traffic, but it would have been 10 times worse than this. It would have been dark. It would have been like we were approaching a very loud, monstrous creature. It would have been drenched in darkness right now. We’re smelling exhaust. Lots of car noise, you hear that whoosh that you always get next to a highway. There would be these ramps going along the side streets wrapping around building to get from three, four stories in the air, you have to have ramps coming down. It would have the highway itself running down to the West over there. Good luck finding anyone to live or or rent or work there. Everywhere you look, buildings would literally would have just been surrounded by highway-like things.

Voice: A dynamic filth machine.

Sam: It’s a really weird experience trying to like, take a tour of something that isn’t there.

Andrew: It’s you have to have a very active imagination, which I do. But if you want to try it, find like, a highway, just stand under it and then come here and then try to remember what that feels like.

Sam: Back in the real world things are quite nice around Lower Manhattan.

Andrew: Where we’re standing now it’s open. There are trees over there. There are big buildings right here. None of this was here.

Sam: Is a plaza, is it’s a park?

Andrew: It’s a little bit of a plaza. This is a nice diner here. You’ve got shops. We’re looking over there. There are townhouses and tenements that probably are asking way too much for rents because of where we are. That would have nothing, none of this, none of this would be here.

Sam: Which brings us back to Andrew’s map of Robert Moses’s unbuilt Manhattan. I think what’s most striking about these documents is how unstriking they are. With their Google standard grays and blues and yellows. Andrew created a map to show how terrible these things would have been. But in creating the map, he was actually able to see the project. from the planner’s point of view.

Andrew: As I went through cutting across Manhattan before I drew in the highway, I just looked at the swath that I had erased. It was an interesting feeling. I could put myself in Robert Moses’s shoes where I’m not looking at a city while I’m doing that. I’m looking at a map. And because I don’t see the people and I don’t see the homes, I don’t see the buildings, it’s very tempting to just be like, “Okay, you just put it right there” not realizing there’s a building outlined here and I can– I know what that building means. That’s a place that people live, that people go that I’ve been to and now it’s off the map, it doesn’t exist.

Sam: It’s funny to hear you describe your own map with like a degree of animosity.

Andrew: I wanted to put this for the everyday person to look at this and say, “Wow, that would have been terrible. I would have loved to be able to make a Google Street View, like put yourself right there. So you could in this map, stand under the highway, see what it was like, just have this great dark mass above you.

Sam: The story of how all this didn’t come to be is a long one. It often centers around an activist named Jane Jacobs, who led a campaign to keep one of Moses’s highways from destroying her beloved neighborhood: Greenwich Village.

Roman: And there were other factors like the massive cost of those highways that were proposed that kept them from happening as well. But the interesting part, to me, is how that threat, the lower Manhattan expressway, crystallized the story of Jacobs’s neighborhood. It’s almost as if the threat from Moses made Greenwich Village into the place it now seems destined to have become. And that brings us back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Here’s John King and Allison Arieff again.

John: The unbuilt can in fact, start what does happen.

Allison: So if you drive north on the Golden Gate Bridge immediately to your left, as you start to reach the end of the bridge, you see tremendously beautiful hills overlooking the ocean and the bay to the other side. And there’s nothing built on those hills. It’s all natural landscape, and there are people biking and walking, and it’s rolling hills that go all the way out to the headlands.

Roman: And when you see it for the first time, it’s kind of hard to believe that this much open beautiful landscape exists right next to one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Allison: And just kind of remarkable, because obviously, it would be some of the most prime real estate in the area, and in fact, that’s in the 60s what someone attempted to do there.

John: And in the early 60s, a developer thought, “What a great place to build 20,000 homes or so for people who are going to work in San Francisco.”

Roman: It was called Marin Chela.

John: This was not seen as a rapacious idea at the time, this was seen as how business is done.

Roman: It was a massive mix of houses and towers.

John: And it was approved with very little controversy by the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

Roman: But Marin Chela being approved was enough to alarm people and start people reacting to it.

John: And it led to lawsuits. It led to opposition. It led to local cities starting to fight it. When the dust settled, the project did not get built. Apparently, the only thing that was built was the gate that was going to lead to the Marketing Center at the very start of the property.

Roman: So the Golden Gate National Recreation Area was formed out of concern for all the various plans that were being proposed.

John: Marin Chela was blocked, the Sutro Baths Lands End in San Francisco had a proposed kind of Cancun-type resort.

Roman: If you are at all familiar with Lands End in San Francisco where those Sutro Baths ruins are, you know how silly that notion sounds. It is only Cancun as interpreted by the North Pole.

John: There are various projects like that, that what was proposed never got built. But it set the events in motion that, in fact, determine the landscape we have.
What projects like that did in the early 60s is that they were a signal to people who cared about the topography of the Bay Area and the proximity of open space to urbanized space to say, “What are we going to do? We can’t fight every one of these battles that comes along. Is there a holistic way to go about it?” And you had some very smart people who came up with the idea of, “Well, what if there was a national park that could take in all this?”

Roman: And Marin Chela may be unbuilt, but to say that there’s nothing there In the headlands is not seeing the grand thing. San Francisco actually did build for itself and everyone else who visits. What they actually did build over there was the reason we all love it here.

99% Invisible, is Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufleman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Julie Kane of KALW’s audiograph for giving us some San Francisco sounds. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. Winslow P. Kelpfroth

    re: building at the GoldenGateNaturalRecreationArea.
    Much of the area, I think around 4000 acres, north of the Golden Gate Bridge was an army reservation from the 1860s to sometime around 1990, so the idea of building a housing development there in the 1960s would have required much more than the approval of the Marin County supervisors.

  2. The Power Broker is still my all-time favorite wonk read. At the time I was (ironically) commuting by train, and I had to cut the book itself into thirds and use a rubber band to hold the piece I was reading together. God forbid I have to carry that whole tome around with me every day.

  3. Merlin

    I lived in Osaka Japan for ten years. Osaka sports a pretty crazy network of flying highways, and yep: they are traffic snarls. Funny thing is that they do not seem to have spawned that awful ghetto vibe underneath them that you would get in a North American equivalent. At least I do not recall anything like that. Mostly just other, ground-level arterial roadways, or space for playgrounds out of the rain, or bicycle parking areas for subway stops, or even shops and restaurants (izakaya, etc). It’s an awesome city!

  4. Andrea in Phx

    One of my hometown’s Unbuilts is the Mount Hood Freeway that would have ruined the SE Portland of my upbringing.
    My mother is still upset that they (according to her memory) promised that reallocated transportation money to building SE Portland light rail, but didn’t fulfill that promise until 2012 with the Green extension. I wonder how that unbuilt would have changed my life!
    I know here in Phoenix some people wish the I-10 cutting straight through downtown was unbuilt. It’s always interesting to imagine what might have been.

    Thanks for the episode!

  5. I live in Richmond, a city in which the type of destructive highway discussed in this episode was actually built. Downtown, for example is surrounded on three sides by highways. Their construction leveled thousand of homes and business, blighted neighborhoods, and increased suburban sprawl.

    Some cities are starting to destroy these roadways and redevelop them. San Francisco’s Embarcadero is a good example. I hope this type of redevelopment is carried out in Richmond someday. It’s strange that some of the largest visions of today are merely correcting some of the largest visions of yesterday.

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