Let Them Eat Yachts

The once-proud city of San Francisco is on the verge of turning its storied public waterfront into a west coast playground and cash cow for the idle rich, now more popularly known as the One Percent.   America’s Cup is coming to town.

“America’s Cup.”   It has an odd ring to it.  It’s not a familiar sports appellation like the World Series of baseball, the Superbowl of football, World Cup of soccer, or even the Stanley Cup of hockey.  That’s because “America’s Cup” is a trophy passed back and forth between private yacht clubs inhabited by wealthy people.    The Cup originated in an 1851 race staged by English blue bloods and American robber barons who belonged to exclusive all-white yacht clubs.  The yacht clubs became the enabling organizations for the wealthy to race their boat toys against each other.  Naturally, as a class that relies on the hard work of others to produce wealth for itself, the hard work of the actual racing of the boat toys was done by hired hands.  No one expected Lord Bob or Mister Monopoly to get out there on the deck and take in sail.

From the very beginning, America’s Cup was inextricably tied to that rogues gallery of sociopaths who amassed vast fortunes from the exploitation of workers and resources while enjoying the protection of the politicians they bought and sold like stocks.  JP Morgan. Vanderbilt.  Rockefeller.   Names that live in infamy in the memory of anyone with a conscience.  The tricked-out sailing vessels they commissioned were merely extensions of their insatiable egos.  They also collected race horses, governors, and mansions (one of Vanderbilt’s was aptly called “Idle Hours”), as their wives collected furs, servants and diamond studded collars for their dogs.  Mark Twain dubbed the period the “Gilded Age,” because its thin veneer of plating was not thick enough to conceal the prevalence of avarice and corruption underneath.

By the end of the 20th century, the Cup races, which had stumbled through the century with as much as eighteen-year gaps between events, suddenly expanded into regular matches and rematches between the ever-private yacht clubs (most of the clubs are still called the “royal” this or that) and added venues like San Diego, Auckland and Valencia.  With the phenomenal growth of cable television and its voracious need for twenty four hours of sports, even rich people’s sail boats attracted an audience, but it was still nowhere near a Sunday morning NFL game.  The game changer happened when Larry Ellison, a billionaire poster boy for the One Percenters sponsored a team that won the 33rd Cup in Valencia.

Flush from his victory, Ellison called up San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and said something like: “I’m the sixth-richest man in the world.  I’ll fix up some of your piers, race my boats, and when the race is over, I’ll keep some of the waterfront.  Sound like a deal?”  (Actually, the proposal was similar to the late Warren Hellman’s music festival deal in which the City gave him Golden Gate Park to indulge his banjo-playing hobby.  The big difference is that Hellman didn’t get to keep part of the Park at the end of his festival.)

In his waning months as mayor, Newsom–ever the errand boy for the super rich–cobbled together a committee to facilitate corporate funding for the project and move the sweetheart agreement along.  The America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC) included all the Usual Suspects in the City’s power elite:  vulture capitalists like Tom Perkins and  Hellman; denizens of the Downtown Gang like real estate predator Tom Coates, who had contributed one million dollars to the statewide initiative to eliminate rent control;  the Pacific Heights layabout, Dede Wilsey, who ironically coughed five grand to help pass Newsom’s anti homeless no-sitting/ no-laying on the sidewalk ordinance ; Old Retainers like George Shultz, whose questionable achievements include Bechtel, the Iran Contra scandal, and the discredited Committee for the Liberation of Iraq;  Bob Fisher, whose retail giant GAP was built on sweatshop sweat, and reps from super corps like Wells Fargo and AT &T.

Also added in honorary political seats were perennial incumbents Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, whose accomplishments include enriching themselves in office, which is a common  activity in Washington.  For Ellison, Feinstein delivered the America’s Cup Act of 2011–signed last November by President Obama– which waived laws which prohibited foreign vessels to operate in American waters.  Pelosi, who was Speaker of the House during the Great Wall Street Bailout, is no stranger to privatizing property that belongs to the public.  She participated in the process that gave away San Francisco’s Presidio several years ago.

So, what does the non-profit (ha-ha-ha up your sleeve) ACOC do with the funding it raises?   Well, it funnels it to Larry Ellison’s private management team, the America’s Cup Event Authority.  The ACEA is the vehicle through which the One Percenters pocket financial rights to a large chunk of San Francisco’s extremely lucrative waterfront properties.    In return for Ellison’s chump-change makeover of some of the waterfront for his event, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the latest version of the Host City Agreement gives the ACEA Seawall Lot 330 and “the rights to leases of at least 10 years and rent credit on four piers depending on the money it spends improving port infrastructure.”  For a minimum $55 million infrastructure investment by the ACEA, Ellison gets development rights and a 66-year-rent-free lease on Piers 30-32, and if he spends a little more pocket change, he gets reimbursement “ in the form of bond proceeds, then credit to lease Piers 26, 28, and, ultimately, 29, according to a draft of the deal.”

Already, the vultures are descending.  Last month, JPMorgan Asset Management (sound familiar?) gobbled up a 902,000 square foot complex in China Basin Landing for $415 million.  (Those taxpayer-funded bailouts came in handy in the world of the idle rich.)

Oh, but America’s Cup will provide jobs, the hucksters proclaim loudly.   And tourists!  Well, we’ve all heard that one before.  What’s new is the hilarious claim that San Francisco needs an obscure boat race to attract tourists during the summer.

The Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915 also promised “thousands” of jobs in San Francisco, some of which actually materialized.  For those workers who were left out of this capitalist bonanza, Joe Hill, the immortal IWW songwriter, penned these words to the tune of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.”

Bill Brown came a thousand miles to work on Frisco Fair
All the papers said a million men were wanted there
Bill Brown hung around and asked for work three times a day,
Til finally he went busted flat, then he did sadly say,
It’s a long way down to the soupline,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way down to the soupline
And the soup is weak I know.
Goodbye, good old pork chops,
Farewell beefsteak rare,
It’s a long way down to the soupline,
But my soup is there.

As the recession deepens for the ninety nine per cent, the souplines are growing longer in the City of Saint Francis.   The Human Services Agency reports that 33,798 residents receive food stamps, up 61% from two years ago.  Housing foreclosures are averaging 3,000 a year over the past four years according to Realtytrac, and there are nearly 7,000 homeless men, women and children living in the city.  San Francisco’s ratio of homeless people to the general population is higher than that of New York or Chicago.  (Don’t worry, America’s Cup patrons, the SFPD will sweep those bothersome people away before your boat toys arrive, just like they did for Mayor Feinstein for her party’s national convention in 1984.)

In the City of Saint Francis, over 100,000 people live in the government’s definition of poverty, which is a basic subsistence level living.  According to the Center for Community Economic Development, “to meet the basic expenses for a family of three, one would need to work more than 3 full-time minimum wage jobs.”   I suppose the whole family could work full time bussing tables at minimum wage for the gentry eating $25 sandwiches on Ellison’s pretty new waterfront and maybe the child—school? what school?–could do a little overtime to meet the extra expenses.

So, San Francisco’s inestimably expensive waterfront is up for sale cheap to the One Percenters, yet another welfare program for the super rich.  What do the people of San Francisco get?   Not a single buck in the deal for the ninety nine per cent.  Not even four-bits for affordable housing.  Not even two-bits for schools or libraries.  Not even a dime for healthcare.  Not even a nickel for someone living on the streets.

This is the waterfront of the legendary 1934 Strike which changed American labor history.  This was the Strike where workers bravely stood up to the One Percent’s strike-breakers, who were backed up by the police and the National Guard. This was the Strike that became the General Strike after the SFPD shot to death two strikers, Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry.  This was the Strike that brought decent wages and working conditions to millions of workers over the following half century.

If logic prevailed, the proper site for America’s Cup would be the Cayman Islands, where the idle rich hide their money to avoid taxes.  Switzerland would be another likely candidate, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a coast line.  So, the boat toys of the One Percenters will probably sail in San Francisco Bay because the local political spine usually withers when it comes face to face with Big Money.  And, at that point, the One Percenters can say about the rest of us, “let them eat yachts.”

Don Santina is a cultural historian whose grandfather, Humphrey O’Leary, was a participant in the 1934 General Strike.  He can be reached at lindey89@aol.com.

Don Santina’s latest novel, “A Bullet for the Angel,” is a noir tale of murder and gentrification in 1959 San Francisco. He can be reached at lindey89@aol.com.