Mapping Open Waters


The relation between land, sea, and landfill long provided something of a dilemma of cartographical rendering in the Bay Area, mirroring the fluid relationship that has long existed between land and sea.  But if fluidity of the shore was less understood in terms of erosion, global warming, coastal flooding, and king tides, the human fiction–and graphical statement–of the map provided a supple too to engage with the question of the shifting contours of land and sea in the years after John Reber sought to expand the landfill of West Berkeley to extend into the San Francisco Bay, in a forgotten monument of post-war engineering that maps provided a compelling tool of collective action to forestall the restriction of the San Francisco Bay–and of its habitat–that might have been, by dramatically shrinking its size through a massive addition of bay fill that effectively re-engineered the bay into freshwater lakes transformed the harbor to housing tracts.

While the image of the proposed project for narrowing the San Francisco Bay with landfill has been long forgotten, it marked a striking rhetorical redeployment of an engineering plan to stir up public opposition to the narrowing of the harbor with bay fill that John Weber had enthusiastically advocated since the late 1950s into a movement protecting the open waters as a unique open environmental space.  The transformation of a harbor that had been designed by the predominantly commercial mandates of a harbor was transformed into an ideal the aesthetic protection of open waters through the unexpected power of how the image of a lost landscape was evoked by the proposed augmentation of landfill additions that would allow the expansion of San Francisco and Berkeley as cities that could be traversed by cars; if Weber believed that the project he long championed would correct the “geographic mistake” by which the bay fragmented a master-plan for the region, seeking to shrink saltwater influx that had interrupted the expansion of a metropolis that would link Oakland and San Francisco. Reber may have compensated for his lack of formal education by his adherence to maps in his persistent promoting and continued evangelism of his vision of urban modernization of the Bay, relying on the plan as a theatrical device to accommodate the “geographic mistake” by the expansion of paved areas, locks, roads, and viaducts Robert Moses-style.


Reber_via_Anika_Erdmann_Flickr_16626562572_49a887de93_o-e1428968551652.jpgReber gestures to the proposed area to be filled in San Francisco Bay


But the ultimate rejection of his plan came as the very image that proposed the effects of bay fill-reduced open waters was re-presented to invite viewers to consider the definitively changed relation to place that such a massive public works construction would create.  For the map, reprinted beneath the three words “Bay or River?,” linked text and image to trigger resistance to the new relation to space that the disappearance of the Bay’s open waters  would have implied.  It prompted resistance to crystallize against the proposed public works projects to add bay fill to replace the saltwater active harbor with that would promote the expansion of urban spread and forever change the lived setting of the region.  The addition of a simple interrogative invited viewers to imagine the landscape that they desired, “Bay or River?” not only attracted more immediate attention than any of REber’s maps but mobilized opposition to the effects of encroachment with the force of a public polemic of preserving an aesthetic–rather than only commercial–landscape.

At the same time as growing public awareness was directed to the mitigation of water pollution as discharging raw sewage and pollution into harbors and rivers diminished as a common practice with passage of the first water quality laws that led to the 1960 Clean Water Act, and five years later created the Land and Water Conservation Fund for recreational spaces.  But the resistance to Reber’s plans for the closing of the open waters of the Sacramento Delta led to a collective topophilic rendering to the preservation of wetlands and estuary that prevented the impending additional of landfill to contract the San Francisco Bay that would have erased the estuary and bay alike, so resonant to lead the  Save the Bay grassroots citizens’ movement to preserve and protect its open waters against the constriction of the Delta and estuary, and erasure of open spaces of wetlands.


Bay or Rivewr


The legend transformed a plan into a map which intersected with readers’s mental geographies in particularly powerful ways; by inviting viewers to map which of two futures they wanted against their experience, the image became a lodestone for preserving the open space of the bay, as well as a powerful icon of regional topohilia and an emblem of resistance to the over-engineered landscape that we identify with the proposed shrinkage of the Bay to a canal whose space would have been dominated by barriers and ship locks.

In the map that was made and distributed by the Save the Bay movement, it is striking that the land already built on in the Bay Area is rendered by a delicate stippling of the sort that once might have indicated marine expanse in many early modern engraved maps.  But stippling is used to call attention to the projected landfill that would reduce the size of the San Francisco Bay considerably in the above newsmap.  Indeed, the maps so alarmingly suggested the loss of open waters to landfill through the subsequent redefinition of the familiar shorelines into a set of what were clearly artificially narrow estuaries to be a cause for public alarm.  The arrival of such an expanse of landfill could be described as achieved according to an artificial delivery of sediment that would be a massive feat of engineering.  But the map, derived from an engineering proposal that sought to describe the extent of housing lots that might be created by the full expansion of landfill to fill the East Bay, in the model that had already erased Mission Bay and defined the Embarcadero in San Francisco, was less readily interpreted as an advancement of the march of progress as it met readers who were alarmed by the appearance of the reduced Bay’s shoreline.

The image of the shoreline that might have been still shocks–though it is easy to be understood also as a continuity with the increased amounts of landfill that defined the city as a peninsula.  Rather than provide an illustration of triumphalist progress, however, the map became adopted as an icon of local resistance to engineering that redefined the ecological movement around 1962 and gave it a focus on the preservation of open waters that still exist.  Mapping is deeply tied to cognitive modeling, as much as to precision, and the historical role that was played by the map that projected the expansion of levels of landfill across the East and South Bay were no exception.  The map first designed for the project of the drastic reduction of San Francisco Bay that was first publicly floated around 1959 in the popular press provided a rallying cry for maintaining the current configuration of wetlands, before the idea of making the San Francisco Bay a habitat for birds and wildlife could have been even foreseen.

But the map of the potential future that these maps, produced in newspapers, portended helped to energize an unlikely movement, and provided a basis mobilize a rather unlikely coalition in favor of the preservation of the unique ecosystem–and indeed ensure the overlapping of environments of land and sea that are described as “ecotones”–in the Bay Area.  The map, as it was adopted by Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick of the fledgling “Save the Bay” movement, came to concretize and effectively embody deeply resonant and evocative relation to the liminal areas of its wetlands and its open space, at a time when some 30% of the San Francisco Bay had already been lost to landfill or diking.  Maps provided a way to visualize the constantly shrinking space of the wetlands, without an eye to either environmental consequences or the potential loss of habitat, as the advance of reclaimed land seemed inevitably associated with the drumbeat of progress, pictured below in three relief maps that foresaw the expansion of landfill expected to steadily reduce the bay’s once watery expanse over the next fifty-five years, which seemed to create new acreage for housing or farming, enclosing once open waters by river banks.



Those reluctant to encounter this almost inevitable expansion of landfill were not only undaunted by the map of the prospective shrinkage of the San Francisco Bay, and progress of the US Army Corps of Civil Engineers, which, according to a map that first appeared in the Oakland Tribune, envisioned a massive reduction by 70% of the Bay’s size by 2020 as part of the region’s modernization.  While the future seemed inevitable, somewhat surprisingly, the same map was adopted and reprinted with the new legend “Bay or River?”, inviting readers to reflect on the very inevitability of the shrinkage of open waters with such force that it became a potent symbol and rallying cry.  And for the group that approached the Berkeley City Council to turn back the fill project, the iconic emblem became a rallying cry of resistance for the “Save the Bay” movement–then “Save San Francisco Bay”–from 1962.   While the expansion of San Francisco was closely tied to landfill, as early maps of the city pointed out to builders when mapping out additions to the city as building lots:  the expansion of the short of the city into the Bay of San Francisco was a gradual practice of urban expansion, even if the ghostly outline of the former shore remained encoded in maps as the 1852 Britton and Rey map “compiled from the latest Surveys & containing all late extension” that showed the “lately planket [sic] streets” atop landfill, and the considerable size of what might now be called a liquefaction zone that redefined what had been a harbor and would later become a set of piers, and reconfiguring a once undulating coast as a streamlined shore around a dense downtown.


mapping San Francisco Landfill.pngBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection


So complicated was the rendering of the proposed expansion of the additions of the mid-nineteenth century that the new additions to San Francisco seem to float above renderings of the current of the Bay, and the original coastline of the peninsula seem more prominent than the ghostly buildings and newly planked streets that lay atop.


Bay waves.pngBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection


Rather than view the expansion of further landfill as inevitable, the redefinition of the shoreline of the city of San Francisco was more acceptable to prospectors than that of the Bay Area to East Bay residents, who were quick to see the dangers of the dramatic shrinking of the estuary as changing the experience of the Bay, and indeed removing Berkeley from the sea.  The printing of an effective counter-map countered the project, which would be financially encouraged by David Rockefeller, of filling a full 60% of the shallowest bay waters with housing billed as a “New Manhattan”–and reduce the Bay, already surrounded by some thirty garbage dumps at that time, with a narrow shipping channel to serve Oakland’s port.  The idea of reducing the waters of the Bay by a full 70%, which were deemed to serve no real “use” or function, aimed to transform it into what was deemed “usable” land, both for the expansion of public housing, and for an expanding of the East Bay some three miles into the ocean–somewhat improbably imagined by plowing the top off the San Bruno mountain and moving the future fill to the West.

There was little basis to understand the coherence of the water, or indeed its function, even as it was disappearing before the eyes of local inhabitants.  The symbolic success of the map however not only mobilized public opinion behind the rejection of the continued landfill of the bay’s shallower areas, but the rejection of the continued dumping of waste into the Bay Area waters, and according to Richard Walker helped transform the ecology movement into a popular, rather than only an elite, cause.  The image of filling some 2200 acres of watery expanse, reduced now to but a slender channel, provoked the project of saving the estuary, although most of the region was at that time closed off to public access, let alone ringed by a Coastal Trail as it is now:   of the Bay’s 276-mile shoreline below the entrance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, less than 5 miles of shore were in fact open to public access.  The image of the destruction of the Bay was not focussed on the shoreline, of course, but rather on imagining the consequences of the potential loss of the open waters of the Bay that would change the relation of land to water in an irrevocable fashion.

Although the actual size of wetlands in the Bay had dramatically decreased since 1850, when land reclamation recast the undulating shoreline as an expansion of a rectilinear complex of streets, trumpeting the steady expansion of the city’s downtown area, and forming a newly rectilinear coast from Telegraph Hill to Market Street encompassing 800 sq miles, in a business section and erased the curving shoreline whose contours are since removed from public memory.




Indeed, the project rapidly accelerated the filling of marshland with landfill and residential and commercial construction that had already rapidly progressed since the turn of the century; the complex relationship between shoreline and bay in San Francisco was clear in the superimposition of an old coastline in the 1852 Britton & Rey survey, when a clear memory of the city’s earlier more restricted shape inhabits the urban grid, much as landfill expansion into Mission Bay were noted in contemporary engraved maps as one for the 1854 Exposition, which celebrates the expansion of the city by the Bay–even as it symbolically appears to wrestle with the newly configured street plan and lost wetlands by conspicuously indicating the earlier shoreline, as if to habituate its viewers to the shifting shorelines of the city–it extends the two grids of streets that extend from the central seam of Market Street so that they go off of the coastlines of the city, in a brave imagination of the expanding city whose shorelines will indeed grow outwards with future landfill dumps–obscuring the uneven shore of Ocean Beach or Mission Bay, or the run of piers that now reach out to San Francisco Bay.


san Francisco 1852 Britton & Rey 1:18,100Britton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection



1854 detailMechanics Library


The expansion of San Francisco from North Beach to the current Ocean Beach was prominently noted in 1854, tracing the expansion of city blocks landfill allowed and noting the fluid relation of the shore to the bathymetry of San Francisco Bay–in ways that make one realize the degree to which San Francisco was a precursor of Alameda.


SF Shoreline with lost sands and beach.jpg



The ghostly inhabitation of the landscape with earlier shorelines were far less prominent in the spatial imaginations of city-dwellers by 1959, of course, when the erasure of existing landscape of the industrialized city accustomed most to the prospect of extending the amount of landfill by which the San Francisco Bay had already been reduced, and redrawing the lines of its contours in a far more restricted form that would only allow the entry of boats into its harbor.


SF Bay.pngBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection


Bay of San Francisco 1854.png


We now map and recognize, it is true, the huge historical loss of wetlands around the Bay in a quite different way, as a loss of wetlands, and dying of lad, erasing the many tidal marshlands, intertidal flats, lakes and delicate riverine network that once defined the region and delta:




In contrast, the 1959 project proposed pushing the East Bay freeways almost toward Treasure Island, filling the Marina and remaining wetlands from Point Isabel to Emeryville, dramatically reducing tidal marshes and ponds in the Bay, some 40% of whose surface area had been diked off or filled in since 1851.



The basic idea later championed by the engineer John Reber was to push the East Bay out three miles past I-80, so that save for a small Marina between University and Cedar Avenues, further land would be available for housing and industry in what was billed as a “City Manager’s Dream.”  From the Berkeley hills, Sylvia McLaughlin, Catherine (Kay) Kerr–Clark’s wife–and Esther Gulick, all UC faculty wives, saw the situation quite differently as a desecration of their views, but also of the beauty of the sunsets and the topography of the place they had come to love.  For if the Bay is hardly separable from the Bay Area today, the Bay was a defining part of the region, and far more than a backdrop for setting suns.

The strong commitment each of these women showed in a protracted fight for the bay was encapsulated in a sense in the map that they adopted to advance their cause, and was adopted from the newspaper as a cri de coeur to advance not only the preservation of the bay, but support the region that they loved in a truly topophilic fashion.    The map of the construction of Reber’s project provided a sense of a fork in the road for the region’s future, but a crossroads for its future.  The architectural plan served as an alternative for the preservation of the waters’ status quo.  And once reprinted as a rallying point, the map of the bay offered a basis to attract supporters to solicit donations to oppose the projected landfill:  thee image captured enough attention that by 1962 they attracted over 2,500 to preserve what has remained a glorious estuary of open waters, and which would be otherwise be consigned to the dustbin of history.  Appropriated to advance an early environmental cause, the now-iconic map designed to demonstrate the future expansion of the Bay became the emblem of its preservation:  although the expansion of the shorelines of San Francisco and other regions of the East Bay had been an emblem of progress, the legislature was lobbied from 1962 to resist landfill projects through this future image of progress, led by U.C. Berkeley city and regional planner Mel Scott’s expert report about the adverse local effects of landfill on the estuary–by distributing this very image to their constituents, an overwhelming number of co-signers were attracted to preserve the San Francisco Bay, whose shortening by landfill would have smoothed out the edges the bay so drastically that it seemed to become an extension of the already over-engineered Sacramento.


Bay or Rivewr


Posing the simple question “Bay or River?” so effectively posed an alternative future that it was an effective symbolic tool for organizing tool for mobilizing public opinion.  The interrogative added to the map, it became an emblem of resistance to the epidemic of landfill that had expanded in the east coast; the result was to end a century of adding fill to the bay during whose open water and wetlands had been so strongly compromised to diminish from over 780 square miles to less than 575 square miles in the region from the Golden Gate to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.  (The area of the Bay has increased by over ten square miles since then, suggesting how much easier it indeed was to shrink the open waters of the Bay than to expand them.)

The original map to increase the amount of landfill in the Bay and estuary had been designed by the US Army Corps.  The re-use of made of Reber’s map is perhaps a classic glass-half-empty vs. glass-half-full affair:  yet rarely has such a simple map been so wildly successful once appropriated and adopted by an opposition in order to express an alternate future or to resist a project of engineering.  The two-fold career of this map (or image) might be compared to a famously over-theorized example  of image-reading, Gombrich’s duck-rabbit, which he used to illustrate the education of the senses on which artists are able to convince their audiences of their skills of illusion, and on which he suggested all abilities of successful pictorial illusion rest.  The visual schema an artist develops to create this illusion allowed them to suggest a reality to viewers, he argued, which he continued to modify and refine in his or her work.  The duck-rabbit revealed compellingly how viewers gave fixed meaning to images as records of things we created from what they suggested to our mind:




Earlier, Wittgenstein had used the same image to identify how we read but an aspect of any image to consider how we are “likely to see a visual appearance as something” as we form our knowledge of images, which we recognize as a type or order of representation.



Gombrich does not examine the notion of “seeing as,” as Wittgenstein, but framed the question of “seeing as” to questions of aesthetic judgment, arguing that we apply schema to appreciate images.  (The original source of the cartoon is however a subject of debate:  it was first employed by the American psychologist Stephen Jastrow in 1899 in order to make a point about the nature of mental perception, but the image he used from an 1892 issue of Harpers’ Review, where it gained a second life–




–but which itself derived from an engraved cartoon printed earlier that year in Munich, which both Wittgenstein and Gombrich could probably have seen:




The odd family resemblance of Duck-Rabbits has its own interesting geneology in American perceptual psychology.  Jastrow, the first American awarded a PhD in psychology, employed this image from the funnies in his studies of “subliminal” perception, and the same later provided Gombrich to lead readers to consider the role of ambiguity and illusion in aesthetic judgment.  The Duck-Rabbit illustrated impossibility of holding both schemas of recognition before an image at the same time, for Gombrich, and about the role of likeness in art.  Gombrich sustained that we used schema and corrected them at the same time in relation to reality, redrawing them to systematically create better illusions in images.  To explain the huge appeal of the map of the army engineers, we might do better to lean on Wittgenstein’s sense of the category of representation, and begin by asking about the power that image enjoyed as a map–a map of what the San Francisco Bay would become once it became but a glorified estuary traversed at its widest point by the Bay Bridge.  The map, as a map, provided a model of what it would be like to move around the Bay Area, and what the experience of one’s itineraries and sense of space would potentially be. 

The power of the map “Bay or River?” lay in the fact that it was not an illusion, however, but presented a stark alternative of remapping a well-known land:  viewers were asked what future they would prefer, and if the engineers should, this time, be allowed to redraw the area of the bay’s already shrinking coastline, or if they should be resisted and a line in the sand be drawn.   The question of whether the Bay might be reduced to the straight lines of landfill that erased any variations in a stunning shoreline, and became immediately recognized as an evil that must be resisted and prevented from occurring, providing something like a logic of collective action before San Francisco was seen as a site of popular resistance or alternative culture; it provided, moreover, something of a start of an ecological movement, just before and at roughly the same time Rachel Carson, a former Fish & Wildlife employee, published Silent Spring (1962), although the book stemmed from a four-year study on the effects of the pesticide on birds by chemicals intended to eradicate mosquitoes or fire ants.  The parallels of Carson’s investigations to the refusal of McLaughlin and friends to accept the modernization of the Bay is striking.  Perhaps McLaughlin invested the image special meaning as she selected it for the campaign:  she seems to adopted it as an icon particularly useful to present a set of alternatives to residents of the region, viewing it as an alternative that must not be.  And much as Silent Spring accused the chemical industry of deeply nefarious disinformation in spreading a story of purported progress to the nation–and leading the entomologist J. Gordon Edwards to try to refute her charges of the dangers of he chemical compound DDT by eating it on camera–the reworking of the natural environment of the San Francisco Bay became a lightning point of resistance.  The map became a winning and compelling argument, as the force of the future prognostication of the Army corps of Engineers became a spectre of the disaster for the environment or shorebirds, and on quality of life.

This aspect of the map in particular–the sinister encroaching black of the coast that threatens to become a mere riverbank–underscored the change of an entire environment, if not an ecosystem, that would redefine not only the view from the Berkeley Hills, but the perception of the Delta, of sailing through the bay, or even of traveling on a bridge to San Francisco.  The dramatic reduction of open waters left a reduced bay whose natural topography was now reduced to a straight coast.  It is not surprising that it became an early emblem for environmental activism, and a powerful trigger of mobilization because the notion of building an industrial area or housing area over the Marina was such a radical challenge to one’s orientation to space.  The duck-rabbit image is most easily read if it is identified by a text, and the barbed challenge of the sharply worded interrogative, “Bay or River?“, transforms the engineering project into a question to which the viewer reflexively responds.

The power of this map prevented a change that would have made the Bay unrecognizable, with plans existing to use earth from the bulldozed San Bruno mountain to fill bay shoreline from San Francisco International Airport to San Jose, expand airport runways into the Bay, as well as to fill the marshy Emeryville Crescent.  Although some 900 acres of tidal marsh were filled in, preserving wildlife habitats is neat to link to the power of this simple newspaper map and the convictions that it both invited and so powerfully helped mobilize about a region whose wetlands were so central to the geography of migrating shorebirds, micro-organisms, and fish.  The stark absence of local details of the shoreline in the newspaper map suggested both the pressing nature of the question as a matter of recent news, and invited associations of a coastline and waterway that local residents deeply appreciated and knew around the Bay, including the Carquinez Strait, Solano coastline, Delta, as well as numerous rocky islands including Angel Island itself.  Mapping the possible encroaching enclosure of open waters was powerful as a reclassification of the area marked as the “Bay” as but a river, shifted the mental landscape of the map in ways that spread resolve within the Save-the-Bay movement that helped to generate the Ecology Movement, and helped to identify San Francisco at its head.


sf-bayBritton and Rey, “Map of San Francisco, Compiled from the Latest Surveys . . . ” (1852)  Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection

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March 4, 2013 · 11:02 am

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