Ondrasek and West: For hope after COVID-19, take a look at history
An early rendering shows what the Reclaiming Our Downtown grassroots group is envisioning for part of downtown Santa Clara. Image credit: Dan Ondrasek

It’s over. We emerge from our homes.

For two years, we were commanded to wear masks, stay socially-distanced and wash our hands raw. Those states that relaxed these demands too soon saw infections explode. Americans returned back to their homes for months.

The enemy’s power was two-fold: It spread at an unprecedented rate and our leaders did not respect its ferocity. Twenty-eight percent of Americans were infected; up to 500,000 died. We could not visit hospitalized loved ones or attend their funerals. Double-digit unemployment followed. Our economy would slip from recession to depression within two years.

The year was 1920 and the events that occurred over the decade after that tragedy should be a message of hope for all of us in 2020.

This country came storming back.

The expert’s predictions of a sluggish recovery were wrong. People who were craving to embrace family, friends and their communities immediately began to congregate safely in restaurants, theatres, bars, dance halls, and sporting events.

The national demand for buildings that would feed this fundamental need exploded. This gave birth to one of, if not the greatest, periods of development of people-oriented construction ever seen in this country.

San Francisco began a construction renaissance that arguably formed the architectural spirit and footprint of what the city is today. The few years following the 1918 pandemic gave birth to the Mark Hopkins, Omni and Sir Francis Drake hotels, the War Memorial Opera House, the Palace of the Legion of Honor and a mammoth expansion of the de Young Museum, which citizens flocked to in record numbers.

The Steinhart Aquarium saw 233,000 visitors in its first month alone in 1923, only three years after the pandemic. The San Francisco Seals broke all attendance records in the Pacific Coast League at the 15,000-seat Recreation Park, winning four league titles in the 1920s.

San Jose built the mixed-use El Paseo de Saratoga shopping block, the Jose Theatre, Masonic Center and it’s first skyscraper, the Bank of America building. People swarmed to Hart’s, Herold’s, Woolworths and other downtown retailers, restaurants and theatres.

Nickelodeons were replaced by movie palaces. In the years following the pandemic, more than 150 of these huge theatres were built in nearly every city in the United States, some exceeding 5,000 seats.

Only a few years after being quarantined, Bay Area theatre-goers sat shoulder to shoulder in the 1920s-constructed theatres like the Warfield, the Golden Gate, the Orpheum, the Castro, the Alhambra, El Capitan, San Francisco’s iconic 4,651-seat Fox Theatre as well as the Oakland Fox, and San Jose’s California Theatre.

Transit systems rapidly grew across the United States, creating a huge number of consumers in downtown shopping districts. Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric Trolleys thrived and were extended to Pasadena and Orange County as well as the beaches of Santa Monica, Manhattan and Long Beach.

San Francisco’s Municipal transportation structure proliferated, allowing residents from new neighborhoods to expand Market Street’s remarkable commercial growth downtown. New companies that were begun in the 1920s included Macy’s, Eddie Bauer, Lowes, 7-Eleven, Ace Hardware, Safeway and See’s Candies. The construction of mixed-use architecture with retail below and office/residences above skyrocketed.

Today, we have been told that “nothing will be the same,” and “financial institutions will not back retail or hotel construction for years.”  To use a term from the 1920s, this is a bunch of balderdash. As we try to imagine what our future will be, these surviving roaring-20s buildings are cement reminders of what Americans did, and will do again, after this pandemic.

We will come together.

Today’s retail will continue to change, as it was changing before COVID-19; the convenience of buying goods and services online will continue.

However, our response 100 years ago reveals how we will again flock together to our downtowns to eat, drink, laugh, and dance with our friends, neighbors and community.  “People-oriented” retail spaces, be they restaurants, nightspots, theatres, hotels, ballparks, and ice cream shops will not only survive but thrive.

If you want evidence of this, just need to look up at our architectural history.

What we built then will show us our path forward.

Dan Ondrasek and Donna West are members of Reclaiming Our Downtown, a 3,500-member group aiming to recreate a downtown in Santa Clara.

 

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