In San Francisco, common, underutilized commercial buildings of historical significance sustain a variety of deleterious physical changes, including graffiti, building modifications, and demolition. Of the three, graffiti is the most pervasive but also the most superficial. The city, having determined that unauthorized graffiti is vandalism, conducts campaigns to prevent, abate, and eradicate the work.1 Building modifications, the second type of change, are initiated to “improve” a structure’s accommodation of an existing use, or to facilitate a change in use. These changes, which often include additions and partial demolition, are potentially more consequential than graffiti, as features of the building that convey its significance can be permanently compromised. (While early public garages are culturally and architecturally significant for their contribution to San Francisco’s experience of the Motor Age, individual buildings can be more or less significant as a function of age, continuity of use, and—most importantly here—architectural integrity.)2 Demolition, which in San Francisco is frequently proposed as part of a condominium project, envisions the disappearance of the historic resource altogether. Designated city departments review modification and demolition proposals, and if approved, the work is deemed legal.
In this paper, I will explore the proposition that if graffiti is vandalism, then these other forms of alteration qualify as vandalism as well—a legalized form of vandalism. Alongside the legal meaning of vandalism as an action that violates property, and the term’s application in preservation as damage performed on objects of historical or cultural significance, “legalized vandalism” refers to the routine destruction wrought upon the built environment with official sanction.
To examine the impact of graffiti, building improvements, and demolition on common historically significant structures, I will draw on examples from San Francisco’s stellar collection of early public garages. These structures lend themselves to this analysis because they are common targets for the changes under discussion. In addition, as they are closely related by time of construction, use, structure, and aesthetics, they present a remarkably consistent profile against which these changes can be assessed. To illuminate the role of local government, I will analyze the arguments offered by the local planning commission in support of its decision to approve the demolition of two of these buildings. By way of contrast, the paper concludes with a presentation of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, a radical experiment in the use of city space that celebrates and integrates street art, historical resources (including several garages), and the community.
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