San Francisco Thirty Years Later

The Golden Gate Bridge behind a field of flowers.
© 2017 Gayle Martin. All Rights Reserveed

As many of you already know, photography, like writing, is one of my life’s passions.

I was living in San Francisco in the 1980s. I was free lance graphic designer and attending an art college where I planned on getting a master’s degree. San Francisco was a beautiful city back then, and at the time I had a Nikkormat (Nikon) 35mm camera. Needless to say, I did a lot of photography whenever my budget allowed it.

October 16, 1989 was a strange day for me. The sun was shining and the weather was warm; a nice reprieve from the foggy San Francisco summers. You’d think I would have been out enjoying the sunshine, but something was sucking the energy right out of me. I had to do some shopping, and that short trip to the store zapped what little strength I had.

Woke up the next morning feeling like myself again. It was October 17, 1989. Game three of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s was scheduled to take place that evening at Candlestick Park. I also had a class that afternoon, all the way across town in a building near Pier 39. It was midterms, and we had to do a special project. Once we were finished the instructor said we could leave early, which was a relief as many of my classmates were hoping to beat the game traffic.

I left about thirty minutes earlier than normal. Took the bus downtown, caught the streetcar which would take me to my apartment, about three blocks away from the Pacific Ocean. All seemed normal until we felt a strange shaking as we exited a tunnel. Funny how our minds work. I thought maybe a car had hit a power pole, which, in turn shook the electrical line powering the streetcar.

No such luck. We’d just been hit by a 7.1 earthquake. The streetcar had auxiliary power which got us a few blocks away from the tunnel before it quit running. From there I would have a long walk home.

Earthquakes are strange creatures. They travel in waves. As I walked I was amazed to find one block almost normal, except for the power being out. Another block I’d see broken glass and store merchandise dumped all over the floor. The next block again looked normal. No damage. No evidence of any shaking.

I was finally able to flag down a taxi and get a ride home. Thankfully, my apartment did well. No breakage, although a glass cabinet had slid about six inches across the floor. Oddly enough, all of the breakable collectibles inside were undamaged. My upstairs neighbor, however, had a lot more shaking. His living room furniture had all toppled, and the glassware in his kitchen exploded. He found pieces of broken glass for weeks afterwards.

The aftershocks, while expected, got to be unnerving at times, and the collapsed Cypress Structure freeway in the East Bay was unbelievable. The scale was massive. This elevated freeway was some thirty feet off the ground, and the collapsed section looked to me as if it went for about a quarter mile or so. Forty-two people died in that collapse and many others were seriously injured.

I left San Francisco the following year. Somehow a master’s degree wasn’t worth risking another big earthquake as this one wasn’t the big one, and I had no intentions of being there when it hit. Then again, earthquake or not, the cost of living was so high I would have left once I got my degree.

So fast forward to the present day. I’ve been scanning my old 35mm slides and restoring them as jpg files. I’ll be putting the best of the best on my SmugMug site, (under the name Gayle Martin.) Needless to say it’s brought back many memories of my time in San Francisco. Oddly enough I stopped taking photos after the earthquake. I think it’s because as a community we were all freaked out after October 17, 1989. Even now, on the thirtieth anniversary, I can still recall the images from that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.