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Without Limitations: San Francisco has Changed, One Dirty Harry Kill-Site at a Time 

Tuesday, Aug 5 2014
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If you want to conform to Europeans' expectations of quotidian American life, you could do worse than taking them to McDonald's for lunch. But not just any McDonald's. Park your tour bus at the Golden Arches on Third and Townsend.

You'd better hurry.

News recently broke that the eatery would soon give way to a proposed 10-story luxury hotel. The transformation of SoMa from a gritty realm of warehouses, rail yards, and the trappings of blue-collar life into tech's inner sanctum continues.

Billions and billions served, make way for billions and billions spent.

And yet, there's even deeper symbolism being served up at this doomed drive-through. If this restaurant epitomizes us in the eyes of outsiders, so do the scenes that took place within it many years ago.

Bryan Rice is the proprietor of San Francisco Movie Tours. He spends his days squiring Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians around the city to the cinematic locations they grew up with — but never visited. And, to this crowd, one man embodies this town — and so much more.

"Dirty Harry, to them, represents not only San Francisco, but the United States," Rice says. "To them, he's kind of what we're all about."

Yes, this short-timer McDonald's is the "Acorn Cafe" in which Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan methodically extracts an oversize Smith & Wesson from his sportcoat in full view of a quartet of armed thugs half his age, guns down three of them, and then induces the fourth to capitulate with the film Sudden Impact's most memorable line: "Go ahead. Make my day."

The headline "Place Where Dirty Harry Shot People Slated for Luxury Development" is counterintuitive. Until you give it a moment's thought. Dirty Harry shot a lot of people. And this city is lousy with luxury development.

Helpful online obsessive-compulsives have pegged the number of people Inspector Callahan dispatches in the film Dirty Harry and its four sequels at 41 (this tally is appended by footnotes such as "Assuming Liquor Store robber #3 doesn't die from complications arising from being shot in the genitals").

Well, that's an impressive total. A few creative demises are sprinkled into the list — "Water cannon causing fall into bay/Drown," "Molotov cocktail causing poor driving skills into bay/Drown," and ".44 to chest causing fall onto unicorn horn/Immediate Death by impalement." But, by and large, this is a compendium of goons, robbers, and other miscreants being snuffed by a .44 Magnum throughout broad swaths of our fair city.

These films were a primal reaction to a chaotic era of social upheaval. Bombs exploded at police stations and revolutionary outfits, liberation fronts, and a sawmill's worth of splinter groups took aim at one another on city streets. The Zebra Killers executed 14 random San Franciscans and wounded eight more — including future Mayor Art Agnos. Supervisor Dan White shot Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. San Francisco is still ranked as a top-five American terror target even though nothing qualifying as "terrorism" has taken place here since 1997 (an airport bombing that destroyed property but harmed no one).

The 1970s were an interesting time.

Dirty Harry, a modern-day sheriff patrolling the modern-day Wild Wild West, was a reaction to all this.

The final two movies in the series were released in 1983 and 1988. By this time, the tumultuous San Francisco that spawned a cinematic figure like Callahan was receding into myth and memory. And yet, in these two last films, the aging inspector kills far, far more people than he did in the movies actually produced during the era when San Francisco truly approximated the Wild West.

The less San Francisco resembled its prior iteration, the more brutal its sheriff became. So, Dirty Harry's mortality tour does indeed offer an intriguing window into our city's evolution — both physically and metaphysically.

San Francisco is a city of disparities — of wealth, of opportunity, and, of course, of change.

The scenes in which Dirty Harry pokes around North Beach — saving a man from immolating himself in Washington Square Park, chasing a serial killer, peering at a nude woman through her window on Krausgrill Place — could have been filmed yesterday. The Cost Plus where Callahan foils a robbery is still there, and, all these years later, we're left to wonder what kind of wicker-obsessed thieves attempt to rob a Cost Plus. The bank heist on Market and Pine — in which Callahan asks a downed punk if he feels lucky — was actually filmed on a soundstage (hence the cable car running down Market).

Other sites of Callahan carnage have indeed transformed — and nearly always into more upscale offerings. The liquor store on Second and Minna that Dirty Harry rams with a police car before dispatching robbers Nos. 1 and 2 (and blasting No. 3 in the genitals) is now an art gallery and juice joint. The warehouse pilfered of weaponry by murderous revolutionaries is now a repository for many of the tech shuttles ferrying around the workers revolutionizing this city in a wholly different manner. The firebombed vehicles of goons and thugs that drove off various piers to oblivion would, today, mar the ambience of the sunny, pedestrian-friendly expanse that took hold following the razing of the Embarcadero Freeway. The deadly chase between Callahan and vigilante cops who formed a death squad within the department races through a bereft, pre-AT&T Park China Basin and culminates at Pier 70 — a site slated for luxury development on a scale rendering the McDonald's-cum-hotel small fry.

When the Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians see all this, however, they don't think about how much the city has changed. And they don't think about how much the city has stayed the same. "What I get more than anything," Rice says, "is 'Wow, San Francisco is dirty.'"

Unlike the cinematic carnage of yore, the heap of humanity who've fallen through society's safety net is painfully real. And omnipresent. The tourists don't see the teachers and social workers and other middle-class professionals fleeing our city. But that's real, too.

Rice knows this. The tour guide had thoughts about raising his family here. But, instead, he left for Alameda. And sanity.

A man's got to know his limitations.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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