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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s People on the Move Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Container System At Work on the Waterfront Negotiating Change Transforming the Landscape
Transforming the Waterfront

San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960–1970

You’re dockside at the Port of Oakland, and across the bay, the lights of San Francisco wink at the newly burgeoning container port. Stacks of containers surround you and the lines painted on the tarmac make it clear you’re standing in the heart of the bustling port. A longshoreman walks across the scene, on his way to work as a crane operator. Ship models, cargo hooks, and video trace the changing patterns of work on the waterfront and the incredible effects of the container revolution.

View from the exhibition
View from the exhibition

One Size Fits All

Containers—steel boxes stuffed with goods—and the systems for transferring them between ships, trucks, and trains transformed commercial shipping. Containerization streamlined freight handling and slashed the cost of transporting cargoes of all kinds. It also stimulated big changes for waterfront workers, and for the waterfront itself.

In San Francisco, shipowners and longshoremen (who load and unload ships) debated how newly mechanized work would be performed. With fewer men needed to handle containers, longshoremen faced huge job losses. They demanded compensation from the shipping companies. In 1960, the two groups negotiated a labor contract that forever changed waterfront work. San Francisco and Oakland, rivals across the bay, responded differently to the container revolution. With acres of flat land and access to railway and road networks, Oakland embraced the new technology. San Francisco, lacking both, lagged behind and was quickly bypassed as the area’s primary port.
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