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Behind Frisco's Gala for UN, A Reminder of Prestige Lost

DOWNTOWN streets have been swept. Buildings have been scrubbed. Sharpshooters, part of a 1,000-strong security force, will be perched on roof tops. There have been French operas, Russian orchestras, British ballets - and more black ties than loaves of sourdough bread.

San Francisco has been primping for two years for its moment in the limelight, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. But behind the five-star expectations for what the city will gain in prestige this week lies a poignant reminder of what the city lost 50 years ago.

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In 1945, San Francisco was a spirited little city with big dreams. It had already been the West's center for trade and commerce for some 90 years. During World War II, virtually the entire war effort in the Pacific shipped out through its booming port.

When the allied nations declared the creation of the UN in early 1945, then-San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham saw the UN as the promise for San Francisco's future. As the war drew to a close, he campaigned fiercely to have the UN headquartered here and went so far as to acquire the Presidio - 1,500 wooded acres overlooking the bay - from the federal government as the UN site.

In a breathless study, city officials touted "the bone and muscle and nerve-fiber of which a great city is made; here are the streets and the wharves, the rails and the wires, the air and the water and the earth that together compose [this] dynamic, electrically alive city...."

But the city's dream soon slipped beyond its grasp. At the 11th hour, John D. Rockefeller blocked the deal by donating to the UN the $7 million tract of land along New York's East River, where the UN is now situated. For Lapham, this was a crushing blow.

And although San Francisco was selected as the site of the historic conference that culminated in the signing of the UN charter on June 26, 1945 - making it the UN's birthplace - it was merely a consolation prize. San Francisco had lost its best shot at becoming the Geneva of the Pacific. "The UN would have put the city on ground zero of diplomatic culture; it would have showcased San Francisco to the world," says state librarian and historian Kevin Starr.

Kicking off the UN's 50th anniversary, San Francisco has gone all out: Some $4 million has been spent to host ceremonies, galas, art festivals, and political forums for thousands of visitors, including dignitaries from the UN's 185 member states.

Today, President Clinton, joined by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, will give the keynote address at a ceremony in the War Memorial Opera House, where delegates from l 50 nations signed the UN charter.

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Starr says: "There is a certain wistfulness to it all, for it reminds us of what might have been. Losing the UN prevented San Francisco from reaching its full potential as a crossroads city."

To many, San Francisco is now a city at risk. The city struggles daily with huge budget deficits and cuts. It has lost its shipping industry to Oakland, which took the initiative to modernize its port. Tourism - with nearly 14 million visitors yearly - has replaced manufacturing as the city's main industry.

Yet even without the UN, San Francisco remains profoundly international - a "micro-UN," say city officials - and lives up to its reputation as a tolerant and diverse multicultural city. The question, says Starr, is whether San Francisco can regain its momentum as the smallest US city with world-class stature.

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