Then and Now: Community spirit never goes out of style

In May, the San Francisco Friends School on Valencia Street, untouched by a neighborhood fire, helped local residents by offering itself as a donation site in partnership with the Red Cross. The school is housed in an edifice built after the much larger fire following the 1906 earthquake — the Levi Strauss factory that made jeans for almost 100 years until it closed in 2002.

Levi Strauss building on Valencia Street now houses a school.

The spirit of community service appears to have pervaded both of the building’s owners: a Quaker school dedicated to social engagement, and a company that moved the needle for American corporate responsibility.

While many people know the story of how Levi Strauss created iconic American clothing, fewer outside the Bay Area know of his commitment, and the company’s, to civic responsibility.

Just after the earthquake, when the Levi Strauss headquarters and both of its factories were destroyed, the company extended credit to its wholesale customers, ensuring they could stay in business. The company also continued paying its workers, even though the factories were idle. This spirit continued throughout the 1920s, when the company began paying workers bonuses, and the 1950s, when the factories were racially integrated.

When Levi Strauss went public in 1971, it included an unusual statement of corporate responsibility, followed in the 1980s with the first corporate discussion of the impact of AIDS. In the 1990s, it became the first Fortune 500 company to offer health care to spouses of employees, and the first major American company to offer full medical benefits to the unmarried partners of its employees.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.