Long May She Reign?

A new book scrutinizes the city's imperial history

In Gray Brechin's new book Imperial San Francisco -- Urban Power, Earthly Ruin,the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles de Young, is murdered by a disgruntled reader. The murderer is acquitted by a jury on grounds of "reasonable cause."

James Phelan, San Francisco's first "progressive" mayor, runs for the U. S. Senate on a platform of white power. He wins.

Phelan is replaced by the darling of the unions, Mayor Eugene Schmitz. Shortly after the 1906 earthquake, Schmitz and most of his board of supervisors are jailed for taking bribes from Pacific Gas & Electric Company. They are later acquitted on a technicality.

Author Gray Brechin's new book dissects San Francisco history from a geographical perspective.
Robert Dawson
Author Gray Brechin's new book dissects San Francisco history from a geographical perspective.

This is Brechin's San Francisco: A non-fiction city run by scoundrels for the benefit of a few rich families making fortunes from mining, marketing, and money-lending. Not to mention publishing daily newspapers that served their own private business interests -- even as they methodically ruined California's forests, rivers, and farmlands.

The recently published book is causing quite a stir in academia. "It is unlike any other book about San Francisco," says scholar Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California and author of Americans and the Californian Dream. "Brechin is the first San Francisco chronicler to look at the city in its regional setting; in the context of mining. It is written in the best prophetic tradition, but it focuses on the negative, on the destruction of the environment. The work is superb, but it's almost as if Brechin wants us to conclude that we shouldn't have a civilization."

Imperial San Franciscocovers the city's evolution from 1848 to World War II. It is a rare act of scholasticism -- erudite, but also readable. Brechin, a journalist turned scholar, writes in the active voice, bringing alive the tempestuous history of the city through anecdote and analysis. The image-laden book is much more than a history of San Francisco -- it is a case study of a complex organism, a cross section of people, places and things intended to reveal motive and cause.

Imperial San Francisco earned Brechin a doctorate in geography from the University of California at Berkeley last year. Its publication follows on the recent release of Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream, a "coffee-table book" tour of California's environmentally blasted terrain with photographs by Robert Dawson and words by Brechin. Both books focus on how California's urban centers were nurtured by the destruction of their surroundings, the eating up of the ecology by mining, oil, and logging concerns.

In a recent interview, Brechin said that he chose the science of geography as the medium for his explication of San Francisco because geography is multidisciplinary. Geography encompasses history, sociology, and geology. It studies the ecology of a place: how organisms relate to their surroundings. The study of geography, says Brechin, is the story of humanity's relationship with the rest of nature.

And in nature, the modern city is at the center of a whirlpool.

Brechin's San Francisco -- depicted as a maelstrom -- sucks the natural resources out of the northern California landscape to fuel urban growth and imperial expansion. Treating San Francisco as a city with a rise -- and a probable fall -- Brechin compares it to imperial Rome. Both cities took their sustenance from the contado, a richly layered Italian word connoting countryside, territory, a hinterland paying tribute to the dominant city. The emergence of both Rome and of San Francisco was based on the mining of metals for purposes of creating wealth and waging war. Both cities drew precious water from afar; both grew rich from the labors of conquered peoples. Both were run by family dynasties whose wealth was rooted in real estate, and in ownership of the means of communication.

Imperial San Francisco nearly splits its seams with interesting nuggets of history discovered by Brechin inside musty archives at the University of California. His lucid style and sense of rhythm make the book read more like a novel than an academic tome.

The book begins with an explanation of the "Pyramid of Mining." Brechin pays homage to his intellectual forbear, the first professional city-ographer, Lewis Mumford, who described society as an invisible machine whose "working parts are human bodies driven by carefully inculcated belief systems." For Mumford and Brechin, cities are founded on the extraction of metals from the earth -- the technology of mining becomes linked onomatopoeically to mechanization, metallurgy, militarism, and moneymaking. In short, to imperialism -- warlike expansion motivated by profit-seeking.

Great cities are social creatures dependent upon access to cheap water, says Brechin. The enterprising families that brought water to San Francisco's sand dunes -- first from San Mateo County, then from the High Sierras -- were land speculators. The Ralstons, Newlands, Stanfords, Spreckels, de Youngs, and Hearsts wielded their political power to steer public projects into their lands, bringing water, energy, railroads, and appreciated capital values. They then invested wealth torn from the San Francisco contado in Hawaiian sugar plantations and mining ventures in Mexico and the Philippines.

Nor were the Spreckels, de Youngs, and Hearsts above using the three competing San Francisco newspapers they owned to promote their investments. William Randolph Hearst, for example, used his yellow-media monopoly -- led by his flagship San Francisco Examiner -- to almost single-handedly draw America into the Spanish-American War. The waning of Spain as a colonial force opened much of Latin America and the Philippines to mining interests based in San Francisco, most notably those of Hearst himself.

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