Ponder the Unthinkable

At 5:12 a.m., 106 years ago today, our city was leveled. The 1906 earthquake ran along 296 miles of the San Andreas Fault. (By comparison, 1989’s Loma Prieta quake ran along 25 miles.) It was felt in Oregon, Nevada, and points south of Los Angeles. It lasted 45 to 60 seconds, which in “earthquake time” feels like half an hour. (Loma Prieta lasted 10 to 15 seconds.) The destruction from the quake and resulting fire was inconceivable by any standard. More than 3,000 dead, and 225,000 — more than half the city’s population — homeless. More than 28,000 buildings were lost, including a relatively new City Hall. Anyone who’s lived here any length of time knows the dark fascination we have with this catastrophe, especially when contemplating photographs taken in its aftermath. I know that intersection, we say to ourselves. I’ve stood in that very spot 100 times. Rodger C. Birt and Marvin Nathan know this. They also know as much or more than anyone we’ve met regarding San Francisco history. (Full disclosure: We took an urban history class from Birt at SF State, where he and Nathan taught for decades.) They’ve assembled a remarkable number of rare and previously unseen photographs from the era in History’s Anteroom: Photography in San Francisco, 1906-1909, and they’ve given each shot a close inspection and provided historical context. The volume covers the wreckage and rubble, but also has shots of the city coming back to life, and a “regional rebirth” called the Portola Festival three years later. That gives us hope today when we think about the disaster. We’ve come back before, we can do it again.
Wed., April 18, 6 p.m., 2012

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