Long May She Reign?

A new book scrutinizes the city's imperial history

In Gray Brechin's new book Imperial San FranciscoUrban 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.

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 Francisco covers 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.

Pulling no punches, Brechin describes the slaughter of 600,000 Filipinos by U.S. Marines, whose well-documented brutality has been excised from American history books. San Francisco Bay, Brechin tells us, was the staging area for the invasion forces which “liberated” the Philippines from Spanish colonialism, only to subjugate its people to the American economy. According to Brechin, the steady stream of jingoist racism spewed forth by San Francisco's daily newspapers shaped the thoughts of a increasingly warlike populace, which ultimately benefited from imported riches as San Francisco's capitalists learned to dominate the Pacific “lake.”

Brechin traces the exact links between San Francisco's bouts of yellow journalism and the mining and agri-business profits that accrued to the publishers of the yellow journals. Brechin's own deep mining of his subject unearths many informational gems. For instance, in the mid-1930s, William Randolph Hearst, “began syndicating columns by General Hermann Goering and Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, giving 30 million Americans the Nazis' point of view without space for rebuttal.” The goose-stepping columns commenced right after Hearst “sold the services of his International News Service to the German Propaganda Ministry for a vastly inflated fee of $400,000.” The infectiously racist Hearst was vehemently anti-Japanese, of course, but he had a soft spot for Hitler.

Imperial San Francisco has many strengths and a few weaknesses. It is strong in scholarship and the telling of interesting tales; above all, it is engaging and stylistic, packed with potent images. Its weaknesses stem from turning a charming literary conceit — Mumford's pyramid of words beginning with “m” — into a scientific world-view. It's a bit too clean and poetic. And towards the end of his book, Brechin strays from his subject city to another place — Berkeley — leaving the reader hanging, wondering what happened to San Francisco.

Brechin makes no apologies for his Berkeley-centrism. He sees the University of California at Berkeley, which was a special philanthropic project of the Hearst family for decades, as the source of intellectual energy supplying the engineers and managers — the “termites” — necessary to run San Francisco's imperial estates. Although he says he loves his school, Brechin is scornful of the university's entwining with the nuclear weapons industry.

Brechin, age 52, is an interesting combination of rebel and scholar. He cut his activist teeth in the 15-year battle to save Mono Lake from the tender — draining — mercies of the Los Angeles City Water Department. His writing skills were honed in the 1980s by stints as a television commentator on urban affairs for KRON-TV, and as a columnist for KQED's Focus magazine. Brechin says he lost both these jobs because he refused to write “lifestyle” journalism. While his erudition is widely acknowledged in scholarly and activist circles, his philosophy takes no prisoners. The bottom line is that Brechin thinks cities are “cancer lesions on the environment.”

The soft-spoken author envisages society as a machine — built of people-as-parts — dominated by family-based groups that amalgamate and conserve their wealth through inter-family marriage and joint ventures. (The multinational corporation, however, is not a family-run affair, so Brechin's thesis of social control by blood relation is a bit thin for today.)

In order to follow the money-trail of the secretive families, Brechin became a devotee of the Nob Hill Gazette and a reader of newspaper obituaries. These sources slightly expose inheritances and normally subterranean “estate companies” to public view. Brechin notes that many descendants of the de Youngs and Hearsts, for example, are now heavily invested in Silicon Valley start-ups. He points out that the irresponsible toxification of Silicon Valley emphasizes the tendency of these families to take their profits and “leave the environmental tab for others to pick up.” And as the final merger of the de Young and Hearst newspapers looms in San Francisco, Brechin's book amply demonstrates that for the owners of both newspapers, the sacred public trust has never been viewed as more than a cynically wielded means to enrichment.

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