Though my WIP novel Butchertown is set in a highly fictionalized—but recognizable—East Bay city, San Francisco (also fictionalized) exerts its own tug from across the Bay through the chilly fog that covers the entire story from beginning to end. A bigger tug than I realized, as I’ve learned from one of the books I’ve been consulting.
Despite my manipulations, research into the real history of the real Bay Area continues. Since my last piece on this topic, the stack of books on my desk has shrunk by several (and grown by two). Some books I consulted only briefly for isolated queries; or, I put them aside because they turned out to be less relevant than I’d hoped. (At least one I threw against the wall).
One of the books I did read board-to-board provided an essential historical perspective, which I’d like to share with you: Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, EarthlyRuin, by Berkeley historical geographer Gray Brechin.
Brechin’s compelling, strongly asserted thesis is that all major cities, from ancient Athens to the super-megacities now sprouting all over China, grew as they did through the ruthless extraction of natural resources, especially earth minerals, such as gold, silver, wood, and, of course, coal and oil.
The book describes how the mining industry built on its wealth creating a kind of pyramid that helped it concentrate and extend its power; and how most of us still live within the porous, loosely defined walls of these still-growing “imperial cities.”
It’s a subject as sprawling as Los Angeles, as dense and towering as New York; so, to get a better handle on it, Dr. Brechin frames his thesis around L.A.’s rival to the north, the City by the Bay, San Francisco—from its beginning as a sand-blown village, population 1,000, to its dizzying rise as the “Rome of the West.” San Francisco once rivaled New York and was, for over 60 years, by far the largest city on the US West Coast. And one that sought to create its own empire, extending as far as Japan and the Philippines.
The myth of the 1849 California Gold Rush casts a gilded glow, but in truth, it was an often sordid, bitter, and gritty saga, with wide veins of intrigue, criminality, and exploitation.
San Francisco was its base and it reaped the benefits of this exploitation like a Dracula, invading all corners of California and beyond and bleeding them dry. The cost has been tremendously high in environmental destruction and wasted resources, both natural and human. For example, every single conifer tree around Lake Tahoe was cut down to feed San Francisco, the mining industry, and its surrounding “contados.” The trees you see there now are all second and third generation growth.
The Sierra environment was dug and ripped to shreds like this throughout. These raw wounds still scar the landscape, and will remain for eons to come. The daguerreotypes from that era look like moonscapes, bleached beyond repair.
The main beneficiaries were the few, the white, and the rich, the men of finance, rather than the actual workers. Their crumbs trickled down from the linen covered tables to the underpaid, over-worked miners, often fatally sickened by their occupation and exploited by the other extractive businesses that grew up around them to strip them of their measly pay.
The power cliques that ruled San Francisco—the mining corporations and ancillary industries; “thought-shapers,” such as the Scott Brothers, the deYoungs, and the Hearsts, and even the power brokers who built UC Berkeley—did whatever it took, at whatever cost, to build and maintain their empires, justifying their naked greed and bellicose racism with soaring, biblical propaganda. It’s a creepy, discouraging, often infuriating story.
Imperial San Francisco blasts away like a water cannon against the environmental destruction, waste, and injustice that resulted from San Francisco’s drive to become City of All Cities. (That it fell short seems due to Los Angeles’s superior luck and skill at extracting the number-one natural resource no human settlement can do without—water.)
I don’t doubt that the human species has grown itself into a zone where we’ve endangered our own existence. Still, no matter how much I accept its critique, Imperial San Francisco is a jeremiad--one-sided and relentlessly angry. Its breathtaking assertions are applied in a slab of absolute black, without a word given to benefits that human beings may have achieved by gathering into cities. The building of cities had to have been driven by more than greed.
It never asks certain questions: If cities are so bad for us, why did we exert the backbreaking effort it took to build them in the first place? And, if not cities, then what? I can’t see humanity heading back to rural life anytime soon. (One modern leader, Pol Pot of Cambodia, tried to do just that and murdered nearly 2 million of his own people.) Life on the farm wasn’t always just, either, and it was never easy.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by Author.
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.