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From a Long-Ago Quake, Some Lessons About True Grit

My father, then 6 years old, was asleep in his family’s San Francisco home when that city was struck by the great earthquake of 1906.

A china cabinet fell on his bed, but missed him. The family flat in the Mission District was damaged, and in a few hours fire began moving toward the neighborhood. My grandfather got his wagon and the family horse, Babe, and the Boyarskys, with a few possessions, headed toward the refugee encampment in Golden Gate Park.

As it did for many San Franciscans, the earthquake and fire changed the course of family history. Suddenly among the 250,000 homeless, the Boyarskys obtained a pass from the military authorities, and took the ferry across San Francisco Bay to Oakland, where they settled and my father grew up.

When my father told me about the event, I could see what an adventure it had been for him. He used to take me to old San Francisco restaurants that dated back to the earthquake and before, such as the Fly Trap and the Ritz Poodle Dog. When we drove along broad Van Ness Avenue, he told me how the fire was finally stopped there after destroying much of the city.

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I was fascinated by the jaunty attitude reflected in these stories, the way San Francisco had defied its geology and rebuilt after a disaster that killed more than 450. I knew that the city’s symbol was the phoenix rising from the ashes. I learned the defiant poem: “From the Ferry to Van Ness, you’re a God-forsaken mess. But you’re the damnedest finest ruins, nothing more or nothing less.” And I knew another poem written by a newspaperman commenting on the symbolism of a famous distillery surviving in the notoriously sinful city: “If, as some say, God spanked the town for being over frisky, why did He burned the churches down and save Hotaling’s Whisky.”

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So, of course, when our big earthquake struck and I saw the refugee encampments, just like the Boyarskys’ in Golden Gate Park, I thought of San Francisco. There were 6-year-olds in the new camps, just like my father, except their parents came from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador rather than Lithuania.

I wanted to refresh my memory about the spirited way San Francisco confronted its disaster. I reached up to the bookshelves and pulled out David Lavender’s “California: Land of New Beginnings,” Kevin Starr’s “Americans and the Californian Dream 1850-1915,” and William Bronson’s “The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned.”

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As I looked at the books, I was struck by the parallels, lessons we might learn from that long-ago quake.

The lesson drawn from Lavender’s book is to beware of rip-offs in the haste to rebuild.

With San Francisco desperate to get its transit system moving again, the supervisors, after accepting bribes, awarded the streetcar franchise to the corrupt United Railroads. Meanwhile, wrote Lavender, “companies involved in municipal rehabilitation clamored for and received special privileges.”

We’re entering a period in Los Angeles where business people will be wheeling and dealing with federal, state and local governments under heavy pressure to rebuild. Builders, anxious to get moving, will demand that bureaucratic red tape be slashed. But, as we have seen with rip-offs after procedures were speeded up for distribution of food stamps, red tape for checking credentials and bidding for jobs can often be a protection against fraud.

The lesson of Starr’s book is that it is useless to make grandiose plans. Everyone is too busy rebuilding to follow them.

Before the 1906 earthquake, an ambitious proposal for a new San Francisco had been prepared by a famous architect and city planner, Daniel Hudson Burnham. It envisioned an acropolis atop Twin Peaks, broad boulevards, huge parks, and a system of reservoirs, aqueducts and inner-city lakes and fountains.

Burnham hurried to the wrecked city and began lobbying civic leaders for support of his plan. But real-life needs prevailed. While Burnham lobbied, the city began rebuilding along the lines of pre-fire San Francisco.

Most important is the lesson from Bronson’s book--that frontier grit brought San Francisco back. At the age of 70, Rafael Weill began rebuilding his White House department store. “I have enough left to buy an annuity and live like a fighting cock for the rest of my days,” he said. “But none of that for me. I am going into the work of rebuilding with all of my soul.”

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Through his life, my father viewed earthquakes through the eyes of a 6-year-old caught in a great adventure.

Occasionally, he’d pull out the pass that got the family out of San Francisco, kept in a metal box along with his World War I discharge papers. When we were visiting Los Angeles in 1952, he insisted on stopping in Bakersfield on the drive back so he could see the damage caused by a quake that had just hit that town.

I think of that now as we Angelenos, like the old San Franciscans, are beginning to rebuild on dangerous land, defying geology and common sense. It is a challenge, and an adventure.


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