Mining San Francisco’s Dark Past

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For anyone who is sick and tired of the vast literature of L.A.-bashing, “Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin” by Gray Brechin (University of California Press, $29.95, 414 pages) will come as a refreshing surprise. Here is a book that fairly sizzles with outrage over water-grabs and land-grabs, “environmental blunders” and “the dynastic, corporate and political alliances that enable some cities to claim and acquire empires as their rightful due”--and yet the target is quaint and charming San Francisco rather than the customary urban whipping boy, Los Angeles.

“World-famed for the beauty of its setting and for its romantic history, San Francisco has largely escaped the harsh judgments to which less lovable cities are subject,” Brechin explains. “The environmental consequences of building San Francisco have merged with the costs of other cities to the ever-growing peril of Earth’s life-support systems.”

Gray Brechin is a kind of born-again professor with a reporter’s chops--he returned to UC Berkeley to earn his PhD in “historical geography” after a career in print and television journalism. His scholarship in “Imperial San Francisco” is authoritative and resourceful, but he also shows himself to be an authentic visionary and something of an ideologue too. Beneath the surface of San Francisco, almost literally, Brechin perceives what he calls “the Pyramid of Mining,” the powerful but invisible mechanism of wealth and power that began in the mines during the California Gold Rush and reached its highest expression in the city of San Francisco.


“The high rises of a modern downtown,” he points out, showing us the familiar skyline of contemporary San Francisco, “resemble an inverted minescape and serve much the same purpose for those who own them.”

Brechin traces an unbroken thread running from the empire-builders of the ancient world to the founders and builders of San Francisco, and he argues that “imperial” cities have always relied on natural resources taken from the hinterlands around them. When the gold miners who rushed to California in 1849 dubbed themselves “Argonauts,” he points out, they were reaching back into classical mythology--and Brechin, too, likens the ambitions of San Francisco’s earliest movers and shakers to those of imperial Rome. Thus, for example, Brechin draws out the symbolism of the neoclassical “water temple” erected to celebrate San Francisco’s earliest water system.

“Like the sacred springs of the ancient world,” he writes, “it paid homage to the source of life that made possible the city on the San Francisco Peninsula.”

Indeed, water figures as prominently as gold in “Imperial San Francisco.” Brechin points out that San Francisco, just like Los Angeles, is actually “a coastal desert” that survives only on water from far-distant sources. Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who created Manhattan’s Central Park, recommended that parkland in San Francisco be planted with “drought-tolerant California natives,” but the city fathers insisted on the lush landscapes that we see today in Golden Gate Park. To create Golden Gate Park--and, more crucially, to sustain the development of San Francisco--a water supply was ultimately secured in the Sierra Nevada, where the scenic Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite was dammed to create a reservoir.

“Hetch Hetchy did precisely what it was designed to do--raise land values,” Brechin explains. “This was no less true for San Francisco than it was for Rome or for Los Angeles.”

Brechin may display an impressive command of California history, but he is very much focused on the here and now. The same imperial ambitions that inspired the Hearsts and the DeYoungs, for example, fueled the growth of UC Berkeley, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and even the invention of “the Gadget”--that is, the atomic bomb developed under the auspices of physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and the UC laboratories at Berkeley and Livermore.


“While it cherishes the memory of Lawrence, the university today prefers to forget the long-term legacy of the arms race in which it has played such a leading role,” Brechin writes. “In this, it has been no different from the authors of countless accounts of Western mining booms who neglect mention of environmental and speculative ruin in favor of tales of spectacular success, dynastic riches and philanthropy.”

“Imperial San Francisco” is an intentionally provocative work, and Brechin may not convince every reader that a “dark irrationality” underlies the glorious achievements of the pioneers who built the city in the first place. But no one who reads his book will ever look at quaint old San Francisco in quite the same way again.


For those of us who grew up in Los Angeles, the missions of California are a poignant reminder of fourth grade, when we studied the life of Father Junipero Serra in the classroom and then trekked out to Mission San Gabriel on a field trip that was something of a rite of passage. For others, the muted glory of the California missions is something first seen in a series of historical travelogues hosted by Huell Howser on public television. But nothing captures the charm of the California missions quite so fancifully as “An Uncommon Mission: Father Jerome Tupa Paints the California Missions” (Welcome Enterprises, $19.95, 96 pages).

Father Jerome Tupa is a Benedictine monk who combined art and pilgrimage to create a unique body of work that focuses on the 21 California missions founded by Father Serra and his fellow Franciscan friars in the 18th and 19th centuries. Twenty-one oil paintings--each one rich, bold, whimsical and evocative--and some 40 delicate watercolors are collected in “An Uncommon Mission,” and Holly Witchey provides a series of illuminating annotations.

“The missions are, in their own way, icons,” she points out. “The 21 structures that stretch from San Diego to Sonoma form a chain that links disparate towns geographically, spiritually and socially.”

Father Tupa’s mission artwork is on display at the San Diego Historical Society Museum in San Diego through March 12, and the exhibition will move on to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum (April 6-July 30) and then the Fresno Metropolitan Museum (Sept. 12-Nov. 19). But “An Uncommon Mission” is more than a gallery catalog; Tupa has created a kind of parallel universe in which these dusty old missions take on a remarkable new life in the realm of memory and imagination.


West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.

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* Sunday: Michael Silverblatt on Susan Sontag’s “In America”; Roger Shattuck on “Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle”; Jonathan Levi on Pankaj Mishra’s first novel, “The Romantics”; and D.J. Waldie considers life in America’s suburbs.