The Potential for Peril Built into San Francisco

A group of people stand in front of houses that pitch and lean into one another on the "Drunken Row" of Victorian homes at Howard Street (now Van Ness) between 17th and 18th.

Joanna Dyl, Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017)

On a roseate evening in San Francisco, I gaze from the windows of my room nestled atop one of the tallest buildings in the city. Around me buildings rupture from the earth and race skyward, embodied in concrete and steel yet lacking bedrock at their base. Nearby, the Millennium Tower stretches toward the upper limits of the city, all the while undermined, sinking and subsiding into the boggy alluvial soils at its feet. Perched atop the heights of the cityscape, my mind frequently turns to the ground far below and the deeper processes inscribed in the layers beneath. Tension builds along faults fractured into the geologic strata, the potential for peril written into the landscape around me. The past and the present intertwine in this place that precariously occupies the space between the San Andreas and Hayward faults, where tectonic activity whispers and at times roars from below. Its rumbling speaks of shifting, striking, slipping earth and seismic futures.

A view of the San Francisco skyline including the Millenium Tower and the Salesforce Tower, which is under construction in this image.

A view from one of San Francisco’s tallest buildings. Millennium Tower at center; to the right, the soon-to-be-completed Salesforce Tower. Photo by Shari Wilcox, 2017.

In the relatively short history of this city, one event stands in sharp relief from the regular seismic activity of the region. In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, an earthquake rocked the city of San Francisco. Two strong shocks in quick succession, and at least 34 aftershocks, devastated the landscape. Over the following three days a series of fires compounded the toll of the disaster, destroying more than half the city and resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths and property damage totaling $350-500 million in 1906 dollars. One of the deadliest natural disasters in the country’s history, its narrative of unpredictable disaster, inferno, and a city rising phoenix-like from the ashes resonates in American memory.

In her book, Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake, Joanna Dyl observes that historical scholarship is remarkably silent on the roles of natural disasters in the making and remaking of the urban environment. The cover of the book, Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco's 1906 Earthquake, published by the University of Washington Press.Dyl uses this moment of catastrophe in San Francisco’s history to examine the ways in which crisis and recovery are shaped by the confluences of human action and natural environment in place. Dyl’s analysis reveals the ways in which cultural, political, and economic pressures influence the nature of the built environment, even in the context of environmental hazards. The city is a complex geography of settlement and resettlement, she notes, as “at times [residents] acted to mitigate known hazards, but more often, economic and cultural imperatives took priority.”

At the heart of Dyl’s work is tension around the idea of the “natural,” both in terms of place and process. Dyl finds that the idea that urban spaces are unnatural, or exist apart from nature, facilitates an artificial sense of distance from natural processes. Disasters, then, are characterized as abnormal, unusual events rather than regular episodes endemic to the site. This perceived distance between the city and nature-out-there, she argues, alters perceptions of risk and the ways in which hazard mitigation is balanced alongside economic and social aims.

Smoke billows above burning buildings.

Fires worsened the impact of the 1906 earthquake. More than half the city was destroyed. Photo by A.L. Murat, 1906.

The city’s leadership relentlessly “rushed to rebuild and forget” following periodic destructive seismic events in the 19th century, embracing these moments of destruction as opportunities for non-reflexive, capitalist-fueled re-creation. A steadfast focus on economic development facilitated changes to landscape features and the construction of urban environments that placed the city’s residents in the way of catastrophic events.

A map of San Francisco showing liquefaction risk, which is highest in areas along the coastline that have been filled in.

San Francisco Liquefaction Risk (Landfill) Areas. Map: The Big Social Picture, 2013.

Most notably, the expansion of the city’s coastline involved the haphazard filling of mudflats and bays with loose soil, underlying parts of what are now the Marina, Mission Bay, and North Beach districts. These “improvements” to the natural environment reclaimed land to build the city’s financial district, expanded and improved deep water shipping channels and harbors, and enabled a proliferation of marinas to accommodate ship-borne commerce, solidifying the city’s role as the commercial hub of the Pacific Coast.

However, these changes to the city’s morphology placed residents at significant risk. These lands were particularly problematic during seismic events, as the loose, saturated soil amplified seismic waves and liquefied, partially swallowing buildings into the boggy earth. While the lands were known to be unstable, development of these regions of the city continued in the early 20th century unabated. They were the most deeply affected in the 1906 earthquake, an epicenter of disaster stemming from unacknowledged hazard and unmitigated risk.

A map showing that 497 blocks in San Francisco were destroyed by earthquake-caused fires.

A map of San Francisco shows the extent of area burned and reconstructed by 1908. Created by the Punnett Brothers, 1908.

Dyl writes into this un/natural history of urban disaster and resurrection the unequal geographies of the city, resuscitating historical actors including immigrants, people of color, women, and the poor. This tectonic event also revealed social fault lines, Dyl argues, facilitating unanticipated sites of resistance on the landscape “as residents of all classes, races, and political persuasions fought for their visions for their city.” These narratives of survival and resistance complicate tidy Progressive-era stories of urban reform and revitalization, revealing heterogeneous experiences of disaster and remaking within the city. The struggle to claim property at the city’s heart, previously occupied by the Chinese immigrant community, demonstrates well these localized, place-based contests over the nature, character, and trajectory of neighborhoods decimated by the earthquake and fires.

A man walks through the rubble of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and surveys the damage.

A man surveys the destruction in Chinatown. Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1906.

Dyl’s work enlivens historical actors typically removed from narratives of this urban revitalization. Following the disaster, city leadership prioritized “improvements which are of strict commercial value and which will immediately aid in the reconstruction of the city from a business standpoint.” To these ends, they sought to remove marginalized groups, including the Chinese immigrant community, who resided on valuable real estate at the center of the city. The community’s successful resistance connected directly to the city’s primary concern with economic development, as “Chinese representatives made it clear that San Francisco’s preeminent place in trade with China was in jeopardy if city leaders forced relocation.” Thus, despite the poverty of the community, the district held important economic weight, which “proved more powerful than racial fears.” A new Chinatown emerged from the destruction with a unique sense of revitalization that embraced reformist aspects, including better lighting and broader streets accented with an ornate, faux-Oriental aesthetic that further heightened the community’s role in commerce and tourism.

Dyl asks provocative questions about how we retell narratives of past disasters, account for natural processes in our present lives, and plan for our futures in these sites. In a year when communities in the United States are deeply impacted by disasters stemming from natural processes intersecting with human infrastructure from flood to fire (including the Bay Area’s disastrous wildfires), this seems particularly relevant to the ways we understand efforts to re-place lives and livelihoods in these affected regions. Locating contemporary events within broader historical contexts makes evident the ways capitalist priorities are built into the foundations of urban environments, deeply influencing the ways in which the city is physically structured and occupied. Perhaps the contemporary chapter of this story is best located in the Millennium Tower at the heart of the city’s financial district. Listing under the weight of its own construction, undermined by soils filled in pursuit of past enterprise, and occupied by the city’s wealthiest residents, the unmoored structure gestures quietly to the potential for future disaster.

Featured image: Houses pitch and lean into one another on the “Drunken Row” of Victorian homes at Howard Street (now Van Ness) between 17th and 18th. Photo by W.J. Street, 1906. Courtesy of the Marin County Free Library.

Shari Wilcox is Associate Director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Broadly, her work examines perceptions of hazards in the environment and much of her research has focused on relationships between humans and predatory mammalian species. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Historical Animal Geographies (Routledge, May 2018). WebsiteContact. 

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