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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Iliveinacity: Chroniclesofatowninmotion

Published: March 9, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

I live in a city, yes I do, made by human hands.
–Malvina Reynolds

Come witness remarkable moments in the great cities we call home and the people who made them. Second in a series.

I. A Great Confluence

The Spaniards had built a fort and mission there in 1776, naming the settlement after St. Francis of Assisi. A town wedged on a peninsula between a large bay and the cold Pacific Ocean currents is seldom without moisture, even in summer. One particular San Francisco day in 1869 was no exception

Imagine a young city, ideally situated where an inland delta meets the bay and ocean, riding a twenty-year wave of growth and financial prosperity since the discovery of gold at nearby Sutters Mill. Now picture this geographically-blessed town equally cursed by its own topography, its straight, grid-plan streets ascending at impossible angles over hills of legendary steepness. Imagine horse-drawn streetcars negotiating muddy cobblestone slopes as a British immigrant marvels at the sight. Picture the random slipping of a hoof

Witnessing the carnage that ensued, Andrew Smith Hallidie got an idea, and from that sprang an innovation that would forever change the face of San Francisco: The cable car. Inspired by the wire rope his father had patented, Hallidies invention employed moving cables beneath the streets, pulled by stationary engines in remote powerhouses. Motorless trolleys climbed and descended streets by gripping the moving, buried cables through a groove between the rails.

Three such cable car lines, their once-revolutionary technology now a quaint anachronism, remain in use to this day.

It is ironic that a Thirteenth-Century saint known for his love of animals would become the namesake for a city whose signature landmark resulted from the horrific death of five horses. Such ironies are born in the confluence of random events. But just as hooves can slip on loose ground, so too can the ground itself move, precipitating havoc of a far greater order

II. While Children Slept

Who can imagine what countless dreams were interrupted at 5:12 in the morning on 18 April, 1906, when a slippage occurred along a break in the Pacific Ocean floor, two miles offshore. Along a 290-mile stretch of this gap, known as the San Andreas Fault, one side shifted twenty feet northward relative to the other, inducing a temblor measuring 7.9 on the moment-magnitude scale. It lasted for over a minute.

Its hard to forget the sight of the ground boiling. The phenomenon, known as liquefaction, is the fluid-like behavior of sandy soil bombarded by seismic waves. On-camera, though no shaking can be seen, ordinary earth appears instantly transformed into churning soup, effectively becoming quicksand and consuming buildings whole in a matter of seconds. In San Francisco, it was a particular problem in shoreline neighborhoods built on artificial land.

Structures on solid, rocky ground fared somewhat better, but it must have been more than disturbing to gaze down streets and see the ripple of ground-waves approaching at ten-thousand miles per hour in long, low swells

With over 80% of San Francisco destroyed by the quake and the fires that followed, the dead numbered approximately three-thousand, and most of the total population of 410,000 was left homeless. One notable building to survive was A.P. Hotalings liquor warehouse, inspiring a visiting journalist to immortalize this latest morbid twist of irony in verse:

If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And spare Hotalings whiskey?

III. A Hundred-Million Miracles

The city had been a major financial center. Though it would eventually recover, its destruction helped to spur the growth of Los Angeles in less-developed southern California.

In the aftermath, four-thousand Army troops were dispatched from the nearby Presidio to build temporary housing. The 5,600 tiny cabins they constructed of native fir and redwood eventually housed over sixteen-thousand refugees.

The same soldiers had been authorized by Mayor Eugene Schmitz to shoot to kill civilians engaged in looting. There were as many as 500 victims, and many were not looters but merchants trying to salvage their wares from the approaching fires. Among those disproportionately harmed were Chinese immigrants.

Ironically, the citys Chinese community, which had proliferated when mining jobs dwindled after the Gold Rush, also grew in the years following the disaster. Although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had restricted new immigration to relatives of U.S. citizens, the destruction of the municipal Hall of Records enabled thousands to claim family ties to city residents, and the state lacked the evidence to disprove the claims.

With Chinatown in ruins, some planners proposed relocation of the community to marginal areas of town. More progressive officials, together with Chinese-American merchants, persuaded the city to let the community rebuild itself, partly to attract tourism. Thus, Chinatown followed what would in time become known as a quintessentially California strategy: Re-fashioning itself in a commercially-lucrative fantasy image. The tactic, however contrived, managed to preserve an authentic community that, like the rest of San Francisco, would recover and eventually prosper.

Such are the miracles and paradoxes that abound in San Francisco: A city in constant motion, born in the confluence of events, challenged in tragedy, re-conceived in fantasy and hope, and made by human hands.

[ Pastel on green canvas ]

[ No burden for shoulders so big ]