Thursday, February 2, 2012

Completed: Historic San Francisco

Dear Jenny,

As predicted, this book made me say, "Awww... I'm leaving and I should have seen [awesome SF thing]!" But on a positive note: It's a list of things for me to do when I come back to visit.

I learned a lot about both California and San Francisco history reading this book. Of course, I knew practically nothing to begin with, so that wasn't tough, but it was easy to read and I found myself compelled to share information with other people as I read it (a sign of a good book, I think... when you say, "I was reading about this in a book the other day...").

Plus, many street and landmark names were made so clear to me (Sutter, Stanford, Mark Hopkins, just to name a few.) And, I learned some interesting things things about how San Francisco "works" (or doesn't -- why Market St. is such a clusterfuck, for instance.)

History book + Guide book. Two great tastes... ?
The author had a very ambitious goal -- to write a history book and a guide book. For the most part, I would say he succeeded.

The organization makes sense, at least on paper: Each chapter covers a discrete period of San Francisco's history and is broken down into the following sections:
  • Introduction/Executive Summary telling what is covered in the chapter
  • The "meat" of the chapter, reporting the period in detail
  • A "break out" section, highlighting one particular notable individual of the time period
  • A list of attractions that you can visit today that are mentioned in the chapter
Sounds good, right? Learn a little bit about history, then go and see where the history happened! But... there are a few problems.

For one thing, certain locations are mentioned relating to several different time periods. The fourth time I came across the Wells Fargo Museum, I thought, "Wait... we already covered this, didn't we?" So I flipped back and yes, that museum had already been mentioned in previous chapters... but in each chapter, only the artifacts and exhibits that related to the particular time period were discussed.

If I really did use this book as a city guide, I might end up missing interesting things in a particular location because I didn't notice that the location came up several times in the book.

Oddly, there was also a complete list of all of the locations at the very end of the book, with "highlights" that reference the chapters in the book that covered the location. Sooo... as much as I hate endnotes (the little numbers always distract me so!) I think that may have been the most effective way to deal with this throughout the book. And, perhaps, if the author wanted to address all of the sights to see for one particular time period, he could have just had a simple list at the end of each chapter, with instructions to go to the back for more details?

The same thing happened with the person/event highlighted at the end of each chapter. He would often repeat part of the story that had already been covered in the chapter itself before expounding on it more. I found myself thinking, "Wait. Didn't I just read that?" I'm pretty intolerant of repeated information when I'm reading -- trust me to read it once and get it the first time.

Surprising info: Silver, Barbary Coast, Pan-Pacific
It was interesting to read about the mining of silver being more important to the development of San Francisco than the gold rush. I guess gold is just more glamorous? Cause that seems to be all that everyone can talk about here. I guess I've heard of the "Big Bonanza" before, but did not realize exactly what that meant. So that was really interesting.

I've also heard people talk about the "Barbary Coast trail" and I've seen the markers for it in the City, but I had a vague notion of what that was actually about -- Gold rush, right? Something about that? "Red light district" or something? Um, it was about 1000 times worse than that name implies. The author did not shy away from describing some of the terrible debauchery that women were forced into, as well as the horrifying "shanghaiing" that went on -- trapping sailors (Literally! Trap doors in bar floors!) and enslaving them as crew members on ships bound across the ocean. Just... really terrible stuff.

The book was not gratuitously graphic, but the picture ain't pretty. San Francisco, the Barbary Coast is nothing to be proud of -- I've never considered "human trafficking" to be an awesome tourist attraction. (Just looked it up online -- the description of the walking tour at the Barbary Coast Trail tourism website is definitely whitewashing things. It's like making a Holocaust museum that "explores German history.") I'll admit I am probably overly sensitive about these things, but... come on!

So let's swing back around to the good stuff: I already knew quite a bit about the Pan Pacific International Exposition of 1915, as it is the origin of my most-favoritest-building-in-the-whole-wide-world (pictured above -- the Palace, of course), but I was still amazed by some of the details -- they built a 43 story "Tower of Jewels," described this way:
"This glittering edifice literally shimmered, because attached to it were over one hundred thousand colored, cut-glass beads suspended by wires so that they would flutter in the breeze. The effect was further enhanced by tiny mirrors placed behind each bauble, which made them glint and flash in the light." [197]
Dude. 43 stories of that?! I'm just amazed. Flipping awesome. And just 9 years after a good portion of the City had burned to the ground. Go, San Fran!

A couple of hiccups
The history hiccup I had was that we sort of skipped from the "Summer of Love" in 1969 to the earthquake in 1989. The 70s and 80s are glossed over in a few paragraphs, but I would have been interested in more about that, especially since a timeline in the back of the book shows a rather dramatic population decline during that time. After the exhaustive details about mining silver, where are some details about this time period?

And the attraction hiccup: sometimes the author would talk about an exhibit or location in great detail and then say "This attraction/location closed on [insert date here]." What?! Then why even mention it? This was the second edition of the book (the first was in 1991), so perhaps he was just quickly editing to get it to print, but it seems odd to leave the "Look at the neat thing you can see! Whoops! Just kidding!" element in the book.

The history book from history
Random note because we've talked about books that are "pre cell phone": This book was published in 1999 (I'm sure I bought it right when I moved here in 2000) so there are zero references to websites for information about the attractions, which I noticed (What's this... phone number thing...?) It's not the fault of the book at all -- just a funny observation. It looks like there was an updated version in 2007, so that probably has more online information.

Conclusion: I liked it!
Overall, I really enjoyed this book -- definitely learned a lot and it piqued my interest in exploration (you can see the epicenter of the 1906 quake at Point Reyes, where "what was once one continuous fence is now two fences, sixteen feet out of alignment." [182]) (Wild!) but the odd layout did make it a bit of a digging expedition to use a straight-up guidebook. I would love to read the history book and then have the guide book available via a website/e-book/app, but I'm not quite sure we're there yet.

Even without the electronic ideas implemented, I think the history book and guide book could have been split up for more effective use. Regardless, this book was chock full of info and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.


1 comment:

  1. K,

    That sounds like an interesting book! I'm glad you read it while you are still there. I was just thinking the other day about how we had to take a semester of Ohio history in either 7th or 8th grade. At the time, that seemed so silly. The idea that anything interesting happened where we lived was comical. Now that I'm older, I'm so much more interested in the stories about the places where I have lived. Well, except for Seattle. Just another sign of my disdain.

    The whole whitewashing of history aspect is always interesting to me. There's a book I remember reading with a similar theme back when we lived in California. I think it might have been called Denial of Disaster, and it was all about the coverup of the actual damage after the Earthquake in 1906. Basically, *thousands* of people really died, but they didn't want to scare people away from investing in the rebuilding of San Francisco.

    That's hilarious about the phone numbers rather than websites. It's just one of those things that has changed the world so much and every once in a while you remember how it used to be. Now, when do you think my phone will be able to turn itself into a jetpack?