Berkeley geographer's new book, "Imperial San Francisco,"
details damage cities wreak on surrounding countryside
Bob Sanders, Public Affairs
Just over a century ago, on the last day of the 19th century,
the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the spirit of the age
with a full-page spread promoting "The Imperial Future
Francisco, depicted dispatching fleets of ships into the Pacific,
was to be the center of that empire, and the entire "Golden
State" the beneficiary.
century later, geographer Gray Brechin of the University of
California, Berkeley, investigates that city's pursuit of empire
and shows, instead, the environmental ravages it has brought
the state of California and the Pacific basin.
"Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin"
(University of California Press, 1999), the book takes a unique,
"biocentric" view of the city's rise. The approach
evidently struck a cord with readers, since the book, published
in September, is going into a third printing.
books about cities look inward, but I've taken a very inside-out
look at the city," said Brechin, 52, the Ciriacy-Wantrup
Postdoctoral Fellow in UC Berkeley's geography department. "What
is the effect of the city on the people and land around it?"
attempts, he writes, "to understand the process of urban
imperialism so rapidly consuming this splendid earth, and to
answer the question raised by the kind of cities we build today:
Are they worth it?" From Brechin's perspective, the answer
is an emphatic no.
documents how San Francisco's merchants and financiers, its
engineers and politicians, extracted food, minerals, timber,
water and energy from Northern California, Nevada and beyond,
leaving devastation in their wake. They denuded major parts
of the Sierra Nevada, exterminated the resident Indian tribes,
polluted the water and filled up the streams and rivers with
sediment hosed out of hillsides in the search of gold.
of this devastation has been documented before, but Brechin
personalizes the story by focusing on the people and families
- the "dynastic elites" - that controlled the wealth
of San Francisco and financed the despoliation.
of these movers and shakers were involved with the San Francisco
Mining Exchange, which in the mid-1800s financed much of the
hydraulic mining that eroded the Sierra foothills and clogged
the streams and San Francisco Bay with silt. They also fleeced
its investors. Robert Louis Stevenson referred to the Mining
Exchange as "a great pump, we might call it, continually
pumping up the savings of the lower quarters into the pockets
of the millionaires upon [Nob Hill]."
these millionaires were William Chapman Ralston and William
Sharon, who got rich off gold mining in California and silver
mining on Nevada's Comstock Lode. The wealth they accumulated
later paid for the diversion of nearby water sources to the city,
thereby ensuring that their land holdings would have access
to water and thus attract a higher price. San Francisco's thirst
for water and energy eventually led to the damming of the Tuolumne
River and the destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley.
details the role played by the city's newspapers and magazines,
too, in exploiting the people and resources of the state. William
Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner and Michael de Young's
San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted the many projects conceived
by the city's wealthy. The papers also reflected the jingoist
and racist attitudes prevalent at the turn of the century, when
U.S. expansion into the Pacific and subjugation of the "Asian
races" seemed manifest destiny.
people in Brechin's book come across as admirable, and some,
like de Young and Hearst, are painted as downright despicable.
Brechin did grow to like several of the major characters in
San Francisco history, however, including William Hammond Hall,
a civil engineer and the architect of Golden Gate Park. Hall,
too, recognized the deleterious effects cities have on their
surrounding countryside, what Brechin refers to as "urban
said he got interested in the subject after observing and reading
about the lasting environmental effects classical cities like
Rome, Athens and Alexandria had on the lands encircling the
Mediterranean. "The book could serve as a model for histories
of other great cities."
says that the state's environmental destruction continues today,
though with urban sprawl the imperialist center is much larger
than San Francisco itself.
there is virtually no discussion of how big cities should be
and of their consequences for the Earth," Brechin said.
"My great worry is that with massive assaults by enormous
cities, which are like cancerous lesions, the environment will
suffer irreversible collapse.
point of 'Imperial San Francisco' is to change people's fundamental
perceptions of cities so that they will DO something. You have
to first name the disease before you can hope to cure it."
book also focuses on the University of California. The Hearst
family, for example, built the great Hearst Memorial Mining
Building on the campus to train mining engineers to manage and
exploit mines throughout the West as well as in countries like
South Africa, Brechin said.
also details the role the university played in the nation's
militarism and the development of weaponry during the Spanish-American
War and the two World Wars, culminating in the atomic bomb.
This evolved into UC oversight of two weapons labs, Los Alamos
and Livermore national laboratories, linking the university
inextricably in the public mind with the development of nuclear
weapons laboratories, rooted in the Manhattan Project, are still
a cloud over the university," Brechin said. "The University
of California doesn't want people to associate the laboratories
with their mission of teaching and public service."
the end, did San Francisco ever realize its dreams of empire?
Brechin says it nearly succeeded, with the financial center
of Montgomery Street giving New York's Wall Street a run for
the money. Eventually, however, Los Angeles outgrew and overtook
San Francisco, leaving the city an also-ran.
the region still has imperial aspirations, Brechin said. Silicon
Valley, lavishly financed by San Francisco money, is now spreading
"like a cancer" throughout the Bay Area, inflating
land values, polluting ground water, and generally filling the
pockets of the region's wealthy and influential.
a sense, a greater San Francisco, with seven million people,
is still imperial," he said. "Silicon Valley in particular
is having a dramatic effect as far away as the San Joaquin Valley.
This effect will complete the urbanization of the Central Valley
and finish it off as a farming region."