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UC Berkeley geographer's new book, "Imperial San Francisco," details damage cities wreak on surrounding countryside
20 Jan 2000

By Bob Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- 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 of California."

San Francisco, depicted dispatching fleets of ships into the Pacific, was to be the center of that empire, and the entire "Golden State" the beneficiary.

A 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.

Called "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.

"Most 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?"

He 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.

Brechin 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.

Much 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.

Many 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]."

Among 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.

Brechin 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.

Few 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 parasitism."

Brechin 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."

He says that the state's environmental destruction continues today, though with urban sprawl the imperialist center is much larger than San Francisco itself.

"Today 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.

"The 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."

The 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.

He 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.

"The 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."

In 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.

But 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.

"In 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."


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