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[TIMELINE] 100th Anniversary of S.F.'s Earthquake / Battle to Rebuild Chinatown

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  • madchinaman
    S.F. quake s hidden story By Andrew Malcolm and Mike Anton, Times Staff Writers http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-a2-
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2006
      S.F. quake's hidden story
      By Andrew Malcolm and Mike Anton, Times Staff Writers


      But hidden in the glowing version of history favored by later
      generations was a stark old reality. In the quake's chaos, San
      Franciscans lashed out at the city's underclass. They beat and shot
      Chinese immigrants, in part to prevent the rebuilding of Chinatown.


      One hundred years ago this month, San Francisco was demolished by a
      historic earthquake and fires.

      With an admirable spirit and the generosity of neighbors, the city
      quickly rebuilt with a gorgeous architecture and personality that
      has attracted praise and visitors for generations.

      But hidden in the glowing version of history favored by later
      generations was a stark old reality. In the quake's chaos, San
      Franciscans lashed out at the city's underclass. They beat and shot
      Chinese immigrants, in part to prevent the rebuilding of Chinatown.

      The total death count in the disaster may have reached 3,000.

      Now, modern civic leaders are struggling to commemorate a defining
      city moment but one that's saddled with conflicting interpretations.
      Complicating the tribute even more is the certainty that another
      catastrophic earthquake looms in the future.

      "I feel sorry for the organizers," said Tim Hodson, director of the
      Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. "How do you
      decide to commemorate a human tragedy that could repeat itself any

      Fault lines emerged early.

      One historian has insisted that the events should be marked with
      solemnity, in honor of the thousands of dead the city only recently
      officially acknowledged. San Francisco's Chinese community is
      emphasizing the era's historical atrocities.

      As in 1906, business interests are stressing a debatable, feel-good
      story line that highlights the city's continuing comeback as a
      global competitor.

      And with memories of Hurricane Katrina still raw, donors are
      focusing on seismic preparedness, shunning ideas based on

      Mayor Gavin Newsom, 38, offered his own idea: a party with local
      rock hero Carlos Santana. It was scuttled when donors worried that a
      concert would be in poor taste.

      A smattering of events has taken shape around a judiciously balanced
      theme — "Commemorate, Educate and Celebrate" — including an
      earthquake expo and the city's belated embrace of a memorial
      gathering held annually at a downtown fountain.

      Newsom acknowledged that the 1906 earthquake was an "awkward" event
      to mark.

      "Do you sit there with a candlelight vigil and say, 'My God, how
      dare the city do what it did back then, with the corruption of city
      officials or the mistreatment of its Chinese American residents?' "
      he said.

      "Do you sit there and tell people, 'Why are we all here? The next
      earthquake is going to come, and most of us are not going to make
      it.' Or do you focus on the city's comeback and rebuilding?"

      Striking just after 5 a.m., the April 18 quake and the ensuing three-
      day firestorm leveled most of San Francisco: 29,000 buildings,
      including 37 banks, two opera houses and rooming houses packed with

      What followed were scenes of heroism and cruelty.

      Rescuers risked their lives to pull victims from collapsed
      buildings, and residents patiently endured months in shabby tent
      cities. But city officials also tried unsuccessfully to move
      Chinatown from its central location to a remote outpost.

      An immediate campaign began to sanitize events: City officials
      called the disaster "The Great Fire," excising the
      word "earthquake." Headlines boasted of the recovery, and for years
      the official number of disaster dead was set at 478 — a figure
      widely accepted even though no list was ever compiled.

      The rebuilding was rapid and extravagant, including a gilded City
      Hall, and a reinvented San Francisco unveiled the result in 1915
      with its Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

      Reality was lost in the retelling. Philip Fradkin, author of "The
      Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906," said predisaster San
      Francisco was a gritty, industrial city. Officials used the
      catastrophe to cultivate a more precious identity as a "fun-loving"
      cultural and economic mecca.

      "It was never true, and certainly is not true today," Fradkin
      said. "It's a very provincial, inward-looking city. It lost its
      position after the 1906 earthquake, and since that time has promoted
      the image of what it has never been. It's become a tourist city.
      It's no longer a real city."

      In fairness, historians say, California by nature prefers the future
      to the past.

      "It's part of the mythology, which is: The place didn't exist before
      I got here," Hodson, of the Center for California Studies,
      said. "Back home, you were Norma Jean. In California, it's Marilyn

      Hodson said many California cities ignore disasters in their past.
      Others reinvent: Santa Barbara used its 1925 quake, which flattened
      much of downtown, to remake itself — hiring Hollywood set directors
      to come up with a colonial style that bore no relationship to the
      destroyed architecture.

      Cities that do commemorate disasters often do so gingerly.

      The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 has been remembered mostly through
      the uninspiring National Fire Prevention Week.

      In Galveston, Texas, civic leaders worried about how to mark the
      hurricane and flood in 1900 that killed more than 6,000.

      Business interests "said that to be so identified with hurricanes
      was awful. We shouldn't even mention it," said Linda Macdonald, who
      helped organize the centennial.

      Until the earthquake's 100th anniversary approached, San Francisco
      had done little to commemorate the historic event.

      For decades, a small gathering of survivors has observed the day at
      Lotta's Fountain, an ornate downtown landmark that in 1906 served as
      a message board for the dispossessed.

      Historian Gladys Hansen was even turned down by the city when she
      wanted to erect a memorial to victims; she had to turn to a cemetery
      in nearby Colma. (At Hansen's urging, supervisors recently passed a
      resolution acknowledging that the death toll exceeded 3,000.)

      But the centennial was a marker the city could not ignore. Newsom
      created a committee two years ago to organize what he promised would
      be a world-class observance. But only in the last few months did any
      plans begin to take form.

      "In September or October, I put my ear to the railroad track and
      didn't hear any trains coming," said city Fire Capt. James Lee, who
      is active in the department's historical society. The group is
      sponsoring an expo featuring 1906 memorabilia, as well as earthquake
      and fire safety information.

      As the main event, the city has now officially embraced the Lotta's
      Fountain gathering, and tens of thousands are expected, along with
      18 survivors. A moment of silence will mark the quake and will be
      shattered at 5:13 a.m. when fire stations sound their sirens and
      churches ring their bells.

      Also planned are a parade, firefighters costume ball and a $500-a-
      plate dinner to benefit the San Francisco Museum and Historical
      Society and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

      Current and planned independent events are plentiful. Among them are
      photo exhibits, a massive gelatin model of the city, a specially
      commissioned symphony and a ballet set to the sound of seismic
      movement from the Hayward fault.

      Despite the initial criticism, the city's centennial organization,
      called San Francisco Rising, is not shying away from all negative
      imagery. It supports the Chinese historical society, which will
      remind residents of some of San Francisco's darkest moments through
      a oneman theater production and exhibit.

      "We're not going to tell a happy story," said historical society
      Executive Director Sue Lee. "It's a very complicated story."

      The city also will be the site of three conferences for seismic
      professionals. Safety and preparedness education will occur in
      schools throughout the year.

      And Wells Fargo — the city's largest private employer and one rooted
      here since before the quake — has taken a lesson from Hurricane
      Katrina and is sponsoring a program to photograph children for
      identification purposes in the event of a disaster.

      The city has officially acknowledged the eventual reality of the Big
      One, but many residents still prefer to ignore it.

      "I hope it happens while I'm in the office; we're prepared," said
      San Francisco native Tami Espino, 48, who has neglected to assemble
      her own earthquake preparedness kit.

      "If it happens at home, I'm a dead duck."


      A Letter From the Epicenter: Celebrating the End That Never Came
      By Rebecca Solnit
      Rebecca Solnit is a contributing writer for West and the author,
      most recently, of "A Field Guide to Getting Lost."

      During the height of the Cold War, the San Francisco artist Bruce
      Conner became so unnerved by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon
      that he moved to Mexico to escape it. Many years later he told
      me, "Mexico is a wonderful place to go if you're running away from
      death, because they celebrate it." It seems San Francisco itself is
      currently celebrating death, with all the ruckus around the
      centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of
      the city. If it's death we're celebrating.

      The centennial falls two days after Easter, and maybe it's not death
      but resurrection that the hundreds of museum shows, expositions,
      books, events, newspaper articles, walking tours and, no doubt, TV
      specials and maybe even rebroadcasts of Clark Gable and Jeanette
      MacDonald's musical melodrama "San Francisco" will commemorate.
      Cities have proven very resilient, and despite the dire straits New
      Orleans finds itself in, most have been profoundly altered but few
      have been eliminated by disaster—not London after the Great Fire of
      1666 or the Blitz of World War II, not Lisbon, Portugal (site of a
      huge earthquake in 1755), not Atlanta after Sherman, not Dresden or
      Hiroshima, not Mexico City after its devastating 1985 quake.

      San Francisco, whose emblem since the Gold Rush has been a phoenix,
      the immortal bird that rises from the ashes of its own pyre, is good
      at resurrection. In 1906, 3,000 or more people died, more than
      28,000 buildings were destroyed and the central city was a
      smoldering ruin. (So were much of San Jose and Santa Rosa, but San
      Francisco then and now gets most of the attention.)

      The late artist David Wojnarowicz once subtitled an essay "Soon All
      This Will Be Picturesque Ruins," a phrase full of the brooding
      pleasure we took 20 years ago in the expectation that everything was
      going to fall apart glamorously, romantically, fatally. Back then,
      in the era of movies of survival after the collapse—"The Road
      Warrior," "The Terminator," "Blade Runner"—ruins seemed to be
      something awaiting us in the future, a permanent state we would
      descend into (and a state all around us in the ruins of the old
      industrial cities not yet replaced by the shiny information cities
      that New York, L.A. and San Francisco, among others, would become).
      Maybe the 1906 earthquake is reassuring because it tells us that we
      already fell apart, spectacularly, and then put everything back
      together, that we already survived the apocalypse.

      Maybe if it were a movie, it would combine all the charms of "The
      Age of Innocence" and the future landscape of "The Terminator": the
      opera star Enrico Caruso, who had performed the night before,
      fleeing the damaged Palace Hotel wearing pajamas and a fur coat and
      muttering to himself, "'ell of a place," the other evacuees that
      morning including a man carrying a pot of calla lilies, a scrub
      woman with an ostrich-plumed hat and a broom, corseted ladies
      carrying their bird cages away amid the flames and devastation, men
      in bowler hats searching the rubble, then, later, families cooking
      on stoves dragged into the streets, refugee camps in the parks
      posted with jaunty slogans such as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for
      tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland."

      In Jack London's words, ". . . in all those terrible hours I saw not
      one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who
      was in the slightest degree panic stricken." That's the harmonious,
      humorous side, but there were also corpses, mangled and burned, lost
      children, out-of-control vigilantes, self-serving officials, the sun
      shining blood-red through the thick smoke. The refugee camps closed
      for good more than two years later, and the rebuilt city showed off
      its resurrection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International

      The current fuss over the earthquake may be a way of overlooking all
      the other ways the city has been wrecked. It survived six major
      fires in its first few years, a pretty big earthquake in 1868,
      another in 1989, and a whole lot of changes in between. It's the
      changes in between that seem most destructive, from the expansion
      that destroyed the habitat for ultra-local species of plants and
      butterflies, to the greed that destroyed much of the African
      American Fillmore District and the blue-collar South of Market in
      the name of urban renewal in the 1960s, to the dot-com boom that
      drove a lot of lower-income people and longtime institutions out of
      the city at the end of the millennium.

      From this point of view, the Great Quake is the easy version: that
      we got destroyed once and mostly survived, rather than that cities
      are being born and are dying all the time, dying of the economic
      forces that trample and erase the poor, the past, the unexploited
      spaces, the old ways and memory itself. Today the events of a
      century before are being filtered through a very selective memory.

      The earthquake that hit before dawn on April 18, 1906, was the good
      news. It affected everyone, rich and poor, white and nonwhite, more
      or less equally. The fires that came after were the beginning of the
      bad news—the three-day blaze fanned by inept attempts to blast fire
      lines in the densely built city. Grim too was the reign of terror by
      vigilantes and soldiers who, as obsessed with looters as the
      authorities and the media were during the early days of Hurricane
      Katrina, shot and terrorized survivors and didn't give a damn about
      civil rights.

      Aid was distributed unevenly, as was shelter, and the poor had it
      hard. The earthquake is remembered as a sudden shaking or as three
      days of devastation, but like all such disasters it was also months
      of aftermath, years of rebuilding. The heroism came instantly, the
      greed and sleaze later, in phases that no one will celebrate and few
      may remember—as when, for example, the city's business leaders tried
      (unsuccessfully) to drive the Chinese community out of its longtime
      home on the eastern slope of Nob Hill. The three-day version of the
      quake we'll commemorate resembles and prefigures Burning Man, the
      annual festival of out-of-place people that climaxes in, well,
      burning a bunch of stuff in the desert, which is of course fun and
      exhilarating and cathartic and simple and then you go home. After
      all, Burning Man was started in San Francisco by San Franciscans.

      I was drawn into the centennial early, when historian Philip Fradkin
      drafted my collaborator Mark Klett to rephotograph the sites of the
      1906 quake in 2002. Philip had written a book on the quake, the
      magnificent "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906," and
      become involved with the Bancroft Library's extraordinary pictorial
      archives. He encouraged Mark to start a project, and Mark began
      studying the images of San Francisco in ruins in detail, online,
      from his home in Arizona.

      Through those thousands of photographs and his own spatial
      intelligence, he came to know the lost city intimately, as though he
      had turned himself into a ghost from that past. He could recognize
      the surviving buildings, the locations of the major views, but knew
      little of the modern city, of my city, so I traveled the streets
      with Philip, Mark and Mark's assistant, Mike Lundgren, exploring the
      two cities that occupy the same place.

      It was a gloriously haunted way to rediscover a place I've known
      nearly all my life, to see its ghosts come back, its frailties
      appear, to see that where, say, the Virgin Megastore now stands on
      Market Street was once little but smoke and shards, that Union
      Street cracked and twisted astonishingly, that the whole downtown
      area was once as shattered as any war zone, but all had been
      smoothed over—though it's not hard to wish that all this had
      survived to become something less banal than, say, a Gap store.

      For cities are semi-immortal, are truly phoenixes, and to see the
      bustle of everyday life on the sites of smoldering ruins is to see a
      version of invincibility—of the whole, not the parts that include
      lost lives and lost buildings and lost eras. In "After the Ruins,
      1906 and 2006," an exhibit of Mark's rephotography at the Legion of
      Honor, the paired images of then and now tell that devastation is
      seldom final, that cities rise up out of their ruins. That's worth

      On April 18, we will get a lot of commemorative events staged by
      firefighters, historians, city officials from San Jose to Berkeley,
      a commissioned symphony by Cincinnati Pops composer Steve Reineke,
      at least one ballet, a show of earthquake shacks, more walking
      tours, and preparedness-related activities led by local
      organizations and the Red Cross. And perhaps those preparedness
      exercises are the best way to commemorate the resourcefulness of the
      survivors of 1906, because there will be more big quakes in
      California, in the Bay Area, in San Francisco. Remembering the past
      is preparation for the future.

      On the morning of April 18, at 5:12 a.m., the survivors of the Great
      Quake will gather at Lotta's Fountain, the bronze extravaganza on
      the traffic island at Market and Kearny downtown, as they have for
      about 85 years, and this year there will be very few of them—mostly
      centenarians who were babes in arms when the earthquake hit. Soon
      there will be none; time itself is the catastrophe that takes all of
      us. When that happens, Lotta's Fountain may be nothing more than
      what it was before 1906, the little monument donated in 1875 by the
      entertainer Lotta Crabtree to the city that made her a Gold Rush
      icon and a wealthy woman. No memorials were erected afterward to the
      city that was nearly lost in the devastation, to the heroism of
      ordinary people and failure of officials, to the thousands who died
      and tens of thousands who were suddenly homeless. We haven't truly
      decided yet how to remember the quake.

      Perhaps the Golden Hydrant counts as the one true monument to the
      devastation of 1906, the fire hydrant at 20th and Church streets
      near one corner of Dolores Park, between the Latino Mission District
      and the famously queer Castro. The water mains had all cracked or
      run dry, and so the firemen were nearly helpless—but the hydrant at
      20th and Church was miraculously working, and with its water the
      Mission fires were checked by exhausted firemen and thousands of
      volunteers from the blue-collar neighborhood. There you can still
      see that houses on one side of the street are older than on the
      other, extant evidence of the fire line. The hydrant is regilded
      annually, sometimes decorated with a wreath, and is identified by a
      small plaque placed in 1966. And maybe this ordinary fixture with
      its extraordinary skin of gold is the best monument to what we want
      from disasters, the heroism to return to the everyday and to face
      the extraordinary when it comes again.

      Images reprinted from "After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006:
      Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire," by Mark
      Klett with Michael Lundgren, published by the University of
      California Press and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. © 2006
      by the Regents of the University of California.
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