Engaging with San Francisco history as a newcomer
I moved to San Francisco from the Midwest a few years ago, and I’d been missing a strong sense of history since then. I’ve been to a few events in an attempt to learn more about my new home, such as a Dolores Park history day, or a history-relevant event in the Mission as part of Litcrawl, but I struggled to absorb a history for the city that went beyond “gold rush, earthquake, tech boom, bust, boom”.
But last week I was at the library and saw an event that was being held in conjunction with the display of the Bay Model throughout SF public libraries and Take Part SF, called Vanished Waters. It was about Mission Bay history so I skipped my regular workout to attend. It was well worth it!
Vanished Waters is also a book, so that was the loose structure that the talk revolved around, and was given by Chris Carlsson, an expert on San Francisco history and an engaging speaker. He co-founded Shaping SF, helping to maintain a digital archive of the city’s past.
My favorite fascinating facts that I learned at the talk were that in 1852, Market street ended where 3rd street is in an 80 ft tall sand dune.
SoMA was really hilly and marshy, but then some dude with a steam shovel was like “sup let me move that sand for you” and also “sup let me help you fill in this lot that you bought that is literally just water”. That’s my paraphrasing, but the actual details are to be read on Found SF.
The whole idea to fill the San Francisco Bay in is hard to imagine now because it’s not polluted, but if it was a stinky polluted putrid mess full of garbage it’s easier to imagine it being a good idea. (The whole idea to fill in the Bay is why the SF Bay Model was built).
However, my favorite part of the talk was when Carlsson discussed using this history to inform our present and future decisions. He pointed out that there is a lot of rhetoric in San Francisco about how to build more housing to manage the growth of the city, and what kinds of development is best suited to accommodating all of the people that move here.
However, there’s not much rhetoric (if any) about staging a managed retreat from climate change. San Francisco is a coastal city, built on top of marshland, sand dunes, or literal land fill. What happens when the sea level begins to rise, or more volatile weather patterns cause bigger storms and potential flooding?
I realized after this talk that some city dwellers love to judge southeastern coastal city residents that build or rebuild homes in the path of hurricanes or immediate climate change threats, and yet, New York City and San Francisco are both at high risk from sea level rise.
That’s not to mention the earthquake risk in San Francisco. Our current development plans are not necessarily smart, as this article in the New York Times points out.
It’s fascinating to explore what the city used to look like less than 200 years ago, and imagine what it might look like in 2057 in the face of climate change. I lost nearly an hour clicking around the maps on David Rumsey’s website (recommended by Carlsson).
Here’s a map of the 1857 coast, overlaid on modern San Francisco.
This map in 1869 of land lots makes it clear just how much of the land that was sold during that period wasn’t actually land. This essay in Collector’s Weekly covers how that land speculation happened and how it shapes modern real estate in the city.
This exploration all happened because of this talk and the display of the 1938 3D model of San Francisco in the San Francisco Public Libraries. If you want to help find the model a permanent home for display in the city, sign this petition. Just imagine making this map overlay of what San Francisco looked like in 1938 into a tactile experience.
The model is still on display in SF Public Library branches throughout the city, and you can stay engaged in city history through the San Francisco Department of Memory, the California Historical Society, Shaping SF, and Found SF.