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Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (California Studies in Critical Human Geography) [Paperback]

Gray Brechin
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (California Studies in Critical Human Geography) Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (California Studies in Critical Human Geography) 4.6 out of 5 stars (22)
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Book Description

March 8, 2001 0520229029 978-0520229020 New edition
San Francisco is a city clouded in myth. This urban biography provides an entirely new vision of the city's history, laying bare the inner dynamics of the regional civilization centered in San Francisco. Imperial San Francisco examines the far-reaching environmental impact that one city and the elite families that hold power in it have had on the Pacific Basin for over a century and a half. The book provides a literate, myth-shattering interpretation of the hidden costs that the growth of San Francisco has exacted on its surrounding regions, presenting along the way a revolutionary new theory of urban development. Written in a lively, accessible style, the narrative is filled with vivid characters, engrossing stories, and a rich variety of illustrations.
As he uncovers the true costs of building an imperial city, Gray Brechin addresses the dynastic ambitions of frontier oligarchies, the environmental and social effects of the mining industry, the creation of two universities, the choice of imperial architecture to symbolize the aspirations of San Franciscans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manipulation of public thought by the city's media, and more. He traces the exploitation of both local and distant regions by prominent families--the Hearsts, de Youngs, Spreckelses, and others--who gained wealth and power through mining, control of ranching, water and energy, transportation, real estate, and weapons.
This broad history of San Francisco is a story of greed and ambition on an epic scale. Imperial San Francisco incorporates rare period illustrations, personal correspondence, and public statements to show how a little-known power elite has used the city as a tool to increase its own wealth and power. Brechin's story advances a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the links among environment, economy, and technology that led, ultimately, to the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race.
Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Challenging San Francisco's popular image as a tolerant, carefree, gracious city, Brechin unearths 150 years of deeply unsettling history. San Francisco's founding aristocracy were Southerners drawn to California as a mecca newly opened up for enterpriseAparticularly for plantation culture. After the 1849 gold rush, San Francisco was built on what Brechin terms a "Pyramid of Mining"Aa pre-capitalist financial structure employed from Roman times through the Renaissance, uniting miners, financiers, the military and land speculators in a power elite whose only concern was limitless economic growth. While press lord William Randolph Hearst converted a mining fortune into a media conglomerate preaching the superiority of "the American race" and calling for the annexation of Mexico, other San Franciscan power brokers, according to Brechin, channeled mining profits into gas works, currency speculation, political and judicial bribery and the exploitation of forests. From Nevada to Northern California, they wrecked towns, deforested the pristine Lake Tahoe region, buried acres of farmland under mining debris and contaminated the soil, lakes and rivers. A historical geographer and coauthor of Farewell, Promised Land, Brechin concludes with a look at the University of California's pioneering nuclear research program laid the groundwork for the Manhattan Project. Enlivened with period engravings, photos, political cartoons, magazine art, posters and maps, this stirring, environmentally conscious history ranks with Kevin Starr's Americans and the California Dream, powerfully establishing the city on the bay as a true emblem of the atomic age. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Imperial San Francisco nearly splits its seams with interesting nuggets of history discovered by Brechin inside musty archives at the University of California. His lucid style and sense of rhythm make the book read like a novel." - Peter Byrne, SF Weekly "A refreshing surprise. Here is a book that fairly sizzles with outrage over water-grabs and land-grabs, 'environmental blunders' and 'the dynastic, corporate and political alliances that enable some cities to claim and acquire empires as their rightful due' - and yet the target is quaint and charming San Francisco rather than the customary urban whipping boy, Los Angeles....No one who reads [Brechin's] book will ever look at quaint old San Francisco in quite the same way again." - Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times "Imperial San Francisco provides a myth-shattering interpretation of the hidden costs that the growth of San Francisco has exacted on its surrounding regions, presenting along the way a revolutionary new theory of urban development. Written in a lively, accessible style, the narrative is filled with vivid characters, engrossing stories and a rich variety of illustrations. Brechin advances a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the links among environment, economy, and technology that led ultimately to the atom bomb and the nuclear arms race." - Don Denevi, Palo Alto Daily News "A classic of urban history, environmental history, California history, and socially oriented architectural criticism, this work contains scholarship that is thrilling in its comprehensiveness. Never before have the inner dynamics of the regional civilization centered in San Francisco been so comprehensively integrated." - Dr. Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California, author of Americans and the California Dream "Mixing the easygoing authority of the great urban historian Spiro Kostof with the penetrating investigative journalism of Mike Davis, Brechin offers a sweeping urban history of San Francisco. Part theory, part history, but with a whole lot of graft, sex, and murder thrown in, [his book] has pioneered a genre: potboiler urban history." - Randy Gragg, The Oregonian "Imperial San Francisco is a great gift of a book, the product of extraordinary research, insight, and hard work that connects a lot of dots and gives me a reinvigorated focus and curiosity [about] what California culture was and what might become of it all." - Gary Snyder"

Product Details

  • Series: California Studies in Critical Human Geography (Book 3)
  • Paperback: 428 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; New edition edition (March 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520229029
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520229020
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,311,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, tho shrill, expose of SF's development March 13, 2001
There are books that change the way you think about things. "Imperial San Francisco" changed the way I look at the city I live in, revealing the machinations behind the development of the Bay Area and its environs.
Brechin's book is part academic treatise, part shrill denouncement, and part insightful tell-all about America's favorite sweet-hart city. Basically, according to Brechin, a moneyed oligarchy destroyed the regional environment, poisoned our streams and wetlands, steered us towards a consumerist society dependant on fossil fuels and highways, provoked war, dumped toxic waste in workers' neighborhoods, and bought and control all significant media, all in order to make a buck. All the problems plaguing our modern society-poverty, crime, pollution, materialism-stem directly from the path of our greedy, imperial, and disgusting past.
Well researched (with occasional holes better filled by other reviewers), with plenty of gruesome anecdote and illustration, the book made my skin crawl, turned my belly aflame, and made me grit my teeth each morning as I read it on the Muni. All the passing sight from the train was just evidence of Man's greed and selfishness. What's worse, it only reminded me that the pace of our development only increases here in California.
But while Brechin was quite skillful in revealing the underbelly of San Francisco's past, his tone is grating and incessant. The book is like that obnoxious friend we all have who's politically savvy and unduly righteous. Reading the book is like being backed into a corner by this friend at a party and having to listen to all the products you should be boycotting.
And what was the alternative, after all? Certainly not the agricultural-philosophical town Brechin rhapsodizes about in the introduction.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just Good Local History June 16, 2001
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brechin's acerbic and well-researched account of San Francisco's development and the attendant despoiliaton of its hinterlands will be amusing reading to anyone with a populist bent and an interest in San Francisco history.
But "Imperial San Francisco" is far more than good local history. It's a book that wrestles with big ideas -- the poisonous and secretive power of economic elites, the cost of technology, and the way fortunes are built not by creating wealth but by shifting costs to others (including future generations).
There are no easy answers here. This is not a book that inspires one with optimism about human nature or the human prospect. And by connecting San Francisco's rise to power with that of other imperial cities in the past (most notably Rome), Brechin makes a strong case that "t'was ever thus."
"Imperial San Francisco" is also well-written (although this isn't popular history, but the real deal). And I feel compelled to add that in this day of specialization, careerism, and caution in historical writing it's a real pleasure to read such a wide-ranging and daring book. Brechin also makes excellent use of both photos and illustrations and comes up with quotes so juicy they made me want to head for the archives and read the primary sources myself.
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67 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History stripped of myth November 28, 1999
Brechin's book goes a long way towards unveiling some of the core myths the perpetuate the wrong paths taken by our society.
No other place on earth is more buried in sentimental - and highly inaccurate - nonsense than San Francisco. The beautiful city by the bay, the world's favorite tourist destination, the place everyone loves to visit has also served as the home base for one of the most industrious band of white collar thieves and cutthroats the world has ever known. Rarely, have so few people created so much devastation in such a short period of time.
If this is news to you, then the mythologizers have done their job very well.
The ecological devastation of California and other parts of the West and Pacific basin - the horrific destruction caused by reckless mining, the deforestation on a scale almost impossible to conceive, the ruination of millions of acres of fertile soil - a preponderance of these disasters were the outcomes of San Francisco-based enterprises.
San Francisco's elite also played a crucial role in involving the US in destructive wars overseas starting with the Spanish-American war through to Vietnam and Central America. San Francisco's leadership in developing both the Bomb and the rationale for using against Japan is also covered in detail.
The story isn't pleasant, but it's real and it's essential reading for anyone who is trying to make sense of the last 100 years. Many fascinating illustrations and very well written.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating History of San Francisco June 24, 2002
I was first drawn to this book because of its cover photo: the intersection of Market, Montgomery and Post Streets in the heart of the financial district in San Francisco sometime in the early 20th century. Today my office looks out at the very same intersection. A (very) current photo would show me waving from a window above the building on the cover's front left.
That aside, I found this to be a very entertaining and enlightening history of the Bay Area. Using Lewis Mumford's concept of the Pyramid of Mining, Brechin structures his history along these main lines: the Gold Rush; San Francisco as the Golden Gate of US dominance of Asia; water, Hetch Hetchy and land values; newspapers and the shaping of public opinion; Mining and Munitions; and finally UC Berkeley, E.O. Lawrence and the mining of Uranium and Plutonium.
Brechin's book is a serious, down to earth history. It is important for understanding not only the history of the west, but also the history of the US and Western Civilization's march from east to west to encircle the globe.
The comments in the next few paragraphs are my conceptual riffs - my connecting the dots - the dots that Brechin provides.
Brechin's work reminds me of David Ovason's book "The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital." Like Ovason, Brechin brings an art historian's eye to San Francisco's cityscape and public art - telling the history behind the art, what it means and what the underlying story really is. Whereas the first book deals with Washington, D.C. as the New Rome filled with Masonic symbolism expressed through astrological orbits, "Imperial San Francisco" deals with that city as an even later New Rome - a Constantinople -- dominated by the technology of Mining and Munitions expressed through atomic orbits.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudite, clear, well designed, impeccable in its style and reach.
I would recommend Brechin's book to any one interested in historical or political literacy. Imperial San Francisco is a one of a kind book--in a class by itself.
Published 6 months ago by Jim Anthony
5.0 out of 5 stars I love this book!
As a long time visitor and now resident of San Francisco I loved this book! The story was very interesting about all the "scoundrels" that facilitated and profited from the... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Jeanne R. Sainati
5.0 out of 5 stars a little of Mike Davis mixed with William Cronon
Not a comprehensive history of the city, but a very thorough description of the political and economic apparatus behind the region's development from the Gold Rush to the Cold War. Read more
Published 24 months ago by Robert T Baird
5.0 out of 5 stars Imperial Indeed
While friends nagged me to read this book, I spent years dodging away. OK, they were right, I was wrong. Read more
Published on August 5, 2010 by Bill Pieper, author of the novel WHAT YOU WISH FOR
4.0 out of 5 stars The author's critical analysis requires the reader's own
While well written and an interesting perspective, you really have to retain your own critical thinking before rushing to the negative side this book presents. Read more
Published on March 5, 2010 by kewe
5.0 out of 5 stars History told as stories
Simply put, Imperial San Francisco may be one of the best city history books out there. Brechin doesn't simply go chronologically through San Francisco's moments and players... Read more
Published on February 19, 2010 by Brian G. Stokle
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Purchase
I am very happy with this product. I ordered it and it was at my house within days. Very awesome!!!
Published on October 23, 2009 by Melissa Stewart
4.0 out of 5 stars Mining interests and San Francisco
Brechin begins with an overview of the social and political environment that evolves around historic mining operations, then applies the historic pattern to San Francisco's gold... Read more
Published on March 26, 2007 by Dennis Gobets
4.0 out of 5 stars Imperial San Francisco
Perfect in fact.

My general remark is that the cost of sending the item is very high in relation to the original price of the book. Read more
Published on January 28, 2007 by Karel Van Gerven
4.0 out of 5 stars Timely reminder of war's cost
Gray Brechin tells us about the short Spanish-American War and the long, bloody Philippine-American War that followed. Read more
Published on October 23, 2005 by Mark Schaeffer
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