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Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (California Studies in Critical Human Geography) With a New Preface Edition

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520250086
ISBN-10: 0520250087
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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.


"One of the very best books I have ever read about a place is Imperial San Francisco, by Gray Brechin.... With its tales of skullduggery, brilliant enterprise, racist arrogance, environmental ruin, and ruthless competition, it will be an astonishment to anyone who knows modern San Francisco only as the gentlest of American cities." - Jan Morris, Independent (UK) "Books of the Year," November 2000" Included in the Los Angeles Times Book Review's "Best Nonfiction of 2000", Named a "Book of the Year" in the Independent (UK) San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller List, December 1999, Honorable Mention for the Pacific Coast Branch Award, American Historical Association.

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Product Details

  • Series: California Studies in Critical Human Geography (Book 3)
  • Paperback: 437 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; With a New Preface edition (October 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520250087
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520250086
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #482,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Jay Stevens on March 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
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 By Mark K. Mcdonough VINE VOICE on 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 By Ken McCarthy on November 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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 By Scott Snyder on June 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
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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