Talk about a bandwagon -- but this is the time, and this is the place. Or was. A deluge of new books, timed to coincide with exhibitions and other events, has been unleashed for the centenary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. But despite America's national obsession with disasters, their heroes and villains, their testimonies and relics and timelines, we might find that rubbernecking the same disaster for a century gives us a collective crick in the neck. Do these new works add anything to the history of this particular cataclysm? Will they serve to remind us that the next Big One is a threat that will never, ever subside until it happens -- no matter how much we pretend otherwise?
A handful of these works, each of which has its own agenda, does indeed illuminate. Without a doubt the niftiest of the bunch, David Burkhart's Earthquake Days (Faultline, $44.95) is a hefty coffee-table tome that comes with its own 3-D viewer for looking at the hundred-plus stereoscopic photographs inside. (But be warned: Don't rush too eagerly through the images; your head and stomach will thank you for taking frequent refreshing trips back to 2-D.) A brief history of stereophotography gives way to a wealth of images and illustrations, punctuated by vignettes and quotes by those who witnessed the destruction, or had something to say about it. Its text isn't terribly exciting -- what coffee-table book's is? -- but it's handsome and engrossing, with oodles of information and more than a dash of novelty.
Where Burkhart aims to throw readers into the fray, Richard Schwartz' Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees (RSB, $24.95) is a homey but thorough affair focusing on the town's relief efforts, and takes a self-congratulatory tone. That's fine; Berkeley didn't suffer heavily from the quake -- though nearly every chimney in town fell down -- so it was able to put its all into helping its stricken neighbor to the west. On April 18, the day of the quake, a regiment of University of California cadets was dispatched across the bay to help the thousands of regular army, police, and citizen militia keep the peace amid the ongoing ruin that was San Francisco. The troop was there for only three days, but it was long enough for one cadet to shoot and kill a Japanese San Franciscan who wouldn't extinguish a prohibited light: Despite the fact that martial law was not officially declared, the mayor had authorized killing anybody caught looting or committing any crime. Unfortunately for the victim, that included disobeying new rules regarding curfews and the use of lamps, which were seen as potential fire risks.
Unfortunately, Schwartz is wont to apply 21st-century political correctness to the decidedly un-PC early 20th century: He writes that one commander referred to the deceased lantern-wielder "using the pejorative slang of the era." Perhaps inadvertent, Schwartz' circumlocution nevertheless whitewashes the colonel's justification for the murder of an innocent man, distracting readers from the grisly reality of the times. Later, Schwartz marvels that "there was even an Anti-Asian League whose presence in Berkeley was condoned," but insists that although Asian refugees in Berkeley were housed in segregated camps, they received the same treatment as their white counterparts. Furthermore, there were "no formal complaints from Asian refugees about maltreatment." Most other modern accounts of the relief effort describe blatant discrimination against Asians throughout the region, as was typical of the times -- but apparently Berkeley, even a century ago, was more or less above all that. Riiight. Still, this book will especially interest Berkeleyites enmeshed in development issues, curious about how the disaster immediately led to their town's business and population boom.
Philip Fradkin's The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself (University of California, $27.50) is the most narrative-oriented work of this pack, and it's simply riveting. A former Los Angeles Times journalist and Pulitzer winner, Fradkin does an admirable job of examining the event -- and, more importantly, its aftermath -- from previously unexplored perspectives, and includes a sympathetic portrayal of the much-maligned Abraham Ruef, an attorney and so-called political boss indicted on graft charges shortly after the earthquake. Fradkin even compares the Jewish Ruef's situation to France's Dreyfus Affair.
Although he spends some time describing the horrors of the earthquake and fire, Fradkin mostly details the bureaucratic and institutional failures surrounding the event: the crumpled water system which made firefighting impossible, the misguided strategy of using gunpowder to blast buildings in hopes of creating firebreaks (but which ended up spreading the flames farther). Finally, he explores the propaganda battle aimed at minimizing the earthquake's role in the destruction of the city: Most insurance companies wouldn't cover earthquake damage, and temblors were seen as bad for business, whereas fires could happen anywhere. In the ensuing rush to "upbuild," San Francisco was reconstructed hastily, without much thought put into earthquake- or fireproofing. (If you live and/or work in the city and you're not worried yet, you should be.) This book, which is the last in the author's trilogy on earthquakes, is a trustworthy and scrupulously researched tale of both politicians and nameless survivors. Fradkin manages to surpass previous works on the catastrophe by going behind the scenes and digging up well-trodden dirt ... and giving local readers the scare of their lives.
Which they've got coming to them. The images in Mark Klett's After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (UC, $24.95) reveal that though the rubble was paved over, it's only a matter of time until the city is in ruins again. Klett is known for photographing the same exact geographical locations seen in archival shots, from the same vantage points whenever possible, and the results are startling. Some of the original photographers are well known, such as Arnold Genthe, while others have lost their names to the ages. The differences -- and, no less importantly, the similarities -- between the "now" and "then" pictures are rattling, to say the least.
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