Saving San Francisco, Relief and Recovery after the 1906 Disaster

By Schwartz, Richard | California History, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Saving San Francisco, Relief and Recovery after the 1906 Disaster

Schwartz, Richard, California History

SAVING SAN FRANCISCO, RELIEF AND RECOVERY AFTER THE 19o6 DISASTER By Andrea Rees Davies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012, 232 pp., $29.95 paper)


WHEN I FIRST PERUSED Saving San Francisco, I was entranced by the many black-and-white photos of the era of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake disaster. The images of the damaged city, refugees fleeing and living on the streets, official relief camps, temporary housing, and postdisaster everyday life captured the entire arc of San Franciscans' experience.

As I began reading the book, I was equally enamored with its organization. The five chronological chapters, all densely footnoted, cover the relevant origins of San Francisco (its ethnicities, economics, politics, and architecture) and a neighborhood-by-neighborhood description of the different levels of disaster, destruction, and response; the relief effort and its organization, and the ensuing conflicts and corruption; the opportunities taken by those who were marginalized before and after the disaster (Chinese and single women, for example); the structure, functioning, and failures of the official relief camps; and the rebuilding of the city, who had the money and power to direct the efforts, and the numerous voices that rose up to assert their desires for the future.

Author Andrea Rees Davies, assistant professor of history at California State University, Northridge, clearly spent enormous effort in collecting source material and absorbing analysis from luminaries such as San Francisco's Dr. William Issell, an expert on San Francisco history, politics, and labor movements. At its best, the book combines firsthand accounts, official records and transcripts, newspapers of the day, and accounts of the then infant science of how to respond to disasters, all overlaid with both historical and modern analysis of the events. Maps and charts help keep track of the fire zones, and an in-depth study addresses construction methods and neighborhood expansions in the rebuilding phase.

Rees Davies explores the events with a lot of intriguing tools that provide new lenses with which to view the hidden forces that shaped the disaster response, relief, and rebuilding. She believes that the disaster reinforced role models that were in place before the earthquake and dismisses the commonly held (even by people of that era) notion that the disaster broke down the barriers of class and economic status. She cites examples of how gender roles, marital and economic status, race-based stereotypes, and class all factored in to how individuals and groups were defended against fire, and how they were fed, housed, and given funds and charity to rebuild or get their lives back on track.

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