Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin


First published in 1999, this celebrated history of San Francisco traces the exploitation of both local and distant regions by prominent families--the Hearsts, de Youngs, Spreckelses, and others--who gained power through mining, ranching, water and energy, transportation, real estate, weapons, and the mass media. The story uncovered by Gray Brechin is one of greed and ambition on an epic scale. Brechin arrives at a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the connections between environment, economy, and technology and discovers links that led, ultimately, to the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race. In a new preface, Brechin considers the vulnerability of cities in the post-9/11 twenty-first century.


The hidden hand of the market will never work without
a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without
McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force
F-15. and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for
Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the
U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. And
these fighting forces are paid for by American taxpayer

Thomas Friedman, 1999

Hollywood had long entertained us with special-effects blockbusters featuring the destruction of great cities, but the real thing failed to amuse or distract.

I shared the shock felt by countless others as I watched on television the towers burn and drop in the island metropolis. Images of blinded and choking wraiths wandering through the suddenly monochromatic canyons of lower Manhattan looked eerily like nightmares I’d had of a nuclear aftermath and made visible the worst fears I harbored for a city that I’d come to love. They looked, in fact, like illustrations to a magazine article that appeared just four months after atomic bombs had demonstrated their lethal effectiveness on two cities. “The 36 Hour War” visualized for readers of Life New York City after rocket-borne A-bombs penetrated a less-than-perfect missile shield meant to protect the United States from unspecified enemies.

The towers fell just two weeks after I’d crossed the plaza at their base on my way to visit the New York Mercantile Exchange. I was working on a sequel to Imperial San Francisco, to be called Imperial Manhattan, and I wanted to see for myself the frantic ritual by which traders convert the organic world into ciphers for reinvestment in innumerable other ventures, including the precious urban real estate over which I walked.

I’d used San Francisco as a case study of how imperial cities parasitize their hinterlands for the benefit of those who own their land and much else besides—especially the channels of information that shape perceived . . .

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