Monday, April 03, 2006

The San Francisco 1906 Earthquake ... Again

The countdown has begun on the many celebrations that will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

But as the Bay Area gears up with numerous photography exhibits, museum shows, lectures, walking tours, and a newly-commissioned dance piece, a piercing question is making its way to the forefront: Do you celebrate the feel-good aspect of the disaster – the part where San Francisco rose from the ashes – or the horrific part, where thousands died and official incompetence may have made the fire and destruction worse than it needed to be?

On top of that, do you examine how the city’s business leaders tried to downplay the disaster?

The Los Angeles Time’s new – and excellent – magazine, West, ran a series of articles on the earthquake on April 2. In one article, staff writers Lee Romney and John M. Glionna examine the difficulties in “celebrating” the 100th anniversary of the earthquake.

“(Mayor Gavin) Newsom acknowledged that the 1906 earthquake was an "awkward" event to mark.

"Do you sit there with a candlelight vigil and say, 'My God, how dare the city do what it did back then, with the corruption of city officials or the mistreatment of its Chinese American residents?' " he said.

"Do you sit there and tell people, 'Why are we all here? The next earthquake is going to come, and most of us are not going to make it.' Or do you focus on the city's comeback and rebuilding?"

In another article, Rebecca Solnit looks at how the earthquake was just one more event in a long string of events that erased San Francisco’s natural topography.

“The earthquake that hit before dawn on April 18, 1906, was the good news. It affected everyone, rich and poor, white and nonwhite, more or less equally. The fires that came after were the beginning of the bad news—the three-day blaze fanned by inept attempts to blast fire lines in the densely built city. Grim too was the reign of terror by vigilantes and soldiers who, as obsessed with looters as the authorities and the media were during the early days of Hurricane Katrina, shot and terrorized survivors and didn't give a damn about civil rights. Aid was distributed unevenly, as was shelter, and the poor had it hard. The earthquake is remembered as a sudden shaking or as three days of devastation, but like all such disasters it was also months of aftermath, years of rebuilding. The heroism came instantly, the greed and sleaze later, in phases that no one will celebrate and few may remember—as when, for example, the city's business leaders tried (unsuccessfully) to drive the Chinese community out of its longtime home on the eastern slope of Nob Hill.”

I am really excited by all the history surrounding the earthquake. I can’t really say I want to celebrate the date, but I am fascinated by how people reacted and made sense of their lives after the disaster.

Here are some new and worthy earthquake events and a calendar to all the rest. Don't forget to check out Wells Fargo Bank's excellent blog on the quake.

A restored earthquake shack (one of the thousands that were hastily built for homeless survivors) is now on display near Yerba Buena Gardens at Yerba Buena Lane on Market near 4th street.

In the Presidio, people can “relive” what it felt like to be homeless. (Thousands fled to the Presidio to avoid the fire) The Presidio is recreating a refugee camp, complete with tents and cottages and outdoor cooking stations. At the Main Post at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Halleck Street.

On Saturday, April 8, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley features a lecture by historian Gray Brechin, aided by archival footage of the '06 earthquake loaned by the Library of Congress, a rare screening of FLAME OF BARBARY COAST starring John Wayne, experimental mediaworks by artists dealing with natural disasters, the 1957 B-movie THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED, and a special, enhanced presentation of the 1974 epic disaster film, EARTHQUAKE.

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