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A Letter From the Epicenter: Celebrating the End That Never Came

April 02, 2006|Rebecca Solnit | Rebecca Solnit is a contributing writer for West and the author, most recently, of "A Field Guide to Getting Lost."

During the height of the Cold War, the San Francisco artist Bruce Conner became so unnerved by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon that he moved to Mexico to escape it. Many years later he told me, "Mexico is a wonderful place to go if you're running away from death, because they celebrate it." It seems San Francisco itself is currently celebrating death, with all the ruckus around the centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city. If it's death we're celebrating.

The centennial falls two days after Easter, and maybe it's not death but resurrection that the hundreds of museum shows, expositions, books, events, newspaper articles, walking tours and, no doubt, TV specials and maybe even rebroadcasts of Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald's musical melodrama "San Francisco" will commemorate. Cities have proven very resilient, and despite the dire straits New Orleans finds itself in, most have been profoundly altered but few have been eliminated by disaster--not London after the Great Fire of 1666 or the Blitz of World War II, not Lisbon, Portugal (site of a huge earthquake in 1755), not Atlanta after Sherman, not Dresden or Hiroshima, not Mexico City after its devastating 1985 quake. San Francisco, whose emblem since the Gold Rush has been a phoenix, the immortal bird that rises from the ashes of its own pyre, is good at resurrection. In 1906, 3,000 or more people died, more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed and the central city was a smoldering ruin. (So were much of San Jose and Santa Rosa, but San Francisco then and now gets most of the attention.)

The late artist David Wojnarowicz once subtitled an essay "Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins," a phrase full of the brooding pleasure we took 20 years ago in the expectation that everything was going to fall apart glamorously, romantically, fatally. Back then, in the era of movies of survival after the collapse--"The Road Warrior," "The Terminator," "Blade Runner"--ruins seemed to be something awaiting us in the future, a permanent state we would descend into (and a state all around us in the ruins of the old industrial cities not yet replaced by the shiny information cities that New York, L.A. and San Francisco, among others, would become). Maybe the 1906 earthquake is reassuring because it tells us that we already fell apart, spectacularly, and then put everything back together, that we already survived the apocalypse.

Maybe if it were a movie, it would combine all the charms of "The Age of Innocence" and the future landscape of "The Terminator": the opera star Enrico Caruso, who had performed the night before, fleeing the damaged Palace Hotel wearing pajamas and a fur coat and muttering to himself, "'ell of a place," the other evacuees that morning including a man carrying a pot of calla lilies, a scrub woman with an ostrich-plumed hat and a broom, corseted ladies carrying their bird cages away amid the flames and devastation, men in bowler hats searching the rubble, then, later, families cooking on stoves dragged into the streets, refugee camps in the parks posted with jaunty slogans such as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland." In Jack London's words, ". . . in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken." That's the harmonious, humorous side, but there were also corpses, mangled and burned, lost children, out-of-control vigilantes, self-serving officials, the sun shining blood-red through the thick smoke. The refugee camps closed for good more than two years later, and the rebuilt city showed off its resurrection with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The current fuss over the earthquake may be a way of overlooking all the other ways the city has been wrecked. It survived six major fires in its first few years, a pretty big earthquake in 1868, another in 1989, and a whole lot of changes in between. It's the changes in between that seem most destructive, from the expansion that destroyed the habitat for ultra-local species of plants and butterflies, to the greed that destroyed much of the African American Fillmore District and the blue-collar South of Market in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s, to the dot-com boom that drove a lot of lower-income people and longtime institutions out of the city at the end of the millennium. From this point of view, the Great Quake is the easy version: that we got destroyed once and mostly survived, rather than that cities are being born and are dying all the time, dying of the economic forces that trample and erase the poor, the past, the unexploited spaces, the old ways and memory itself. Today the events of a century before are being filtered through a very selective memory.

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