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Book Review: 'Golden Gate' by Kevin Starr and 'Colossus' by Michael Hiltzik

Starr and Hiltzik breathe life into the back stories of two soaring monuments that forever changed California: the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam.

July 11, 2010|By Wendy Smith, Special to The Los Angeles Times

Golden Gate

The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge

Kevin Starr

Bloomsbury Press: 216 pp., $23


Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century

Michael Hiltzik

Free Press: 498 pp., $30

The Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam are more than just icons of American engineering. They are Depression-era monuments that transformed not only California's physical landscape, but its social one as well. The bridge linked San Francisco to rural Marin County, hastening the consolidation of the Bay Area into a huge metropolis. The dam brought reliable irrigation to Imperial Valley farms, as well as drinking water and hydroelectric power to Los Angeles and other Southwestern cities, fostering their explosive growth.

Both structures smashed precedents: Rising 726 feet above the Colorado River bed, Hoover was more than twice as high as the tallest previous dam on its opening day in 1935; the Golden Gate, with its 4,200-foot-long main span, was the longest suspension bridge in the world when the first pedestrian crossed its span on May 27, 1937. With their soaring ambitions clad in sleek Art Deco designs, bridge and dam seem the epitome of New Deal optimism. Yet neither was a New Deal project.

The Golden Gate was built by a county-based bridge-and-highway district, its bonds financed by Bank of America, explains California historian Kevin Starr in "Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge." Hoover Dam was "conceived and launched by Republicans," notes Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist Michael Hiltzik in "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century," but Franklin Delano Roosevelt skillfully used his speech at the dedication ceremonies to appropriate the dam "as a tangible symbol of … his Democratic administration's economic recovery program."

In fact, although both projects took shape in the 1920s, both fit comfortably into the New Deal zeitgeist: They provided desperately needed jobs on massive public works that created important pieces of modern infrastructure, facilitating American urbanization and industrialization. Boosters of the Golden Gate, irked by long waits for ferry service, were sure that a bridge would make automobile trips across the bay swifter and more pleasant. Southern Marin County was "suitable for suburban development," they believed, and for "the North Bay — Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties — to develop into more than a sparsely settled agricultural and ranching region, it would have to have a more immediate contact to San Francisco than the ferry system currently allowed."

Starr does a great job of laying out the motives behind the Golden Gate's construction, but he doesn't assess the unintended consequences Bay Area residents live with today. He fails to comment on the irony of the fact that, less than 40 years after the bridge was pitched as an alternative to slow ferry service, a fleet of high-speed ferries was put into operation to alleviate excessive automobile traffic on the Golden Gate. And anyone who cares about cities, as Starr clearly does, should at least touch on the issues of whether the development of the North Bay was an unmitigated blessing, and whether the bridge encourages urban sprawl.

Starr favors an optimistic tone throughout his short, impressionistic text. The 10 years of political maneuvering preceding the beginning of construction in 1933 were, in his view, "worth the effort, and in the long run, necessary" to forge a public consensus. The opposition of the Sierra Club, which argued that a bridge would spoil one of the most magnificent vistas in America, played a role in convincing Joseph Strauss, the driving force behind the bridge, to scrap an ugly original design and commission some of the nation's most distinguished engineers and architects to come up with something better. Most people familiar with San Francisco will agree that the bay was "not marred but enhanced" by the elegant result. Still, the author's relentless drum-beating can be grating. Must the Golden Gate be "the most beautiful bridge ever built"? "Platonic in its perfection"?

Though it cogently conveys a good deal of history, "Golden Gate" is in essence a highly personal, highly colored love letter. Starr idiosyncratically tosses in his musings on everything from the Golden Gate as an art object to its dubious distinction as a popular spot for suicide attempts. Describing the nine-day opening fiesta — which included fireworks, a parade and a pageant — he segues into the bridge's role as an enhancer of urban life, with its welcoming pedestrian promenade joining the San Francisco and Marin County sites of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, created in 1972. His passion is appealing, though his assessment of the bridge's impact could use more critical rigor.

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