Book Review: Chronicles of Old San Francisco

Chronicles of Old SF Book CoverCities are complicated creatures best understood by peeling back the layers of time and sifting through the accumulation of secrets, lost artifacts, and earlier incarnations that might otherwise go unnoticed. Chosen well and presented correctly, such exhumed history excites our curiosity and exposes our imaginations to the gamut of a city’s character and mystery. We become incapable of seeing it through the same eyes again because, no matter which direction we turn or where we look, the voices, the faces, and the stories instantly appear.

In the first part of Chronicles of Old San Francisco, Gael Chandler makes an ambitious attempt to squeeze 240 epic years into a modest 208 pages, and is surprisingly successful with her efforts. She has both chosen her material well and presented it in an engaging way. This is neither a guide to tourist hotspots nor an exhaustive history that will remain unread on a coffee table or hotel nightstand. Rather, Chandler offers us a portable, curated collection of tales and images that unveil the people and events that have proved instrumental in shaping San Francisco’s physical, cultural, and political identity.

Juana Briones, Henry Meiggs, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Tape, Harvey Milk: these are just some of the personalities mentioned who not only left indelible marks of their own, but helped a glittering gem rise from the mud and sand and survive one disaster after another. Chandler doesn’t sugarcoat or softpedal the people she presents to us; some play loose with ethics and laws while others defiantly thumb their noses at the established order. As revealed by the stories, it is that defiance and rakishness mixed with an underlying manic energy that compels these men and women to transform sand dunes into gardens, erect palaces on rugged cliffs, and battle overwhelming social injustice. Chandler’s carefree but sassy narrative serves as a fitting backdrop for the stories.

In the second part of the book, Chandler conflates the past and present with a collection of annotated, self-guided walks. By following these step-by-step tours and referencing the excellent collection of images included, we can stand in the center of Portsmouth Square and imagine William Leidesdorff reading the Declaration of Independence or marines raising the Stars and Stripes for the first time. We can pass by the old union hall near Pier 2 and smell burnt powder as police gun down striking dockworkers. We can kick it outside the Grateful Dead’s Ashbury pad, mourn AIDS victims at Memorial Grove, tour the Palace of Fine Arts’ grounds with Maybeck’s ghost, and conclude our journey where it all began, at Mission Dolores.

Given its economy of space and breadth of subject matter, it’s hard to fault the Chronicles for any omissions. I would have liked to see a more thorough treatment of the original Yerba Buena settlement and the inclusion of William Richardson, its founder. The material covering the city’s western end was rather skimpy and could have benefitted from including such things as Fort Winfield Scott, Carville in the Sunset, Playland-at-the-Beach, and the Beach Chalet’s itinerant and checkered past. I contacted the author directly (full disclosure: I first met her at a local writer’s salon) and she informed me that she has continued to augment the material in the book on a dedicated website.

Chronicles of Old San Francisco can serve as an excellent resource for the newly arrived and sourdough alike. As someone who has lived in or near San Francisco for 37 years, I was surprised to find photos I hadn’t seen and uncover things about the city that I didn’t know. If you want to stroll through Sutro Forest, along the Presidio Promenade, or among the alleyways of Chinatown and hear voices of the past, watch tall ships sail through the Golden Gate, dance with flower children on Hippie Hill, or party in the Castro with LGBT brothers and sisters past and present, the Chronicles of Old San Francisco offers a tantalizing portal through which to pass.

2 Replies to “Book Review: Chronicles of Old San Francisco”

  1. Hi Keith,
    I enjoyed your review and thought your comments showed your knowledge and understanding of the City. Then, I went on a search to read your prize winner about Robinson Jeffers and Tor House. I finally got to visit there a year ago and had a similar experience to yours. I’d heard of him since college days at Occidental where he’d attended and I read his work in degrees. Since the visit, I’ve devoured his poetry for he writes so deeply and beautifully of the environment. His is a world I identify with for sure. Congrats on your award and your work.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Arletta. Since the Jeffers story was published, I’ve heard from numerous people about their experience at Tor House. The history of the house and family is certainly moving but I also think it’s a tragedy how Jeffers’ work has been so overlooked. He angered a particular generation of scholars and has been banished ever since. I hope that changes and kids in high school are exposed to Jeffers in the same way they are to other great American poets. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

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