Call it historical schadenfreude: I’ve been greatly comforted over the past couple of months by reading historical accounts of just how much worse things used to be a century or two ago. Take the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as an example. I already knew that it destroyed 80% of the city and killed around 3,000 people, but I had no idea that up to 500 of those deaths were caused by soldiers shooting unarmed residents during an anti-looting order that put the whole city on curfew, even as buildings and houses were burning down. As Gary Kamiya describes his 2013 book Cool Gray City of Love:

Dennis Smith argues in San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire that the presence of often undisciplined and trigger-happy troops, combined with Schmitz’s draconian shoot-to-kill order, prevented San Franciscans from fighting the fire themselves—which they could have successfully done. Again and again, residents or neighbors were needlessly driven from their houses or offices by zealous troops and police, and the buildings they had been defending were left to burn or blown up. San Francisco archivist Gladys Hansen estimates that 500 people, many of them innocent, were shot by soldiers—one-sixth the total number of casualties.

See, doesn’t that make you feel better about our current situation?

Arnold Genthe’s famous photo, “Looking Down Sacramento Street, San Francisco, April 18, 1906

Gary Kamiya was born in Oakland in 1953, just two years before my parents were born a mile or two away. But I relate to him as if he’s of my generation, a brother from another mother. He was raised in a half White, half Japanese-American household, dropped out of college, worked in a shipyard, then as a taxi driver while studying literature, and eventually becoming a journalist — first at the Examiner, then as a co-founder of Salon.com, a columnist at the Chronicle, and now the executive editor of San Francisco Magazine. (It’s hard to imagine Kamiya, a cerebral and scholarly lover of literature, overseeing pieces like “Five Looks For Your Little Ones We’re Loving For Summer.”)

Cool Gray City of Love, it seems, is the enviable result of making the most out of a double-knee replacement. He dedicated his time recuperating to “doing the knowledge” — reading dozens of books and archival accounts of San Francisco’s relatively brief history. Then, once his knees were back in working order, he starting “doing the work,” hopping on his bike to explore every nook and cranny of the city’s 46 square miles. Inspired by Katsushika Hokusai’s 1820s series of woodblock prints “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” he set out to narrate San Francisco’s history and geography with the subtitle “49 view of San Francisco.”

I started reading the first of the 49 chapters during my week one of “sheltering in place.” It turned out to be the perfect companion to get through a pandemic. Each night, I’d read about a new place and its history, and the next day I’d hop on my bike to visit during my lunch break. To make this easier, I created a Google Map List of 60 places mentioned throughout the book with the relevant excerpt saved as a note for each location:

The book is a breeze to read and I easily could have finished it in a couple of days. But it was more rewarding to take it one chapter at a time and spread it out across a couple of months. I came to appreciate and enjoy my city even more. At points, I felt embarrassed that there was so much of San Francisco and its history that I didn’t know. I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, but I had no recollection that a major plot point of the book is her family’s move to San Francisco during WWII, as the Western Addition transitioned from mostly Japanese American to mostly African American; Blacks migrated from the south to work in the shipyard while Japanese Americans were taken to internment camps.

Somehow I had never once visited Lily Pond in Golden Gate Park or Mountain Lake in the Presidio even though I ride my bike past them both nearly every day. I reread Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums a couple of years ago and was entranced by its description of the Six Gallery reading, where Allen Ginsberg first performed Howl. I had always assumed that the gallery was somewhere in North Beach and had no clue that it was in the Marina neighborhood in what is now an upscale taqueria across the street from my cycling club. 

I should have read this book when I first arrived to San Francisco, but better late than never. At the end of the book is a helpful bibliography, a long list of diverse readings to continue deepening my relationship with San Francisco. I’ve also been digging into Kamiya’s column in the Chronicle, which includes entertaining descriptions of the city’s past with headlines like “Sex and cycling: How bike craze aroused passions in 1890s San Francisco.” 

Cool Gray City of Love was a reminder of why I read: it simply makes life a bit more interesting.

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