On April 18, 1906, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook the San Francisco region, igniting fires that burned half the city. The disaster in all its elements — earthquake, fires, and recovery — profoundly disrupted the urban order and challenged San Francisco’s perceived permanence.
The crisis temporarily broke down spatial divisions of class and race and highlighted the contested terrain of urban nature in an era of widespread class conflict, simmering ethnic tensions, and controversial reform efforts. From a proposal to expel Chinatown from the city center to a vision of San Francisco paved with concrete in the name of sanitation, the process of reconstruction involved reenvisioning the places of both people and nature. In their zeal to restore their city, San Franciscans downplayed the role of the earthquake and persisted in choosing patterns of development that exacerbated risk.
In this close study of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Joanna L. Dyl examines the decades leading up to the catastrophic event and the city’s recovery from it. Combining urban environmental history and disaster studies, Seismic City demonstrates how the crisis and subsequent rebuilding reflect the dynamic interplay of natural and human influences that have shaped San Francisco.
Foreword / Paul S. Sutter
1. Making Land, Making a City
2. Catastrophe and Its Interpretations
3. Bread Lines and Earthquake Cottages
4. Rebuilding and the Politics of Place
5. Disaster Capitalism in the Streets
6. Plague, Rats, and Undesirable Nature
7. Symbolic Recovery and the Legacies of Disaster
Joanna L. Dyl teaches in the Environmental Analysis Program at the Claremont Colleges.
Paul Sutter is series editor for the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series. He is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has published five books, including Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press, 2005) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press, 2015).
"Dyl’s analysis reveals the ways in which cultural, political, and economic pressures influence the nature of the built environment, even in the context of environmental hazards. . . . These narratives of survival and resistance complicate tidy Progressive-era stories of urban reform and revitalization, revealing heterogeneous experiences of disaster and remaking within the city. . . . Dyl’s work enlivens historical actors typically removed from narratives of this urban revitalization [and] asks provocative questions about how we retell narratives of past disasters, account for natural processes in our present lives, and plan for our futures in these sites."
~Shari Wilcox, Edge Effects
"Seismic City is a landmark in the relatively new field of disaster studies...It makes for a gripping read."
"Seismic City offers an important contribution to the history of San Francisco by interweaving nature, human actions, and the built environment."
"The strength of Dyl’s work stems from her consideration of natural disasters as something very different from exceptional or singular occurrences."
"environmental history delivers a unique portrait of the 1906 disaster."
~Pacific Historical Review
"Seismic City is a superb environmental history of most well-known disasters of a popular western city."
~New Mexico Historical Review