Five Fires: Race Catastrophe and the Shaping of California by David Wyatt. Chapter 4 – The San Francisco Earthquake and The Culture of Spectacle

View of San Francisco on fire after the 1906 earthquake. Note the well dressed crowds, some sitting in chairs they have brought out into the streets. Taken by Arnold Genthe.

Take a look at this famous photograph of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by photographer Arnold Genthe. The thing to note, according to David Wyatt is not the smoke rising from the city burning at the foot of Sacramento Street.  The important thing, the new thing, the thing that will become a part of California’s character is the well-dressed crowd of spectators standing in the bottom left portion of the frame. There’s a second crowd in the bottom right most of them sitting in chairs.

The city lies in ruins as can be seen in the collapsed building towards the right, it’s already burning out of control, but the survivors have already become spectators, the disaster a spectacle to amaze them. If you click-through to the larger version of this picture at Wikipedia, you’ll see that people all the way down Sacramento Street have brough chairs outside to watch the fire in comfort.

Arnold Genthe was unable to get to his own photography studio that morning, so he took his photos with a camera borrowed from a nearby shop.  His story, is much like those told by all of us who have lived through earthquakes, adventure stories really.  My husband C.J.’s family has been here since long before 1906.  At the time his grandfather was eleven-years-old, living with his family in San Francisco’s Mission District.  As soon as the earth stopped shaking that morning, it was clear to everyone that the tenement where they lived would not stand much longer.  His mother told the children to put on their good clothes before they left the building.  (This was a common choice.  People instinctively suspected they would not be able to return for more clothes, so they took their best.)  Once they were all outside she saw that one of the younger daughters had worn her comfortable shoes instead of the new ones she had just bought so she made C.J.’s grandfather go back into the building to get his sister’s new shoes.

This is the Brownie camera C.J.’s then eleven-year-old grandfather took from his home after the earthquake in 1906. Other than the clothes on his back, his Sunday best, it was the only possession he was able to save from the collapsing building.

On the way out of the building he stopped at the door to the basement where he kept his bicycle and had a small photography lab to develop the pictures he took with his Brownie camera.  He had grabbed the camera from his bedside before leaving the first time around, but did stop and try to open the basement door so he could get his film and his bicycle.  The door had become jammed so he left the building and his photography equipment which must have taken a good deal of effort for him to purchase on the little money an 11-year-old could earn in 1906.

As soon as he stepped out of the building it began to collapse behind him.

Their father had not spent the night at home. C.J.’s grandfather was the only one in the family who knew where their father went when he argued with his wife which was most nights.  He did get a chance to stop by the building later that morning but it had collapsed in the earthquake.  He never saw his father again and never was able to find out what happened to him.

This is a tragic story, but it’s also a great adventure story.  Everyone who lives in California long enough has an earthquake story to tell and we all tell them the same way, like adventure stories.  Like we didn’t really live through a terrible disaster but experienced part of a spectacle. This is  the essential argument of Mr. Wyatt’s chapter on the 1906 Earthquake, that California sees all disaster not as tragedy but as spectacle.

The Chinatown section of San Francisco was completely destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. One of the very few visual records of it are the photographs Arnold Genthe took. He had to work in secret because the Chinese residents would not allow him to take their picture.

The 1906 Earthquake marks several turning points in the state’s history.  It also marks a key point in the development of photography in general and photography in California in particular.  Photographers had already swarmed the American West taking pictures of the people and the scenery.  Muybridge will make his famous series of photographs proving a horse lifts all four feet off the ground at once down in Stanford.  Ansel Adams will turn Yosemite into a photgrapher’s mecca.  Arnold Genthe will publish a book of photographs taken throughout San Francisco’s Chinatown to reveal an intimate look at a nearly all male world that was totally destroyed in the fire.

The earthquake and fire destroyed not only city hall but all of the records it contained. This meant that Chinese men and women trying to immigrate could now claim they were already residents whose records had been lost in the fire.  With no way to prove otherwise, the Chinese Exclusion Act which had kept so many out for so long was effectively overturned.  Chinese immigration rose.

San Francisco begins a slow decline in prominence while Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California begins its exponential growth.

C.J.’s other grandfather was a young baker living in Los Angeles in 1906.  After the earthquake, Southern California bakeries sent loaves of bread north to help feed the many earthquake refugees.  C.J.’s  grandmother who learned of this after she married  would always wonder if the bread she had eaten as a child in one of San Francisco’s post earthquake tent-cities had been baked by her future husband.