The best books to understand how the hell San Francisco turned out like it did

Chris Carlsson Author Of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories
By Chris Carlsson

The Books I Picked & Why

Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area

By Richard A. Walker

Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area

Why this book?

Debunking the Horatio Alger promotional blather of self-flattering tech moguls, the real Bay Area comes into view, based on nurses and teachers, drivers and clerks, homeless and the desperate. Real estate bubbles have given way to tech bubbles which have given way to housing bubbles and now have given way to a chimerical prosperity that is as fragile as any of the prior ones. Dick Walker pierces the veils of capitalist self-promotion to reveal the bleak consequences of the “technology booms” that have repeatedly crashed over the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether unpacking the real causes of our ongoing housing crisis or detailing the extensive ecological havoc inflicted on our area, this is a recent, definitive, fact-based analysis of it all.


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Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

By Gray Brechin

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

Why this book?

There are few books about San Francisco that have so successfully situated the City in a regional and geographic history, as well as naming the names of the wealthy elite that have managed to dominate local government, media, business, water sources, land, technological choices, and far-flung world markets. Starting with the early fortunes drawn from the rapacious destruction of nature and turned into valuable downtown real estate, and ending with the venal Regents who dominate the University of California and its shameful embrace of the nuclear war industry, this beautifully written book will forever shape your idea of San Francisco and the Bay Area.


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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

By Richard White

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Why this book?

Richard White does an incredible job of hilariously revealing the nasty, brutish, and incredibly dumb men who organized the building of the 19th century’s cutting-edge industry, the railroads. Making use of a corrupt U.S. government to develop junk bonds and kite those loans into personal fortunes, the Big Four and their successors shaped laws and political power to suit their interests, but at no time did their much-vaunted corporations come close to being the efficient engines of economic development they’ve claimed to be. This is a history that shows how utterly destructive and pointless much of the original tech boom associated with building the railroads to reach San Francisco really were, and by extension, reveals the emptiness and depravity of the men who built fortunes at the public’s expense.


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Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

By Philip J. Dreyfus

Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

Why this book?

Philip Dreyfus has written a fantastic one-stop ecological history of San Francisco that properly puts the city’s evolution into the natural systems on which it was built. Too many histories overlook the basic questions of water, topography, and climate and how human activity, that is work, has altered those over time. Dreyfus starts with an eloquent description of pre-contact life on the windy, foggy, sand-dune-covered peninsula, and methodically takes us through the sequences of urbanization, including the struggle over green spaces and parklands, water provision, and ultimately the surrounding bay itself. Few cities have benefited as much as San Francisco from the activism of previous generations that in our case, saved the bay, blocked freeway construction, and halted nuclear power.


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Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

By Gary Kamiya

Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

Why this book?

In this beautifully written book, you find yourself wandering the streets with the author as he comes upon the quirky and eccentric characters and locations that have charmed us all for generations. But you also meet the real people who do the real work that keep this city running, and he doesn’t shy away from visiting the parts of town that are mostly well off the beaten tourist (or local’s) path! There’s probably no other book about San Francisco that made me so glad to live here, but also felt so honest and true to the strange contradictions that define this place. Kamiya’s ongoing coverage of the city’s history via the online SF Chronicle has furthered his role as an indispensable chronicler of the city’s life, past and present.


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