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

Who am I?

I’ve lived in San Francisco since I was 20 in 1978. I helped launch Processed World in 1981, Critical Mass in 1992, and Shaping San Francisco in 1998. I’ve been co-directing and co-curating the archive at foundsf.org since 2009, and have been fully immersed for years in gathering and presenting local history online, on bike and walking tours, during Public Talks, and most recently on Bay Cruises. I have published three books of my own and edited or co-edited seven additional volumes, much of which covers local history. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized how little I know!


I wrote...

Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

By Chris Carlsson,

Book cover of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

What is my book about?

In Hidden San Francisco Chris Carlsson peels back the layers of San Francisco’s history to reveal a storied past: behind old walls and gleaming glass facades lurk former industries, secret music and poetry venues, forgotten terrorist bombings, and much more. Carlsson delves into the Bay Area’s long prehistory as well, examining the region’s geography and the lives of its inhabitants before the 1849 Gold Rush changed everything, setting in motion the clash between capital and labor that shaped the modern city.

The definitive San Francisco ‘history from below’, Hidden San Francisco invites you to step out in the streets and use its self-guided walking and bike routes to immerse yourself in a history that is varied, contested, and still being written.

The books I picked & why

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

By Richard A. Walker,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Richard A. Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pictures of a Gone City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The San Francisco Bay Area is currently the jewel in the crown of capitalism—the tech capital of the world and a gusher of wealth from the Silicon Gold Rush. It has been generating jobs, spawning new innovation, and spreading ideas that are changing lives everywhere. It boasts of being the Left Coast, the Greenest City, and the best place for workers in the USA. So what could be wrong? It may seem that the Bay Area has the best of it in Trump’s America, but there is a dark side of success: overheated bubbles and spectacular crashes; exploding inequality and…


Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

By Gray Brechin,

Book cover of 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.

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

By Gray Brechin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Imperial San Francisco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1999, this celebrated history of San Francisco traces the exploitation of both local and distant regions by prominent families - the Hearsts, de Youngs, Spreckelses, and others - who gained power through mining, ranching, water and energy, transportation, real estate, weapons, and the mass media. The story uncovered by Gray Brechin is one of greed and ambition on an epic scale. Brechin arrives at a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the connections between environment, economy, and technology and discovers links that led, ultimately, to the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear…


Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

By Richard White,

Book cover of 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.

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

By Richard White,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Railroaded as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.


Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

By Philip J. Dreyfus,

Book cover of 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.

Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

By Philip J. Dreyfus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Better Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few cities are so dramatically identified with their environment as San Francisco - the landscape of hills, the expansive bay, the engulfing fog, and even the deadly fault line shifting below. Yet most residents think of the city itself as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. In Our Better Nature, Philip J. Dreyfus recounts the history of San Francisco from Indian village to world-class metropolis, focusing on the interactions between the city and the land and on the generations of people who have transformed them both. Dreyfus examines the ways that San Franciscans remade the landscape to…


Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

By Gary Kamiya,

Book cover of 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.

Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

By Gary Kamiya,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Cool Gray City of Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A kaleidoscopic homage both personal and historical . . . Kamiya’s symphony of San Francisco is a grand pleasure." ―New York Times Book Review

The bestselling love letter to one of the world's great cities, San Francisco, by a life-long Bay Area resident and co-founder of Salon.

Cool, Gray City of Love brings together an exuberant combination of personal history, deeply researched history, in-depth reporting, and lyrical prose to create an unparalleled portrait of San Francisco. Each of its 49 chapters explores a specific site or intersection in the city, from the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to the raunchy Tenderloin…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in San Francisco, historic sites, and the economy?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about San Francisco, historic sites, and the economy.

San Francisco Explore 148 books about San Francisco
Historic Sites Explore 12 books about historic sites
The Economy Explore 130 books about the economy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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