By the 1890s, many in San Francisco saw their city as a preeminent example of modern social evolution and a site of western urbanity. Despite its more populous reputation as a city of vice and far west outpost of the United State, the disorderly city had seemingly evolved into a productive, ordered and urbane city by 1900. The commercial-civic elite for instance understood their city to be a pacific metropolis long before it would be formally declared at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. This understanding of the city’s urban collective identity was also expressed in urban politics, in literature, and popular media. By the last quarter of the 19th century, San Francisco represented an almost imperial influence over the regions economy and its influence on California culture. Residents did not have to travel far through the urban landscape to see the materialization and realization of this perspective. From monuments, to public architecture, civic celebrations, to the industrial magnate’s private homes, prosperity and growth was writ large on the landscape of the city. Even to the workingmen and women, they experienced, read about, and heard their city’s claims to preeminence in banking, Pacific shipping, western mining, and other manufactures.

With the maturation of industrialization on the Pacific Coast, the rise of a Progressive ideology, and through the development of socio-economic hierarchies throughout the state, San Francisco’s residents expressed a variety of visions or imaginings of what they saw as the city’s collective significance and identity. As historian David Glassberg has pointed out, an effective way of detecting representations of collective identity are when they are being purposely deployed for any given end. Civic celebrations in particular in the late 19th century, like California’s Golden Jubilee, where deployed symbolism, imagry, and histories, revealed nostalgic visions of the community at large. These various imaginings, formed out of the city’s historical legacies of  the Gold Rush, not only gave San Franciscan residents usable identities in a rapidly developing society, but they also revealed a desire for stability and harmony within a legacy of chaotic growth in the American West.

The most influential of these collective visions of the city were those of San Francisco’s most influential citizens and organizations. As Barbara Berglund suggests, in “ordering the disorderly city” San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite significantly structured the city’s social, psychological, political, and economic landscape. Through various forms of social power, the commercial-civic elite institutionalized their own vision of the city’s collective identity into histories, monuments, and other communications. By dominating the discourse on public policy, public space, and urban politics for instance, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite overwhelmingly oriented the lives of the city’s inhabitants; influencing their individual and group identities by structuring how residents live, work, and play.

However, this cultural ordering according to Berglund is more complex than a hegemonic top-down structuring, it is a dialogue and discourse between the socio-economic classes. In living in a late 19th century city like San Francisco, residents and consumers demonstrated their own economic ordering of the city and their own lives. By residents living, consuming, and building a life according to their own self-interests, the established components of the city’s collective identity could be modified, changed, or replaced by insurgent imaginings. Just as San Francisco’s Chinatown emerged from the dialogue between commercial-civic elite social control and Chinese resident’s private agency, other insurgent identities sought to not only live their lives, but also to present their own vision of what it means to be San Franciscan. The city’s established collective identity at any given time, is a similar historical dialogue and discourse between the city’s commercial-civic elite’s own imaginings from above and those insurgent and minority imaginings from below. Significant however, is the dramatic disparity of power between the elite’s cultural ordering and ordinary people’s economic ordering.

The long historical legacy of the Anglo-Pioneer Gold Rush myth in urban politics, in popular media, and on the urban landscape by the 1890s demonstrated the power, stability and broad consensus of the city’s established commercial-civic elite. The continuity of an established imagining is dependent on the consistent deployment by the city’s commercial-civic elite and its subsequent acceptance by other sectors of society. Significantly though, this cultural ordering is moderated, redirected, or blunted in ways that no one intended by several factors. First, a consensus among the commercial-civic elite’s overall vision of the city’s identity is not without cooperation and competition. In establishing and maintaining a dominant, cohesive collective imagining over time, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite were also not immune to dissent and disagreement.  Additionally, the wider population’s private, self-interested choices also complicate how the established imagining is received and sustained. It is within these inter and intra-class discourses where the battle over the city’s collective identity is fought.

But how are we to understand an urban collective identity? How are we to begun such an investigation? How as historians are we to discern what vision of the city any one particular group believes or understands?

To make matters more complicated, how an audience interprets a deployed vision however may be contrary to the creators intentions. In addition, large civic celebrations like the Golden Jubilee for instance, require the cooperation of various individuals and organizations where conflicts of interest large and small are likely to occur, and did occur.  It is through these types of civic and public displays where group and collective identity can be investigated with some certainty. The effective deployment of a collective imagining demonstrates on one level an agreement between the organizational individuals in how they understand the past and the present. But on another level, the competition and cooperation reveals the complicated discourses between different forms of social, political, and economic power.

In San Francisco in the late 19th century, civic and public displays were rich with imagery, symbolism and dialogues of social power. It is in this vein where I hope to find the battle of San Francisco’s collective identity being played by various groups vying for their visions of the city being displayed or presented to the public at celebrations, ceremonies, and in the public space. The Native Sons’ of the Golden West for instance publicly displayed not only their hatred for the Chinese, but also demonstrated their own vision of San Francisco’s social order and thereby their interpretation of the city’s collective identity. And as no one group dominated the narrative of the city’s collective identity at any one time, deployment was the result of cooperation and competition, not the complete dominance by one vision or the other. Over time various group’s power to influence the collective narrative waxed and waned with the deployment of parallel and congruent forms of power such as political influence, economic dominance, or cultural leadership.

What factors determine the outcome of this battle over imagining the city (the product of cultural ordering and economic ordering over time)? It is through private and public memories, cultural and civic traditions, private and public histories, literature, and art, that ultimately establishes any continuity to an urban collective identity.

As historian of tradition David Lowenthal suggests, an urban collective identity emerges through the collective weaving of a “web of retrospection” through available memories, established histories, and physical relics. For San Franciscans in the late 19th century, it was the themes of the Pioneer Myth that came to dominate how most residents understood their city’s identity. As Glen Gendzel points out, San Francisco was dominated by a “Pioneer Gold Rush” narrative myth. Much of San Francisco and northern California’s regional identity hinged on the legacy and experience of the California Gold Rush. In Lowenthal’s words the past is identity – “all present awareness is grounded on past perceptions and acts.” The already fabled narrative by the 1890s of San Francisco’s “Pioneer” origin was thickly established and displayed in history books, public displays, and in the memories of California’s inhabitants well into the First World War. Figures like Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Hubert Howe Bancroft, John S. Hittell, Frank Norris and Jack London to only name a few, due to their popularity, had a direct influence on how many people envisioned a California identity. Any group’s challenge of that established narrative in writing, public display, or in daily life, had to reconcile with the established memories, histories, and relics of the city’s pioneer and mining past. To be expected, as Gendzel reminds us, challenges to the established narrative were numerous. Nevertheless, the competition between established and insurgent narratives of the city’s past and present collective identity, continue unabated as residents both knowingly and unknowingly challenge and undergird the city’s collective sense of itself by living their own lives.

San Francisco in particular, with a demographic legacy of cosmopolitanism, the struggle in conceptualizing and ordering the city’s collective narrative was volatile, especially in the 1880s and 1890s when the progressive shift in politics and society challenged people to question the trajectory of their larger society in a very big way. With the ascendance of James D. Phelan as Mayor in 1896-7, the city received a heavy progressive influence in urban politics and public life. Phelan’s successful deployments of his own visions of a City Beautiful on the Pacific, demonstrated how a single individual could frame the city’s image. But few individual actions would converge with such power like James D. Phelan in the 1890s or Dennis Kearney in the 1870s. Even for ourselves as historians, Hubert Howe Bancroft who has had a dramatic impact on how we understand California in the 19th century, had a great influence on perpetuating the Pioneer Gold Rush Myth of San Francisco and of California. How, living in the 1880s and 1890s San Francisco, could you ignore the established history of the city and state when it was enshrined into the very fabric of the regional society?

Many questions emerge from this simple exploration of the complexities of urban collective identity.

How influential can one individual be on an urban collective identity? Is the concept of an “urban collective identity” even effective at understanding the past in a meaningful way?

How can we understand a burgeoning urban identity in such a cosmopolitan place like 1890s San Francisco?

Do contradictions in collectivity presuppose the establishment of a collective consensus?

Does the Chinese community see the city’s image much differently than the commercial-civic elite – like Mayor Phelan for instance? Were there similarities?

What does a mass civic celebration like California’s Golden Jubilee (1898) or the Mid-Winter Fair (1894) reveal about the city’s urban identity, political battles, and cultural hegemony?


Many thanks of course are in order. First and foremost my professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, structured in many ways the perspective I have on the past and history in my early stages. Mathew Lasar, Lisbeth Haas, Marilyn Westerkamp, Dana Frank, and Gregory O’Malley most significantly shaped not only my personal interests in intellectual, political, and western history, but introduced me to the significance of cultural and labor history. At San Jose State University, Ruma Chopra, Glen Gendzel, and Patricia Hill, particularly have provided clear and useful critique of my wild ambitions, as well as insight into the historian’s profession. Naturally there are many others, and just as this blog is constantly changing, so will these acknowledgements. With new thanks, and one’s remembered, this list will likely grow quite long.


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