Commemorating Regional Empire, Part II: “A Pacific Metropolis,” San Franciscan Visions of Urbane Grandeur

September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagining an Urban Utopia

(Part I @ “Commemorating Regional Empire“)

In Part I, we introduced the concepts of the Pioneer Myth and its interpretive framework. According to much of the historiography, San Francisco as the “Pacific Metropolis” was not codified in local and popular rhetoric until after the turn of the century and especially in the wake of the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915).[1] However, in the 1890s this urban identity seemed to already dominate many of the leading civic, business, and cultural elites’ rhetoric, including the largest newspapers of de Young and Spreckles. In 1897, the rush to the Klondike Gold Rush in particular, as well as European and Asian imperial conflicts, dominated the foreign media coverage in the papers. The reporting of these stories and the editorials that followed revealed an entrenched awareness of San Francisco as the regional metropolis of the Pacific coast. As I had mentioned in a previous post, “Commemorating Regional Empire, Part I,” San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite were especially vocal about their city’s regional dominance on the Pacific coast. What was it that the commercial-civic elite were so eager to express? What was it about San Francisco and its past that they thought was so exceptional? How did they explain the roots of their present success? And how did these ideas relate to the understanding of American Exceptionalism expressed in national politics and the media of the late 19th century?

New Era Edition

Image of California’s Minerva in “New Era Edition” of The San Francisco Call (December 19, 1897).

Throughout the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle, Call, and Examiner, the rush north to the Yukon Territory was framed and seemingly appropriated as what they saw as a naturally Californian and particularly San Franciscan event. Their understanding of San Francisco’s dominance over the Pacific Coast region led them to think it was only natural that the city would encapsulate and integrate the emerging markets into its urban grasp.[2] The city’s dominance in western mining, and its advantages as a supply route of the explosive Klondike market were expressed very forthrightly and implicitly in editorials, reports, and published opinions throughout November and December, 1897. The crisis in the Yukon Territory at Dawson City during the winter of 1897-98 becomes, for example, an opportunity for the editors of the Call and Chronicle to demonstrate not only their superior coverage of an event in a distant land, but also the logistical abilities of the city to come to the starving community’s aid. Only San Francisco, they argued, had the ability to mount and successfully outfit such a grand humanitarian operation to rescue the starving miners at Dawson City.

This understanding of the city’s significance was also expressed at the expense of other regional hubs like Seattle and Los Angeles.[3] One troubled relief effort for Dawson City by western regional competitor Seattle, for instance, leads to a media discussion of how the San Franciscan effort will be much more successful due to its superior people and natural urban advantages. Daily and weekly updates of ships in and out of the bay bolstered their claims of the superiority of San Francisco’s port and her sister city, Oakland with its supporting role. Interestingly, this urban identity demonstrated by the pages of the Chronicle and Call silences the fact that many of the migrants to the Arctic Circle were of many nations and ethnicities and in fact did not travel through San Francisco. Yet since many, and according to their claims the vast majority, would consume products transported by San Francisco on their way to the Klondike, these migrants would be commercial surrogates for San Francisco’s imperial grandeur in expanding markets.[2]

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Breaking Digital Ground:

July 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hello all in the ‘cloud!’ My goals for this blog are as yet undefined. However, it will become more clear as the days roll forward. In essence I hope to present my ideas, investigations, and work to a wider audience. The revolution in digital media, especially for the humanities, has come as a shock to many. Thus secondarily this blog is an attempt to work out in my own mind how best to present historical information to a diverse audience. Blogs are more than public history in digital form, it is a new forum creating new forms of dialogue between academics and the public. Visit Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog for more information on the digital revolution in the humanities.

Preface Entry, July 14, 2011:

In 1894 San Francisco hosted a Mid-Winter Fair. A huge celebration and historical continuation of the California Exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago (1893). Apart from this, the Mid-Winter Fair was a grand structured set of displays and cultural discourses of historical pageantry and emerging regional urban identity. One thing this event demonstrated, was that these displays revealed not only collective historical memories but also presented a shared future. In other words, visions of how San Francisco and the region were developing into a Pacific Metropolis were dominant. The Mid-Winter Fair therefore, represented an elaborate venue for dialogue between class, ethnicity and individual identities, structuring a distinct societal identity orientated in time.

To many commercial-civic elite, the corollary for the apex of civilization could be seen in classical examples of Rome and Greece. In the 1890s, the California Pioneer Myth, the city’s producer ethic, and San Francisco’s regional dominance as the urban metropolis inspired many to identify their society with Ancient Greece. But of course these memories of ancient history were highly selective and subjective. Late nineteenth-century understandings of Roman and Greek culture in the American West were tinged by contemporary perspectives of what liberty, democracy, and society meant. Throughout the headlines of The San Francisco Call and San Francisco Chronicle in 1897, any reference to classicism comes through the Greeks. Key tenants of individualism, democracy, and libertywere important to Californians and particularly of the commercial-civic elite of San Francisco. This idea of San Francisco being a continuation of the Greek democratic experience was expressed most eloquently by James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco from 1897-1902. In an address given at the opening of the Mechanics’ Institute Fair in 1896 titled, “The New San Francisco,” Phelan expressed the perfection of Greek concepts on the western shores of the American nation.

But as we all know, the next question to ask is quo bono? – who benefits from this perspective of urban identity as a progression of the Ancient Greek model of governance? Who is included as citizens? Who is silenced? Contradictions in various visions of San Francisco’s past and future revealed the complexity in perceiving how individuals and groups understood their city. What does it mean for individual and group identity to orient themselves within the past, present, and future of an established narrative identity? For ourselves (Bay Area and California residents) can we ask similar questions? How far have we come from this regional identity of the Bay and our state in the 1890s? How do we define place now in the 21st century? And where are we going in this place? Identity is more than place specific however, and as I hope to investigate, an identities orientation in time is just as crucial. To Californians, and many Americans at the time, the United States was at the vanguard of societal development – at the edge of discovery. At no time in history many thought, had a society bucked the trends of what destroyed the Romans, the Greeks, and all the ancient civilizations of the past. Only in America had economic, demographic, and settlement growth disestablished the tenants of societal growth. Thomas Malthus, many Americans understood, was right in that natural resources limited human population growth. But in America, providence, manifest destiny, and technological innovation presented a very different picture of human societies. This of course is the heart of American Exceptionalism. However its ideological impacts nationally, regionally, and locally demonstrated the variety of interpretations that could emerged from this shared national tenant. How then are we to understand a city’s collective understanding of itself in such a complex historical process as identity creation? The key is expressive culture. How individuals, groups, and the socially powerful present themselves to the public locally, regionally, and nationally, reveals glimpses of the respective identity. Like Phelan’s speech extolling San Francisco’s virtues as an ordered and progressive society, evaluating how individuals, groups, and social elites present themselves reveals how among other things, social power presents, structures, and orders a vision of the city for others to reconcile.


This blog will be constructed to answer many of the questions asked above. Soon to come will be a click-able network of links to structure and connect historical terms, ideas, and conclusions. These updates will allow a visitor to more fully understand what I am writing about at any given time, but also eventually provide a model for presenting historical information in a wiki-like format. Any comments and suggestion to this end will be greatly appreciated, as this is a constantly evolving project.

For an overview of this project check out the “Introduction” in the navigation menu above. For a ever changing list of historiography, check out the menu of the same title above. Additionally, if you are interested in a particular component of this project (regional identity or historical pageantry for example) check out the “Categories” list on the side-bar. Or for the traditionalists, check out the “Tag Cloud” to browse topics by keyword.

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