Urbanity & Workings of Urban Social Power

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Visions of Urbanity:

[From an earlier post, revised and republished:]

This image in 1897 of the construction of the San Francisco Call building illustrates the dramatic pinnacle that SF had reached by the late 19th century in urban development and construction.  Finished in 1897[?] it was seen as a model of engineering for decades. While the transcontinental railroad brought LA economic dominance by the turn of the century, San Francisco still remained the dominant cultural force in California – especially urban culture, journalism, banking, and manufacturing. How was this urban development understood by the various inhabitants of the city?

[From the OAC: the image on the right is captioned with “1898?”, yet in the “New Era Edition” of The San Francisco Call dated December 19, 1897, the building is already completed.  While this is likely a cataloguing error, it is still useful to point out.]

To those who resided in San Francisco in the 1890s, the city seemed to be the meeting place of modernity and industrialization. Modern, in that the City Beautiful Movement came to dominate thinking about urban space, leisure, and social class among the commercial-civic elite; especially under James Duval Phelan as mayor after 1896. San Francisco industrialization and development was fueled first by the California Gold Rush, then by the Transcontinental Railroad, and later the Comstock Load. Later mining strikes like the Klondike Rush after 1896-97, only reinforced the city’s collective understanding of the city’s pioneering and mining past. By the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair, the commercial-civic elite saw a city and urbane landscape that rightfully dominated California economicy, the Pacific Slope, and even the entire Pacific Basin from Alaska, round Hawaii, to Souther America.

To live in such a dominant city and cultural hub influence ones social and individual identity. The established narrative of the city’s existence is something that all residents must reconcile within their own self-awareness. But these questions are more diffucult to answer then presented. As a non-elite, do you still owe fealty to the image and vision of the powerful? What are the ethnic and class limits of an established regional identity? How far does an urban society exist into its hinterlands, beginning the question – how does one define formal and informal boundaries of the urban. Do minority groups and individuals who live within the established urban narrative express fealty to the city’s identity which silences many aspects of their own lives? My debt of course remains with William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, (@wcronon) and what his methodology reveals of San Franciscan urban culture in the late-19th century.


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