Reviewed by Jonah Raskin
Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.
For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.
Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.
From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”
Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.
By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.
In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”
Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”
Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.
For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.
Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.
Matthew Booker will give a talk about his new book at the California Historical Society at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco on Thursday, July 18, from 6 to 8pm. RSVP here.