Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: 1906: Phoenix Rising (Civic Center area)
time: 1.5 hours
cost: donation ($5 suggested)
tack rating:

First of all, let’s hear it for the San Francisco City Guides! A wonderful bunch of volunteers, dedicated to tramping around this fine city and sharing their knowledge with you. They’re a non-profit organization with more than 200 trained volunteers leading dozens of history and architectural walking tours, sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library. Visit their website to learn more about their offerings. Sooner or later I’ll be taking every single one.

Todays tour was one established especially for the Earthquake centennial year of 2006. It hits some of the high points of that fateful period, from famously corrupt city officials to details and lore of the fire itself. The point of this walk is to acquaint the casually interested tourist with the time period of the quake, some of the more famous characters, and with the general environs. And in this it succeeds.

off we go

Our affable guide strapped a portable speaker to her belt, popped on a miked headphone, and guided us from behind the Veterans Building to a spot near the new Library, faithfully covering the geographical and historical territory.

And the tour wasn’t bad. I had been hoping for some deeper digging, some facts that would astonish me, a detail that would suddenly cast the period in a new light… but I fear the extensive research that I (and probably you, dear reader) did into the ’06 quake last year coloured my experience of the tour. Though I hadn’t known that the Ramada Inn on Market Street had played temporary home to City Hall, for example, much if the tour felt a little thin.

But we did cover some good stuff:

  • The machinations of Abe “Boss” Ruef and his pawn Mayor Schmitz
  • Story of the “Ham and Eggs” fire
  • Decoding of fire hydrant color-schemes
  • A cemetery was once buried under the Civic Center
  • The destruction of City Hall
  • Did you know? The dome our new City Hall is bigger than the White House!

nobody’s perfect

As to the accuracy of the historical details presented, our guide was pretty good. Not surprising, since each guide must complete a 6-month course and pass a test of historical knowledge — but you know how it is, sometimes stories become exaggerated or slightly scrambled in re-telling.

For example, is it a big deal that architect Daniel Burnham’s invitation to redesign San Francisco (his famous “City Beautiful” project) was incorrectly presented as coming from Mayor Schmitz after the fire rather from Mayor Phelan years before? Well, it paints Schmitz as being a visionary – something which might have shocked him. And ironically, poor Burnham’s final plans had arrived at City Hall just the day before the earthquake, and though a tremendous opportunity was created by the fire, these plans were — in the interest of recreating the financial map of the city for its property owners — shoved aside.

Not completely, of course. In fact, the high point of the tour is the opportunity to admire the Civic Center, both as a remnant of that master plan and as one of the most architecturally consistent Beaux Arts complexes in the country. Even though windswept and not particularly human in scale, it’s nice to take a moment and admire the grand vision of the place.

should you take this tour?

If your knowledge of the ’06 quake is already pretty fair, then I think you can skip this one. If you’re in the neighborhood, though, it isn’t bad, especially if you’re averse to climbing hills: the route is almost entirely flat!

for further edification

» 1906 San Francisco Earthquake – Wikipedia
» Civic Center history
» the Burnham Plan