A clouded commemoration

San Francisco marks its quake in mixed emotions

April 02, 2006|By LEE ROMNEY AND JOHN M. GLIONNA | LEE ROMNEY AND JOHN M. GLIONNA,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO -- The year was 1906. The city was demolished by an earthquake. Then ravaged by fire.

San Francisco quickly rebuilt and trumpeted itself as a world-class city gracefully risen from the ashes. What would be remembered through the years were the positives: the heroism, the generosity of neighboring cities, the gorgeous architecture that replaced what was lost.

Hidden in the city's rewritten history were darker realities.

In the chaos, San Franciscans lashed out at the underclass - beating and shooting Chinese immigrants, in part to keep them from rebuilding Chinatown.

Officials covered up the death count - now thought to have surpassed 3,000 - doctored photographs to minimize the appearance of damage, and removed earthquake faults from maps.

And the upper class illegally took over city government.

A century later, civic leaders are struggling to commemorate one of San Francisco's defining stories. Complicating the tribute even more is the certainty that another catastrophic earthquake looms in the future.

"I feel sorry for the organizers," said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. "How do you decide to commemorate a human tragedy that could repeat itself any time?"

Fault lines emerged early.

One historian has insisted that the events should be marked with solemnity, in honor of the thousands of dead the city only recently officially acknowledged. San Francisco's Chinese community is emphasizing the era's atrocities.

And with memories of Hurricane Katrina still raw, donors are focusing on seismic preparedness.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, 38, offered his own idea: a party with local rock hero Carlos Santana. It was scuttled when donors worried that a concert would be in poor taste.

A smattering of events has slowly taken shape around a judiciously balanced theme - "Commemorate, Educate and Celebrate" - including an earthquake expo and the city's belated embrace of an annual memorial gathering at a downtown fountain.

Newsom acknowledged that the 1906 earthquake was an "awkward" event to mark: "Do you sit there with a candlelight vigil and say, `My God, how dare the city do what it did back then, with the corruption of city officials or the mistreatment of its Chinese-American residents?'

"Do you sit there and tell people, `Why are we all here? The next earthquake is going to come, and most of us are not going to make it.' Or do you focus on the city's comeback and rebuilding?"

Striking just after 5 a.m., the quake April 18 and the ensuing three-day firestorm leveled most of San Francisco: 29,000 buildings.

Rescuers risked their lives to pull victims from collapsed buildings. But city officials also tried unsuccessfully to move Chinatown from its central location to a remote outpost.

An immediate campaign began to sanitize events: City officials called the disaster "The Great Fire," excising the word "earthquake." For years the official number of disaster dead was artifically set at 478.

The rebuilding was rapid and extravagant, including a gilded City Hall.

For decades, a small gathering of survivors has observed the anniversary day each year at Lotta's Fountain, an ornate downtown landmark that in 1906 served as a message board for the dispossessed.

Historian Gladys Hansen was turned down by the city when she wanted to build a memorial to victims; she had to turn to a cemetery in nearby Colma.

But the centennial was a marker the city could not ignore.

As the main event, the city has now officially embraced the Lotta's Fountain gathering. A moment of silence will mark the quake and will be shattered at 5:13 a.m. with sirens and church bells.

Also planned are a parade, firefighters costume ball and a $500-a-plate dinner to benefit the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

"We're not going to tell a happy story," said historical society Executive Director Sue Lee. "It's a very complicated story."

Lee Romney and John M. Glionna write for the Los Angeles Times.

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