Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, With a New Preface” as Want to Read:
Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, With a New Preface
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, With a New Preface

(California Studies in Critical Human Geography #3)

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  249 ratings  ·  34 reviews
First published in 1999, this celebrated history of San Francisco traces the exploitation of both local and distant regions by prominent families—the Hearsts, de Youngs, Spreckelses, and others—who gained power through mining, ranching, water and energy, transportation, real estate, weapons, and the mass media. The story uncovered by Gray Brechin is one of greed and ambiti ...more
Paperback, 437 pages
Published October 3rd 2006 by University of California Press (first published March 8th 2001)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Imperial San Francisco, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Imperial San Francisco

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.87  · 
Rating details
 ·  249 ratings  ·  34 reviews

More filters
Sort order
May 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Excellent left-wing analysis of urban growth. Should be interesting for urban planners, Bay Area residents, and people interested in real estate.

I found it eye-opening how a beautiful place like San Francisco was/is so closely associated with things that I generally don't want to think about: nuclear weapons, imperialism and significant exploitation of a hinterland for water, the latter of which he links to Rome's vulnerability. I also found the thesis interesting that the largest and most sust
Frank Stein
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
There is some marvelous research and writing about San Francisco's history in this book, which is only somewhat marred by the author's, journalist Gary Brechin's, conspiratorial and tendentious tone.

The book focuses on a few San Francisco fortunes and the corruption that gave rise to them. He shows how Bank of California head William Ralston and his stock jobber William Sharon made a killing in the Gold mines and then Virginia City silver rush in the 1860s, and then put their money into creatin
Aug 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing
For those of you who think SF is that shining city by the Bay filled with liberal hipsters, think again. Grey Brechen brings this vastly wealthy metropolis' dark side out for all to witness. Simply put, Imperial San Francisco is my favorite book on California (sorry Mike Davis). Its Dick Walker meets Dashiell Hammett. I moved to the Bay Area 3 years ago, with my fancy Ivy League Ph.D. in hand, and realized that I knew nothing about the history of America's most important state. I read around alo ...more
Oct 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Worth it for Bay Area residents to get to know the darker side of the growth of The City. Brechin gets to the roots of imperialism's influence on San Francisco: mining, water, nuclear. The book shows interplay and history of these industries in Berkeley, San Francisco, and the peninsula and how titans, moguls, and power brokers (literally) dominated the developmental growth of the area. Good when paired with "The Season of the Witch."
James Tracy
Jan 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
This book is pretty great. True to the title, it explores how the ruling-class has squeezed every little bit of resources from the Bay, starting on the first day. ISF is unique in the depiction of the costs of the environment. However, very little space (if any) is given to social movements of working-class people who have tried to challenge elites. Otherwise an amazing book.
Jun 14, 2010 rated it it was ok
This book promised much more than it delivered. Ultimately it became a story about wealthy people in SF as gleaned from the SF Chronicle. I had a clear sense that Brechin loved his research materials, but not a lot of confidence that he put it together in a compelling or accurate way. I'd say the highlight for me was learning about the water systems and the brutal mining techniques that were used on the sierras. There's some good material in there, but it is rather tedious on a whole. . .
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-culture
This book is packed, page by page and paragraph by paragraph, with so many historical facts and details as to paint an incredibly vivid picture of the monstrous attitudes and actions that America has committed to racial minorities over the centuries.
Especially appreciable is California (and SF's) geographical position, allowing for a broad and inclusive racist demonization of Asian, Latino, Native, Oceanic and French people.
From the forced slavery of the indigenous inhabitants by Spanish and E
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Marking "read" sometimes means only two or three chapters so bear with me.

Anyway there's a kind of annoying dehistoricizing touch to this book's style because while it documents the catastrophes of resource extraction it also has this compulsion to turn that into self-consciously "epic" or reverential rhetorical flourishes. And it seems to claim that U.S. empire embodies a pattern of concentration/expansion seen also in ancient Rome. Not all transhistoricity is bad and I don't care for a reflex
Sam Gilbert
Jul 23, 2019 rated it liked it
A thing of rags and patches that just barely holds together. Brechin, an often brilliant writer, opens with a bravura section on how cities extend imperial tentacles into the contado, extracting wealth from resources to build ever greater monuments to imperial pride. But after an excellent section on nineteenth-century mining in California and Nevada, the book loses momentum. Few interesting connections are made, and the balance of the book is largely a catalogue of San Francisco’s richest power ...more
Mar 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Wow. Brechin does amazing work here on so many levels it's difficult to know where to begin. In one way, this book functions like a locally focused 'People's History', creating an infuriating narrative of staggering corruption & exploitation by San Francisco's elites, first of California's landscape and people, then, as the city's power & wealth accumulate, exporting this exploitation to distant shores.

In it's deep examination of 'The Pyramid of Mining', Brechin braves largely new groun
Josh Brett
Oct 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
(4.5 stars)
A history of late 19th and early 20th century San Francisco that is much more. Brechin uses the example of San Francisco's growth to critique capitalism in general, expose the intimate connection between war and urban growth, and illustrate the environmental degradation that is the often unaccounted cost of wealth accumulation. Brechin's prose is polemical and free-ranging, pausing for asides on Ancient Rome, 15th century miner and metallurgist Georg Agricola, and most of all, his men
Jun 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It was a five star for me, but your mileage might vary. It's a history of San Francisco up to the end of World War II, and a study of "urban power and earthly ruin". The publishers description is pretty accurate.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .in short, the period was so far like the present period . . . Oops, that's Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities . They were erecting more and taller buildings, needing new energy sources, needing more water from out of town, greed, and
Sep 18, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: san-francisco
This book opens with a slightly bizarre conspiracy theory about the role of mining in history, and keeps going with a lot of implied “the rich are trying to keep us down” without much evidence. Not that the folks he’s chronicling are particularly nice folks, but that’s easy enough to prove without inventing theories that are somewhere between conspiracies and Grand Theories of History. Despite this unfortunate tendency, this book has lots of great stories and background about how the San Francis ...more
Thomas Burchfield
Feb 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: San Francisco history buffs
"Though my WIP novel Butchertown is set in a highly fictionalized—but recognizable—East Bay city, San Francisco (also fictionalized) exerts its own tug from across the Bay reaching through the chilly fog that seeps through the entire story from beginning to end. A bigger tug than I realized, as I’ve learned from one of the books I’ve been consulting."

Read the rest of my review of this fascinating, tendentious book at:

my webpage
Feb 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Excellent, challenging polemic on the degradation of the environment around San Francisco. How SF "fed" off of its resource base. Written by a Berkeley socialist geographer. Lots of research, very informative and written at a very high level. Two chapters focus specifically on deYoung and Hearst to put a personal face on the (mis)use of resources and the manipulation of public opinion by the media (which they controlled) to sanitize their images for posterity. Biting and good. I've been interest ...more
Robert  Baird
Jun 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Not a comprehensive history of the city, but a very thorough description of the political and economic apparatus behind the region's development from the Gold Rush to the Cold War. Brechin combines something like the critical rhetoric of Mike Davis (City of Quartz) with the thoroughness of William Cronon (Nature's Metropolis). There were a number of widely-held historic simplifications that the author deconstructs, which the geek historian in me always appreciates. For 300+ pages, it was a very ...more
Aug 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: San Franciscians!
I just started this book, andddd it's pretty absorbing.

My only commentary/criticism at this time is the strong political nature of...every sentence! I mean, everything is political, sure, but this guy reminds you on every page of the environmental destruction caused by the imperialist creation of cities.

But then...if we love cities, as the author seems to do you reconcile your love with the environmental stresses caused by a city?

Hmm...perhaps these questiojns will be answered as I p
Feb 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I have read this book twice and refer to it still occassionally. It does exhibit liberal bias, but it is impossible to argue with the exhaustive historical evidence presented.

I like this book both as a history of San Francisco as well as an example of what drives urban development everywhere. This book really helped me to better understand urban politics and the influence cities have upon the regions around them.
Mike Ernst
Mar 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Great history of the shaping of San Francisco. It's amazing to read how the various systems that we utterly rely upon (clean water, transportation, etc.) were built through the sheer use of brute force. Fascinating history of the Hetch Hetchy system, the transition of neighborhoods in the city, and the epic newspaper tycoons battles. Great stuff.
Jeffery Bowling
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
I seldom don't finish a book, but this book just was too boring to finish. I was really excited to read a book about the history of SF but that is not this book. Instead this is a club over the head on how evil turn of the century capitalist are. There is almost no story here but rather example after example of the greed of some of the early founders of San Francisco.
Mar 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
I read this recently because I am thinking about the many military fortresses and hilltops around san francisco. Good. On a lot of bookshelves out here and referred to often. However, it is dry dry dry. More political history than social or geographic history.
Randall Wallace
Nov 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
i love that this book talks about big cities being imperial. they suck
in the resources around them and their elites seek control and the
poor are shunted by the side with no advocate.

great history of san francisco.
Robin Havens
Mar 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A must read for San Franciscians
Jan 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, industry-bio
If you read one book of the history of San Francisco (and the West Coast), read this book.
Jul 23, 2009 rated it liked it
Expected a more cohesive social and cultural history. I was left wanting more.
Dec 30, 2008 is currently reading it
skimmed thru the last chapter including a history of the university of california and lawrence/oppenheimer's involvement there leading up to the abomb
May 18, 2010 rated it it was ok
"The moral issue be damned. What we want is prosperity."
Jen Fumarolo
Sep 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: reference
Definitely reads like a text book, but informative in putting SF in historical context.
Dec 07, 2011 rated it liked it
Worth reading for anyone who spends time in SF. A side of its history that I wasn't aware of - particularly of mining and the environmental legacy of its development.
Dec 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Decent, good background to how SF got to where it is. A little overboard on the wickedness of (old time) capitalism.
« previous 1 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources
  • Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism
  • The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld
  • Cities on a Hill
  • Stairway Walks in San Francisco
  • A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate
  • Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History
  • The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation
  • Who Built America? Volume I: Through 1877: Working People and the Nation's History
  • Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity
  • The Ohlone Way
  • Government
  • Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path
  • Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age
  • The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku
  • American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland
  • Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley
  • Captains Of Consciousness: Advertising And The Social Roots Of The Consumer Culture
See similar books…

Other books in the series

California Studies in Critical Human Geography (1 - 10 of 11 books)
  • Changing Fortunes: Biodiversity and Peasant Livelihood in the Peruvian Andes
  • Making the Invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History
  • Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa
  • Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Politics in The Gambia
  • On Holiday: A History of Vacationing
  • Spaces of Hope
  • Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination
  • American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization
  • Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa
  • Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California