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|Some Cities and San Francisco and Resurgam
By Hubert Howe Bancroft
Some Cities and San Francisco
There had been some discussion as to improving and beautifying the city of San Francisco prior to the catastrophe of April 18th. Landscape architects had been consulted, proposals considered, and preliminary plans drawn. Therefore when on that day the city was swept by fire, obviously it was the opportune moment for the requisite changes in the rebuilding. For a brief period enthusiasm waxed warm. It helped to mitigate the blow, this fencing with fate. Let the earth shake, and fires burn, we will have here our city, better and more beautiful than ever-and more valuable-an imperial city of steel it shall be, and thus will we get even with the misfortunes of this day.
Reform in the rebuilding was needed, whatever should be the scale of beauty or utility decided upon. Fifty years ago the elevating influences of tasteful environment were not so highly appreciated as now, and all large cities are fifty years old or more. All large cities, as a rule, had their beginning with narrow, crooked streets and mean houses. In Europe and Asia there are aggregations of humanity whose domiciles have remained unchanged, one might almost say uncleansed, for hundreds or thousands of years, or ever since their mythical beginning, save only for the covering of the debris of dead centuries.
These ancient towns, mostly offspring of feudalism, begun under castle walls and continued after walls and castle had crumbled, as their area enlarged, with some improvement, perhaps, in the suburban parts, still retained this patch of mediaevalism, until obliterated by war, or fire, or later by modern progress. Look at Edinburgh, for example. With all its Scotch thrift and neatness, there yet remains the ill-conditioned and once filthy quarter, beside which rise the old-time ten-story houses built into the hillside, while in the modern part of the city in sharp contrast are broad streets and open squares and fine buildings.
In America the birth of towns is quite different. Here are no plantings of trembling poverty under lordly walls, but bold pioneering, forecasting agriculture and commerce; no Babel building, with "Go to, let us build here a Cleveland or a Cincinnati," but rather, "Here for the present we will abide." If, however, serfdom and mediaevalism were absent in New World town-planting, so also were aestheticism or any appreciation of the beautiful apart from the useful. Old cities require reconstruction to make them what modern taste and intelligence demand; settlements in their incipiency are dominated by their sturdy founders, who usually have other things to think about than beauty and adornment.
In this day of great wealth and wonderful inventions we realize more and more the value of the city to mankind, and the quality of the city as a means of culture. Cities are not merely marts of commerce; they stand for civility; they are civilization itself. No untried naked Adam in Eden might ever pass for a civilized man. The city street is the school of philosophy, of art, of letters; city society is the home of refinement. When the rustic visits the city he puts on his best clothes and his best manners. In their reciprocal relations the city is as men make it, while from the citizen one may determine the quality of the city. The atmosphere of the city is an eternal force. Therefore as we value the refinement of the human mind, the enlargement of the human heart, we shall value the city, and strive so to build, and adorn, and purify, that it may achieve its ultimate endeavor.
Civic betterment has long been in progress among the more civilized communities through the influence of cultured people capable of appreciating the commercial as well as the aesthetical value of art. Vast sums have been spent and great results accomplished, but they are nothing as compared with the work yet to be done-work which will continue through the ages and be finished only with the end of time.
And not only will larger wealth be yet more freely poured out on artistic adornment, but such use of money will be regarded as the best to which it can be applied. For though gold is not beautiful it can make beauty, even that beauty which elevates and ennobles, which purifies the mind and inspires the soul. Progress is rapid in this direction as in many others. A breach of good taste in public works will ere long be adjudged a crime. For already mediaeval mud has ceased to be fashionable, and the picturesque in urban ugliness is picturesque no longer. All the capitals of Europe have had to be made over, Haussmannized, once or several times. Our own national capital we should scarcely be satisfied with as its illustrious founder left it.
It is a hopeful sign amidst some discouraging ones that wealth as a social factor and measure of merit is losing something of its prestige; that it is no longer regarded by the average citizen as the supreme good, or the pursuit of it the supreme aim in life; there are so many things worth more than money, so many human aspirations and acquirements worthy of higher considerations than the inordinate cravings of graft and greed. Hoarded wealth especially is not so worshipful to-day as it was yesterday, while the beautiful still grows in grace-the beautiful and the useful, compelling improvement, always engendered by improved environment.
Some cities are born in the purple-rare exceptions to the rule. San Francisco is not one of these. St. Petersburg, the city of palaces, of broad avenues and granite-faced quays, whose greatest afflictions are the occasional overflow of the Neva and the dynamite habit, was spoken into being by a monarch. Necessity stands sponsor for Venice, the beautiful, with her streets of water-ways and airs of heavenly harmony; while nature herself may claim motherhood of Swedish Stockholm, brilliant with intermingling lakes islands and canals, rocks hills and forests, rendering escape from the picturesque impossible.
Penn planted his Quakers about 1682, long before many of the present large cities in America were begun, yet Philadelphia was one of the few sketched in such generous proportions that little change was afterwards necessary to make it one of the most spacious of urban commonwealths. With this example before him came in 1791, more than a century later, the father of his country, who permitted his surveyors so injudiciously to cover the spot on the Potomac which he had chosen for the capital city of the republic as to require much expensive remodeling later. Yet what American can drive about Washington now and say it is not worth the cost? Further, as an example, the repeated reconstruction and adornment of the national capital by Congress are priceless to the whole United States, the government therein bearing witness to the value of the beautiful. And if of value on the Potomac, is it not equally so at the portal of the Pacific?
A few other cities there have been which have arisen at the command of man, potentate or pirate, besides those of the quaker Penn and the tzar Peter-Alexandria, the old and the new, with Constantinople between; the first by order of the poor world conqueror, at the hand of the architect Dinocrates, two or three centuries before Caesar, Cleopatra, and Antony, but made fit for them and their chariots by streets a hundred feet wide.
The Danube is the mother of many cities, directing the destiny of nations, from the Iron Gate to the Golden Horn. Vienna has been made brilliantly modern since 1858. Beside the sufferings of Constantinople our little calamity seems tame. Seven times during the last half century the city has been swept by fire, not to mention earthquakes, or pestilence, which on one occasion took with it three hundred thousand lives. Yet all the while it grows in magnificence faster than the invisible enemies of Mohammed can destroy it. But for these purifying fires the city would still be one of narrow, filthy streets and vile smells, reeking with malaria. The Golden Horn of the Bosporus possesses no greater natural advantages than the Golden Gate of San Francisco, not even so great. The industrial potentialities of the former are not to be compared with those of the latter, while for healthful airs and charming environment we have all that earth can give, and therewith should be content.
Cities have been made as the marquis of Bute made Cardiff, by constructing a dock, and ship canal, and converting the ancient castle into a modern palace. Many towns have been started as railway stations, but few of them attained importance. Steamboat landings have been more fortunate. Some cities owe their origin to war, some to commerce, and not a few to manufactures. Fanaticism has played a part, as in India and parts of Africa, where are nestings of half-savage humanity with a touch of the heavenly in the air. Less disciplined are these than zion-towns, but nearer the happiness of insensibility-the white-marbled and jeweled Taj Mahal, Agra on the Jumna, and Delhi, making immortal Jehan the builder, with his pearl mosque and palace housing the thirty-million-dollar peacock throne; Benares, on the Ganges, a series of terraces and long stone steps extending upward from the holy water, while rising yet higher in the background are temples, towers, mosques, and palaces, all in oriental splendor. Algiers, likewise, an amphitheatre in form, might give San Francisco lessons in terrace construction, having hillsides covered with them, the scene made yet more striking by the dazzling white of the houses. After the place became French, the streets were widened and arcades established in the lower part.
In fact, the French believe in the utility of beauty, and in Paris at least they make it pay. The entire expenses of the municipal government, including police and public works, are met by the spendings of visitors. To their dissolute monarchs were due such creations as the Tuileries, the Louvre, and Versailles. Have we not dissolute millionaires enough to give us at least one fine city?
London and Paris stand out in bold contrast, the one for utility, the other for beauty. Both are adepts in their respective arts. The city proper of London has better buildings and cleaner streets than when St. Paul was erected; otherwise it is much the same. Elsewhere in London, however, are spacious parks and imposing palaces, with now and then a fine bit of something to look out upon, as the bridges of the murky Thames, the Parliament houses, the Abbey, Somerset house, and Piccadilly, perhaps. Children may play at the Zoo, while grown-ups sit in hired chairs under the trees.
Three times London was destroyed by the plague, and five times by fire, that of 1666 lasting four days, and covering thrice the area of the San Francisco conflagration; yet it was rebuilt better than before in three and a half years. Always the city is improved in the rebuilding; how much, depends upon the intelligence and enterprise of the people.
Paris is brilliant with everything that takes the eye-palaces, arches, Bon Marche shops, arcades, colonnades, great open spaces adorned with statues, forest parks, elysian driveways, and broad boulevards cut through mediaeval quarters in every direction, as well for air as for protection from the canaille blockaded in the narrow streets. San Francisco may have some canaille of her own to boast of one of these days; canaille engendered from the scum of Europe and Asia, and educated at our expense for our destruction. Over and over, these two cities, each a world metropolis, have been renovated and reconstructed, the work in fact going on continuously.
For some of the most effective of our urban elaborations we must go back to the first of city builders of whom we have knowledge. The Assyrians made terraces, nature teaching them. On the level plain building ground was raised forty feet for effect. Like all artists of precivilization, the Assyrians placed adornment before convenience, as appeared in Nineveh on the Tigris and Babylon on the Euphrates. At Thebes and Palmyra it was the same, their palaces of alabaster, if one chooses to believe what is said, covering, some of them, a hundred acres. The fashion now is to build upward rather than outward. Besides this alabaster acreage there are to be taken into account the pyramids, artificial mountains, and endless towertowns, supposed to be an improvement on whatever existed before their time. Around the Mediterranean and over India way were once hundreds of charming places like the Megara suburb of Carthage and the amphitheatre of Rhodes, prolific in classic art and architecture, precious gifts of the gods.
But before all other gods or gifts comes Athens, where the men were as gods and the gods very like the men. Encircling the Acropolis hill-most ancient cities had their central hill-the city owes its grandeur to the many temples dedicated to the Olympian deities by the men who made them, made both deities and temples, that long line of philosophers the sublimity of whose thoughts civilization fed on and found expression in the genius of now and then a Pericles or a Phidias.
Twenty times Rome suffered, each time worse than ever befell an American city, the debris of destruction overspreading her sacred soil some fathoms deep, yet all the while mistress of the world.
The Moors in Spain reconstructed and embellished many cities, and built many entire. To them Spain owes her finest specimens of art and architecture, as Seville, Cordova, and the Alhambra. In Naples the mediaeval still overshadows the modern. The city needs cleansing, though she flourishes in her filth and volcanic belchings. Nice, like Paris, plans to please her guests. Berlin was a little late with her reconstructive work; the town walls were not removed till 1866. Though dating from 1190, Glasgow is practically modern, having been several times renovated by fire. Antwerp, burned in 1871, was quickly rebuilt. The Hague is charming as the city of peace. Munich, on the Isar, is every day drifting into the beautiful, not to say aesthetical.
Pekin is a city sui generis, with its Kin-Ching, or prohibited city, sacred to royalty; its Hwang-Ching, or imperial city, exclusively for court officials; its Tartar division and Chinese division, all completed according to the grand khan and Confucius. Happy Celestials! There is nothing more to be done, nothing to reconstruct, nothing to improve; it stands alone, the only city in all the world that is absolutely finished and perfect. But of a truth our public works sink into insignificance beside those of the ancient barbarians, the great wall and canal of China, the pyramids of Egypt, and the brilliant cities of Assyria and Palmyra.
The cities of Australia-Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide-in common with all those of the British colonies, are laid out along liberal lines, with broad streets, parks, public squares, and beautiful modern buildings, requiring little change for many years to come. The English part of Calcutta is a city of palaces, built from the spoils of subjugation. Yokohama was a small fishing station when Commodore Perry called there in 1854.
In the New World as in the Old, from John Cotton to Joseph Smith, religion with cupidity inspires. One William Blaxton in 1630 lived where Boston now is, and invited thither Winthrop and his colonists. When banished from Massachusetts, Roger Williams stepped ashore on the bank of the Seekonk, on a rock where is now Providence. The French built a fort where Marquette camped in 1673, and there is now Chicago. Buffalo was a military post in 1812. St. Paul was an Indian trading station prior to 1838. The building of Fort Washington was followed by settlers and Cincinnati was begun. Henry Hudson touched at Manhattan island in 1609, and the Dutch following, New York was the result. Brigham Young, journeying westward, came to the Great Salt Lake, where, as he told his followers, he was instructed by divine revelation to plant the City of the Saints. It proved more permanent than might have been expected, as zion-cities usually are quite ephemeral affairs.
Boston, the beneficial, swept by fires, smallpox, witchcraft, quakerism, snowstorms, earthquakes, and proslavery riots, still lives to meditate upon her own superiority and to instruct mankind. Much attention has been given of late in Boston and suburban towns to artistic effect in street architecture. Until recently New York has given but little thought to pleasing effects. Broadway was not broad, and Fifth Avenue was not striking. Of late, however, the city has become imperial, houses parks and driveways being among the finest in the world. New Orleans has survived at least a dozen great yellow-fever crises since 1812, population meanwhile increasing twentyfold. After the enforced construction of the levee, the idea came to some one that the top of it would make a fine driveway, which in due time was extended from the river and bayous to the lake, thus becoming the most attractive feature of the place. Though not without natural attractions, Chicago was not made by or for her things of beauty. Beginning with low wooden houses along dirty streets, transformations were continued until systems of parks and boulevards with elegant edifices came into view,-which shows that, however material the beginning of American towns may be, if prosperity comes the aesthetical is sure to come with it. A contrast to Chicago may be found in St. Louis, for a long time trading-post town and city, which would be of more importance now were her people of a different quality. Even her chronic calamities, tornadoes, floods, and epidemics, fail to rouse her energies, so that Chicago, starting later and under more adverse circumstances, outstripped her in every particular. Cleveland was laid out for a fine city, so that as she grew little alteration was found necessary. The streets are wide, 80 to 120 feet-Superior Street 132 feet-and so abundant is the foliage, largely maple, that it is called the Forest city.
As an instance of modern aesthetic town construction one might cite Denver, a western Yankee metropolis of ultrarefined men and women from down Boston way, breathing a nomenclature never so freely used before among mid-continent mountains, streets, schoolhouses, parks, and gardens-all alive with the names of New England poets, philosophers, and statesmen. Scarcely yet turned the half century in age, few such charming cities as Denver have been made with fewer mistakes.
San Francisco at her birth and christening had for godfather neither prince nor priest, nor any cultured coterie. The sandy peninsula, on whose inner edge, at the cove called Yerba Buena, stood some hide and tallow stores and fur depots which drew to them the stragglers that passed that way, was about as ill-omened a spot as the one designated by the snake-devouring eagle perched upon an island cactus as the place where the wandering Aztecs should rest and build their city of Mexico. San Francisco's godparents were but common humanity, traders and adventurers, later gold-seekers and pot politicians, intelligent, bold, and for the most part honest; few intending long to remain, few dreaming of the great city to arise here; few caring how the town should be made, if one were made at all. When was improvised an alcalde after the Mexican fashion, and two boards of aldermen were established after the New York fashion, and the high officials saw that they could now and then pick up a twenty-five-dollar fee for deeding a fifty vara lot, if so be they had on hand some fifty varas, they forthwith went to work to make them by drawing lines in front of the cove and intersecting them at right angles by lines running up over the hills, giving their own names, with a sprinkling of the names of bear-flag heroes, not forgetting the usual Washington and Jackson, leaving in the centre a plaza, the cove in front to be filled in later. The streets were narrow, dusty in summer and miry in winter. Spanish-American streets are usually thirty-six feet wide. Winding trails led from the Presidio to the Mission, and from Mission and Presidio to the cove. This was the beginning of San Francisco, which a merciful providence has five times burned, the original shacks and their successors, the last time thoroughly, giving the inhabitants the opportunity to build something better.
All this time the matchless bay and inviting shores awaited the coming of those who should aid in the accomplishment of their high destiny. Situated on the Pacific relatively as is New York on the Atlantic, the natural gateway with its unique portal between the old East and the new West, the only outlet for the drainage of thousands of square miles of garden lands and grain fields, a harbor in the world's center of highest development, with no other to speak of within five hundred miles on either side; dominator of the greatest of oceans, waters more spacious than those of Rio, airs of purple haze sweeter than those of Italy, hills islands and shore lines more sublime than any of Greece-all this time these benefactions of nature have awaited the appreciation and action of those who for their own benefit and the benefit of the nation would utilize them. Are they here now, these new city-builders, or must San Francisco wait for another generation?
They must be men of broad minds, for this is no ordinary problem to be worked out. It is certain that in the near or distant future there will be here a very large and very wealthy city, probably the largest and wealthiest in the world. The whole of the peninsula will be covered, and as much more space beyond it, and around the bay shores to and beyond Carquinez strait. Viewed in the light of history and progressional phenomena, this is the only rational conclusion.
Always the march of intellectual development has been from east to west, the old East dying as the new West bursts into being, until now west is east, and the final issue must here be met. In the advent and progress of civilization there was first the Mediterranean, then the Atlantic, and then the Pacific, the last the greatest of all. What else is possible? Where else on this planet is man to go for his ultimate achievement?
Conviction comes slowly in such cases, and properly so. Yet in forecasting the future from the light of the past cavilers can scarcely go farther afield than our worshipful forbears, who less than a century ago, on the floor of the United States congress, decried as absurd settlement beyond the Missouri, ridiculed buying half a continent of worthless Northwest wilderness, thanked God for the Rocky mountain barrier to man's presumption, scouted at a possible wagon road, not to say railway, across the continent, lamented the unprofitable theft of California, and cursed the Alaska purchase as money worse than thrown away. In view of what has been and is, can anyone call it a Utopian dream to picture the Pacific bordered by an advanced civilization with cities more brilliant than any of the ancient East, more opulent than any of the cultured West?
Rio de Janeiro! what have the Brazilians been doing these last decades? Decapitating politically dear Dom Pedro, true patriot, though emperor-he came to me once in my library, pouring out his soul for his beloved Brazil-they abolished slavery, formed a republic, and modernized the city. They made boulevards and water drives, the finest in the world. They cut through the heart of the old town a new Avenida Central, over a mile in length and one hundred and ten feet wide, lining it on either side with palatial business houses and costly residences, paving the thoroughfare with asphalt and adorning it with artistic fixtures for illumination, the street work being completed in eighteen months. Strangling in their incipiency graft and greed, after kindly dismissing Dom Pedro with well-filled pockets for home, these Portuguese brought out their money and spent hundreds of millions in improving their city, with hundreds of millions left which they have yet to spend. Thus did these of the Latin race, whom we regard as less Bostonian than ourselves.
With this brief glance at other cities of present and other times, and having in view the part played by environment in the trend of refining influences, and remembering further, following the spirit of the times, that nothing within the scope of human power to accomplish is too vast, or too valuable, or too advanced for the purpose, it remains with the people of San Francisco to determine what they will do.
It is not necessary to speak of the city's present or future requirements, as sea water on the bills, and fresh water with electric power from the Sierra; sea wall, docks, and water-way drives; widened streets and winding boulevards; embellished hillsides and hilltops; bay tunnels and union railway station; bay and ocean boating and bathing; arches and arcades; park strips or boulevards cutting through slums, and the nests of filthy foreigners, bordered on either side by structures characteristic of their country-all this and more will come to those who shall have the matter in charge. The pressing need now is a general plan for all to work to; this, and taking the reconstruction of the city out of politics and placing it in the hands of responsible business men.
If the people and government of the United States will consider for a moment the importance to the nation of a well-fortified and imposing city and seaport at San Francisco bay; the importance to the army and navy, to art and science, to commerce and manufactures; of the effect of a city with its broad surroundings, at once elegant and impressive, upon the nations round the Pacific and on all the world, there should be little trouble in its accomplishment.
And be it remembered that whatever San Francisco, her citizens and her lovers, do now or neglect to do in this present regeneration will be felt for good or ill to remotest ages. Let us build and rebuild accordingly, bearing in mind that the new San Francisco is to stand forever before the world as the measure of the civic taste and intelligence of her people.