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San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

by Federal Writers Project o

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“San Francisco has no single landmark by which the world may identify it,” according to San Francisco in the 1930s, originally published in 1940. This would surely come as a surprise to the millions who know and love the Golden Gate Bridge or recognize the Transamerica Building’s pyramid. This invaluable Depression-era guide to San


“San Francisco has no single landmark by which the world may identify it,” according to San Francisco in the 1930s, originally published in 1940. This would surely come as a surprise to the millions who know and love the Golden Gate Bridge or recognize the Transamerica Building’s pyramid. This invaluable Depression-era guide to San Francisco relates the city’s history from the vantage point of the 1930s, describing its culture and highlighting the important tourist attractions of the time. David Kipen’s lively introduction revisits the city’s literary heritage—from Bret Harte to Kenneth Rexroth, Jade Snow Wong, and Allen Ginsberg—as well as its most famous landmarks and historic buildings. This rich and evocative volume, resonant with portraits of neighborhoods and districts, allows us a unique opportunity to travel back in time and savor the City by the Bay as it used to be.

Editorial Reviews

Like other WPA divisions, the Federal Writers Project was designed to create jobs and income for artists during America's Great Depression. What this improvised project achieved however went far beyond its "make work" origins. The WPA Guides to America's states and cities remain monuments to pivotal moments in our local histories. These welcome, excellently edited University of California Press paperback versions of the guides will introduce these classics to a new generation of readers. Each volume contains a new introduction that describes the original book project and the city.

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San Francisco in the 1930s

The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

By David Kipen


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26880-7


The Bay and the Land

"... an immense arm of the sea, or an estuary, which penetrated into the land as far as the eye could reach ..." —Padre Juan Crespi

WHEN the first settlers, led by Lieutenant Jose Joaquin Moraga, arrived June 27, 1776, on the site of San Francisco, the American people were yet to declare themselves a Nation—though within seven days they would do so, 3,000 miles away on the Atlantic seaboard. Seven decades would pass before the heirs of '76 would raise their flag on this site. Two years more, and the name of San Francisco would go round the world.

It "never was a villagev—this had been its proud boast. Where barren sand dunes, marshes, and brackish lagoons had surrounded an abandoned mission and a decaying fort with rusty cannon, San Francisco sprang into life overnight—a lusty, brawling he-man town of tents and deserted ships. Business, mushroomlike, flourished in mud-deep streets. Almost before it had achieved a corporate identity, San Francisco was a metropolis—to be named in the same breath with Boston or Buenos Aires, Stockholm or Shanghai.

When the other cities of the Coast were still hamlets in forest clearings or desert cow-towns, San Francisco was "The City." I t is "The City" still. Massed on the tip of its Peninsula, its skyscrapers tower skyward from the peaks of the highest hills: great shafts of concrete banked in swirling billows of white mist when the fogs move in from the sea—glittering with pinpoints of reflected light from their countless windows when the sun shines from a clear blue sky. Crowding on each other, the hills rear their endless terraces of buildings, descending to the water's edge like steps, cleft by streets that strike up the steepest slopes and plunge down the deepest valleys with reckless fidelity to their straight and narrow paths.

Around the curbing Peninsula's tip jut widespread fingers that are piers harboring their great ships. Soaring to heights greater than the hilltop skyscrapers, the girders of the bridge towers lift their slim steel spans high above the smokestacks of passing ships. Over their suspended roadbeds traffic streams across the racing tides of the Golden Gate to the bluffs and thicket-choked gullies of the Marin shore and across the Bay's wide sweep of gray-green water to the mainland. There, on the eastern shores of the Bay, rising like the tiers of a vast amphitheater to wooded crests, spread mile after mile of buildings—homes and schools, business blocks and factories. And on every side the age-old hills—vivid with the green of fresh-growing grass after winter rains, sere and brown in summer—encircle the blue water: wilderness neighbor to the city.


If some titanic convulsion of the earth were to drain San Francisco Bay of all its waters, it would look merely like one of those shallow, hill-rimmed valleys which stretch away from its upper and lower reaches. Through a gap in the chain of hills along its eastern edge, a great river would pour into its upper end and, winding southward, flood out to sea through a deep gorge hollowed in the coastal range. Within the recent geologic past the Bay was just such a valley, the Golden Gate such a river canyon. But as time went on, the valley sank until ocean waters came flooding through the Gate to submerge all but the peaks of its hills. Last of all in the long series of the earth's transformations from which emerged that part of the planet known as California was the Bay's creation. But the geologic upheavals destined to open the Golden Gate had begun long before.

West of today's Pacific shore, perhaps 500 million years ago, rose a land mass extending into what is now the Pacific Ocean. Where the Sierra Nevada now rises is thought to have been a low land mass, lapped on the Nevada side by an inland sea. As the eons passed, this great basin sea advanced westward into California, retreated and advanced again, until by 200 million years ago it may have reached as far as the site of Monterey—well over toward that westward-lying coast along the ocean.

Eventually the ocean itself found its way into the watery area that later was to become California. The western land mass probably was cut off from the mainland, forming an elongated island of which the present Farallon Islands were a part. Eastward lay a submerged trough, and into this trough sediment was continually draining from the island's slopes. To the incredible depth of over three miles the sediment was laid down in the water, slowly solidifying. From this trough was later elevated the San Francisco Peninsula, its foundations partly composed of the thick deposits which drained from the westward island.

And then began that long series of geologic events which finally resulted in the emergence of the coastline of California. Between 120 and 150 million years ago the ridges of both the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada were pushed up. Unlike the Sierra Nevada, which was to maintain its general structure despite erosion, the Coast Range rose from the inland sea only to sink again. At least three times the ocean engulfed the region between the Sierra Nevada and the westward island and advanced to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

At a point about 36 million years ago, the picture of California begins to emerge in clearer detail. On the eastern border is the wall of the Sierra, following about the same direction as in the twentieth century, but lower, less rugged, its slopes covered with luxuriant vegetation. Still under water, the center of the State is a great inland sound, extending far enough westward to submerge the site of San Francisco. A long island stretches northwest from the present vicinity of Salinas. Islands are scattered in the sound.

For many million years the geography of this California changed little; but great activity was brewing in the earth. Far offshore the bottom of the sea was sinking. As it sank, the land along the coast was thrust upwards, buckling under the pressure. All of California was rising, but the extra thrust upon its western edge caused a slip along which occurred a sidewise movement of at least 700 feet and possibly as much as 20 miles. Along this same fault, extending from Point Arena south to the Mojave Desert, there was to be a shift of about eight feet in the year A.D. 1906, which would cause a great disturbance in the city of San Francisco. (Because the rock mass is broken along the fault, any abnormal strain within the earth is apt to be taken up there; such movements occur frequently, but rarely displace the surface more than two-tenths of an inch.) The same thrusts that were to cause the San Francisco Peninsula's earthquake fault also helped to lift it above the sea. There was pronounced folding of the Coast Range at this time, not only on the Peninsula, but along the line of the Berkeley Hills.

About one million years ago the Great Valley was becoming filled with sediment. Brackish water still covered part of the valley; it drained, not through the Golden Gate, which did not yet exist, but through various other outlets; one at the Russian River and another at Monterey Bay. The San Francisco-Marin area probably was separated from the mainland by marshes, so shallow that they could be crossed by the primitive elephant (whose fossils have been found near Menlo Park). The last great uplift raised the Sierra Nevada Range to a height of 4,000 feet above its present elevation; the Coast Range shared in this uplift.

Most recent of California's important geological events have b-en those which formed San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate. As the marshes along the coast and farther inland dried, continued folding in the Coast Range blocked off the drainage of the Great Valley through the Russian River and Monterey Bay, forcing the rivers to find another outlet. They converged in a new course through a canyon north of the Berkeley Hills at what is now Carquinez Strait, thence down through a valley, and finally through the mountains that extended up the San Francisco Peninsula and northward into Marin County.

However solid the earth may have seemed beneath the feet of the first human inhabitants when they came (probably between 30 and 40 centuries ago) to hunt game and pick wild fruit in the coastal valley behind the river's mouth, it was sinking imperceptibly. The sea cliffs to the west were tilting upward on their outer side; but every year the floor of the coastal valley was a little lower. As fast as the sea cliffs rose, the river scoured deeper its channel through them, thus gradually carving down the sides of the Golden Gate. Then finally came a time when the floor of the coastal valley sank beneath sea level. The ocean flooded through the mouth of the river over 400 square miles of the Indians' hunting ground. The land would go on sinking until the very shell mounds which the first settlers left behind them on dry land were lapped by the tides; and yet as it sank, the rivers would lay down their rich silt, torn from mountain sides and lowlands of the Central Valley basin, over the bottom of the Bay. So was made, for how long no one can tell, the harbor known today as San Francisco Bay.


Midway in the great chain of mountain ridges that stretches along the continent's edge down the southeast-tending California coast is a narrow gap. Between its steep headlands the long Pacific rollers, breaking in spray against the cliffs to north and south, pour in swift tides. As the headlands recede on either side, an expanse of water opens out, stretching eastward to low, gently sloping hills. To the north, wooded peaks rise steeply above bluffs close at hand; to the northeast, barren capes guard a distant strait. Southward a sheet of water extends farther than a man can see, between marsh-edged flat lands. Here, where ocean tides roll in over a valley long sunk below sea level, salt water mingles with fresh, is muddied with the yellow silt of rivers, pouring into the Bay's upper reaches. At either end, sloping valleys walled like the Bay between ranges of hills that parallel each other, east and west, spill their creeks into it. Among the encircling hills, sloughs and canyons twist to the water's edge.

So well hidden from the sea beyond its narrow gateway by mountainous coastal walls that exploring navigators passed it by for more than two centuries, San Francisco Bay is one of the world's largest landlocked harbors. Measured along a straight line from the mouth of Sonoma Creek in the north to the mouth of Coyote Creek in the south, it is approximately 60 miles long and measures 14 miles at its greatest width. Its outlet to the sea, the Golden Gate, is three miles long and, at its widest point, a mile wide. In all, the Bay covers an area of a little more than 400 square miles. Although more than 70 per cent of its area is less than 18 feet deep, it reaches a depth of from 100 to 140 feet in its central part and of 357 feet in the main channel of the Golden Gate. North of its narrowest point, the strait between Points San Pedro and San Pablo—where it is known as San Pablo Bay—the water is shallower.

Into San Pablo Bay empties the drainage of the valleys to the north and the hinterland to the east. Petaluma, Sonoma, and Napa Creeks pour in from the north. Through narrow Carquinez Strait, six miles long, joining San Pablo Bay with shallow Suisun Bay to the east, pour the combined waters of California's two great rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, which drain the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada's western slopes. The gorge cut by the silt-laden river waters, winding out to sea through the succession of bays and straits, can be traced by the yellow stream that crosses the Bay's blue ripples. The river's ancient delta, built up through the ages before the ocean broke through the Golden Gate, has been traced as far out to sea as the Farallon Islands, 23 miles off Point Bonita.

The peaks of low hills once rising from the drowned valley's floor are islands now. Opposite the Golden Gate, rocky Alcatraz (130 alt.) rises abruptly from the swift tides. Northward, divided by narrow straits from the coves and inlets of the Marin shore, rise green-clad Angel (782 alt.) and Belvedere (350 alt.). A little to the southeast the rugged hump of Yerba Buena (343 alt.) appears almost midway across the Bay.

From opposite sides of the Golden Gate the sheer bluffs at land's end of the San Francisco and Marin Peninsulas face each other. The narrow hilly strip of the San Francisco Peninsula stretches 30 miles southward from the Golden Gate between Bay and ocean, tapering in width from 7 miles at its tip to approximately 21 where it merges with the mainland. On the Bay side it is bordered with mud flats and salt marshes; on the ocean, with rugged cliffs and sandy beaches. The tip of the Peninsula, walled off from the south by the steep narrow ridge of San Bruno Mountain (1,315 alt.), is a rough square with jagged outlines, scored haphazardly by rocky hills and winding valleys, once a rolling waste of sand dunes and marsh-girt lagoons. In the center of this area rises a dominant crescent-shaped range, culminating in Twin Peaks (904 alt.), Mount Davidson (916 alt.), and Mount Sutro (909 alt.). Southward spreads a zone of billowing hills, merging into San Bruno Mountain. Beyond troughlike Merced Valley, cutting from Bay to ocean parallel with San Bruno Mountain, the Peninsula is scored with parallel ridges running north and south—among them, Buriburi Ridge (700 alt.), the Sawyer Ridge (about 1,200 alt.), and Alontara Mountain (1,952 alt.). Between the Buriburi and Sawyer Ridges lies a 15-mile-long segment of the San Andreas Rift Valley, following the course of the San Andreas earthquake fault. Farther south the Santa Cruz hlountains, of which these Peninsula ridges are the northern offshoots, lift their wooded slopes to greater heights. Some 80 miles from the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula they taper off into low hills where Monterey Bay cuts its crescent line into the coast.

The Golden Gate is but a narrow break in the great mountain chain of the Coast Range, which continues northwest up the Marin Peninsula under the name of the Bolinas Ridge. An irregularly shaped, deeply and intricately dissected mountain mass, the Marin Peninsula is criss-crossed by ridges radiating from its highest point, at the southern end of the Bolinas Ridge—Mount Tamalpais (2,604 alt.). The deep canyons that scar the flanks of the ridges widen into gently sloping valleys merging with salt marshes on the Bay side; on the ocean side they twist tortuously to the sea, where the hillsides end abruptly in sheer cliffs. Paralleling the Bolinas Ridge on the west is the long narrow valley which follows the course of the San Andreas fault. Its northern reaches are filled with the waters of marsh-bordered Tomales Bag, extending southeastward like a thin finger, laid along a line as straight as if it had been sheared off with a knife. To the west, hilly, triangular Point Reyes Peninsula juts into the ocean like a plowshare, sheltering behind its long promontory curving Drake's Bay with its white-faced cliffs like the chalk cliffs at Dover. East of the Marin Peninsula's hilly mass the flat reaches of Sonoma and Napa Valleys merge into tule marshes at the Bay's edge, divided from each other by the gentle slopes of the mountains.

Along the Bay's eastern shore, beyond the narrow coastal plain, stretches the serrated skyline of the Berkeley Hills, culminating in Bald Peak (1,930 alt.) ; and behind, across a line of narrow, shallow valleys, rise the rugged crests of a parallel ridge culminating in Rocky Ridge (2,000 alt.). To the east, broad flat Ygnacio Valley extends north to the shores of Suisun Bay and south into the narrow, level San Ramon Valley. From the valley's edge steep slopes rise in long sweeping lines to the summit of Mount Diablo (3,849 alt.). To the south, San Ramon Valley meets narrow, 40-mile-long Livermore Valley. Beyond, the ridges of the Mount Diablo Range extend to meet the Mount Hamilton Range, paralleling the Peninsula ridges and the Santa Cruz Mountains across the Bay.

South of the Bay's southern tip, the fertile plains of the Santa Clara Valley extend for 70 miles between the walls of the Mount Hamilton (4,029 alt.) Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains, 15 miles apart—a long, narrow extension of that same valley whose upper reaches, now submerged, are the Bay itself. From the marshes of the Bay's southern end, the valley floor slopes upward gradually toward the south, where offshoots of the two mountain ranges curve inward and enclose it.


The Bay of San Francisco and its shores share with the rest of the Coast the moderate climate which it owes chiefly to the prevailing winds off the Pacific. Because of the break in the coast line the region has a climate even milder than enjoyed elsewhere along the Coast, because it receives more than its share of ocean-cooled air currents, sucked in by forced draft through the Golden Gate. Their deflection in various directions by the hills gives contingent sections widely differing weather.


Excerpted from San Francisco in the 1930s by David Kipen. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Perhaps the finest single volume on these 47 square miles."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Stylish paperbacks"—T Magazine - the New York Times

"Reading both is like finding hidden treasures. The San Francisco edition is a must have for anyone interested in the city. . . . The San Francisco and Los Angeles guidebooks offer both traditional tours of the city as well as historical writing more closely akin to poetry. These are books that people can read aloud to one another."—Beyondchron

"More than just a tool to help you find the nearest Presbyterian church or a convenient tennis court, the guides, part of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, included thoughtful essays on history, life and culture in each destination, as well as blow-by-blow tours through city neighborhoods and other information that in many cases remains at least partially relevant (or interesting) today."—New York Post

"A useful book as well as an important historical volume."—Foreword

Meet the Author

The Federal Writers Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) not only provided jobs and income to writers during the Depression, it created for America an astounding series of detailed and richly evocative guides, recounting the stories and histories of the 48 states (plus Alaska Territory and Puerto Rico) and many of the country’s major cities. David Kipen served for five years as Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he led the Big Read initiative, and for seven years as book editor and book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History and translator of Cervantes’ The Dialogue of the Dogs.

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