Hydra Headed: San Francisco’s Untold History

“Tension between the need for urban progress and the ways that progress can crush vulnerable communities is evident all around.”

– Brahinsky and Tarr on the city of San Francisco

Alexander Tarr explains in the acknowledges at the back of A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area, which he co-authored with Rachel Brahinsky, that “I have often told friends that I undertook this book precisely because I felt no great love for the Bay Area as outsiders imagined it (myself included), but have grown a deep admiration for the people who make the real, lived place.” Those are more or less my own sentiments. I have lived in what’s known as the San Francisco Bay Area ever since November 1975: in Mendocino County, Sonoma County, the city of Oakland and the city of San Francisco. I have written about it and its people in American Scream, an exploration of the Beat Generation writers, Field Days, a narrative about farming and food mostly in and around Sonoma Valley, and  Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives, a collection of my own essays and reviews about northern California writers, including Gina Berrault,  Amy Tan, Gary Snyder, Diane de Prima, Greg Sarris and Alice Walker. I have also edited a collection of Jack London’s writings on war and revolution.

What bothers me most about the region is its hubris. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone tell me that northern California is the best place to live and work anywhere in the world, though with wildfires and the pandemic their voices aren’t as loud or as strident as they once were. The local daily paper, The Press Democrat, continually tries to cheer up its readers, instill them with hope (often false) and encourage them to buy, sell, consume and join the chorus of yeah sayers. The San Francisco Chronicle does much the same thing. So I understand Alexander Tarr’s sentiments and I laud him for his honesty.

Tarr teaches at Worcester State University in Massachusetts. He and his co-author, Rachel Brahinsky, who once wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and who teaches at the University of San Francisco, have written an honest book about a region often dishonest about itself, which extends over ten counties, at last count, and that includes Contra Costa, Marin, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, all of them connected by economics, politics and culture, and increasingly challenging to navigate by car, mass transit and on foot.

Brahinsky and Tarr do what few if any other writers have done, though many have made noble attempts. Their book includes an extensive bibliography, a timeline that begins with 13,000 BCE, when First People arrived in the Americas, runs through the Gold Rush in the middle of the nineteenth century, which created in San Francisco the world’s first truly multiethnic city, and ends in 2020, when the Bay Area was home to more than seven million people, many of them demanding justice, equality, jobs, adequate health care, genuine democracy and an end to plutocracy, racism, white chauvinism, sexism, militarism and what might rightly be called “me-first-ism.”

I wouldn’t want to say that Brahinsky and Tarr offer a balanced view of the territory, but they’re fair and accurate and they tell stories that have not often been told, or if they have been told, not in their entirety. This book offers the hidden history of a place. What the authors do exceeding well is to offer a narrative that emphasizes contradictions and that provides them with the opportunity to explore the nature of oppression and exploitation, and at the same to honor resistance and resilience by communities that are often excluded from debate and dialogue, but that have now and have had for decades their own means of communication and expression.

A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area offers the big picture. It also zooms in on particular neighborhoods and streets, looks at specific buildings and highlights unsung heroes like Gayla Newcome and famous fellows such as Mario Savio. A book that can be read and enjoyed from the comfort of an easy chair, it can also accompany a walking tour or a journey in a car or by mass transit.

Unlike Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, which unfortunately didn’t say anything about food in San Francisco, A People’s Guide encourages locals and visitors, tourists and time-travelers of all sorts to “eat your way around the Bay Area.” The authors add, “we aren’t recommending specific eateries.”  True enough. Unlike standard guide books there are no lists of places to eat and sleep, though there is mention of Arizmendi Bakery, the worker-owned co-op in Emeryville in the East Bay, which has branches in San Francisco. By all means, head for Arizmendi before, during and after exploring the region.

About halfway through their book, the authors point out that turmoil in San Francisco is relentless. They have the humility to say, “we often wonder how much of the San Francisco we’ve described will be here by the time you read this book.” A People’s Guide was researched, written and produced pre-pandemic. Some information might now be outdated, though the authors make every effort to be up-to-date on the impact of climate change and the wildfires in the area known as “wine country.” Curiously, there is no mention of the Bay Area’s marijuana industry and no mention of marijuana dispensaries which are located all over the region and that attract millions who use cannabis medicinally as well as recreationally. There are other odd omissions. The book mentions the Sonoma Plaza, the site of the Bear Flag Revolt of June 14, 1846, which engineered a coup d’etat against Mexican rule and the transfer of power to the United States. Sadly the book doesn’t mention the mass grave where Indians were buried under the plaza.

Lavishly produced, with beautiful images and crystal clear prose, A People’s Guide is for readers and activists who have taken part in protests and demonstrations for decades, and from Berkeley and Oakland to San Francisco, Sonoma and beyond. It’s probably worth saying that while Brahinsky and Tarr deserve major credit for this book, they had tremendous help from fellow authors, photographers, designers, colleagues in academia and from librarians and researchers. It takes a collective to bake bread, scones and pizza at Arizmendi. It also takes a collective to write and publish a book of this magnitude, beauty and truth.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.