1906 Quake Anniversary: Life in SF Compared Then and Now

Apr 18 at 9am

Hero photo by Shawn Clover

By Sierra Hartman

San Francisco was a different place 108 years ago. Technically, 108 years ago at 5:12 in the morning, it was a VERY different place. One-and-a-half miles past the end of Lincoln Blvd. and five miles down, the San Andreas fault was settling a dispute between the Pacific and North American plates. What happened next is fairly common knowledge.

Today, the city that knows how is wracked with a whole different set of concerns: shifting demographics, tech bros, impossible parking, impossibler rent, and a number of other oft-tweeted gripes. This got me thinking, though. If by chance you were one of the dozen or so people in San Francisco whose lives weren’t completely devastated by the earthquake, would you be better off in 1906 SF or 2014 SF? For some, the answer might be obvious (in either direction). But in the spirit of creative remembrance, here’s a list of comparison points you may wish to consider before hopping into the "wayback machine".

Population Density

Not only was the population of SF less than half of what it is now (342,782 in 1900 versus 825,863 in 2012), about 75,000 people just up and left after the earthquake. Today, it takes some serious exploration and maybe a little trespassing to get somewhere in the city where you’re really truly alone. +1 for 1906

Housing

The earthquake and ensuing fire displaced 250,000 people. A portion of the refugees were housed in 5,300 wooden shacks set up in parks around the city. Families paid $2 a month toward the $50 buy-out price of the 250-square-foot “earthquake cottages.” After they were paid off, families were required to move their homes elsewhere in the city. Even accounting for 100 years of inflation, $2 a month for any size room in SF is a damn good deal. +1 for 1906

Public Transportation

The streetcar system of the late nineteenth century covered much of what it does today plus a couple extra lines that have since been buried by pavement. Adolph Sutro also had a steam engine running all the way out to the baths. We didn’t have the underground efficiency of BART but there were trains running all along the east side of the city. If you count quality and quantity as equal parts, I’d say this one about evens out. TIE.

Outside Lands

Before the summer music festival adopted the name, Outside Lands referred to the combined area of the Richmond and Sunset districts. Around the turn of the century, it was still largely occupied by sand dunes and seagrass. With the exception of a few annual events in the park, I’m afraid its popularity hasn’t taken any leaps and bounds. TIE

Bicycles

Aside from a few bells and whistles, the basic construction of a chain-driven bicycle hasn’t changed much since it was invented in 1885. People in San Francisco used them to get around on the same streets as today, and since derailleurs didn’t become commonplace until the 1930s, I’d say the bikes of 1906 had more in common with the fixies of today than a lot ones in the interim. TIE

Bars

San Francisco’s bar scene has been a selling point of the city since basically forever – including the 13 years of prohibition. The Pisco Punch was invented by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange in the spot currently occupied by the Transamerica Pyramid. If you had a few too many, though, the chances of you sobering up on a ship bound for a faraway land was much higher in those days than now. +1 for 2014

Fashion

I have never been accused of being a fashionable guy but I know an old-fashioned getup when I see one. I’ve looked over enough antique photographs to see certain commonalities: shoes, hair, Levi’s, mustaches, all of it. You could grab any number of average modern San Franciscans, drop them into a daguerreotype, and they would look right at home. TIE

Landmass

If you placed a map of SF from the early 1900s over a Google map and compared the difference, you’d see that San Francisco had a fairly different shape to it back in the day. Every foot of waterfront from Baker St. in the Marina to Candlestick Park has been modified in some way. Mission Bay used to be an actual bay, 1st Street was the first street, and everything south of Dogpatch was water and marshland. It doesn’t win every argument but when it comes to real estate opportunity, bigger is better. +1 for 2014

So after tallying up these carefully chosen debate topics, we appear to have come to a tie. Imagine that. It would seem that when you get right down to the guts of everyday life, San Francisco would be as mutually agreeable to folks from back then and as to the people of today.

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