Housing reconstruction after the catastrophe: the failed promise of San Francisco’s 1906 “earthquake cottages”

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At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco’s most striking physical feature was the great multitude of boats and ships crowded along the city’s waterfront and extending far into San Francisco Bay. Communication, transportation, and above all trade and commerce had been the key ingredients in transforming barren, wind-swept hills and sand dunes into a bustling metropolis. Although the nature of trade goods changed, the movement of commodities and people in and out of the city grew constantly and rapidly in the nineteenth century, shaping San Francisco’s social strafication, its labor market, and the city’s political power structure. By 1900, San Francisco had also joined with other major American cities in developing a progressive social reform movement and in the first decade of the twentieth century it distinguished itself with a strong Workingman’s political party that briefly dominated city politics. The utter devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire interrupted the path of San Francisco’s social, political, and economic evolution, leaving in its wake a scramble for reconstruction. An exploration of some of the tensions resulting from conflicting visions of reconstruction in San Francisco provides an illustration of some of the enduring issues involved in many American post-catastrophe urban scenarios.