The Lives of a City

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Crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, the impression is of a city neatly built -- layer upon layer, year after year, one grand building preceding another. That such a thriving metropolis could ever be reduced to ruins is hard to picture.

And yet, a century ago, San Francisco was ruined. The 1906 Earthquake reduced the city -- already one of America's largest -- to a heap of rock and burnt timber.

A native to the area, I have always been mindful of the big quake and its history. Still, I didn't understand the sum of its devastation until I visited Dresden.

Allied bombs leveled Dresden three months before World War II ended in Europe. During the Communist era that followed, much of what remained of the once beautiful German city remained in shambles. It wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and Germany's reunification that Dresden's rehabilitation began and so continues today.

Dresden felt like two cities -- one lost, the other found. Amid its faithfully rebuilt historic buildings, dwelled the ghosts of Dresden's former self; its toy stores and tailor shops, bakeries and row houses, all reduced to dust.
It was Dresden's newly reconstructed Frauen Kirche -- a church made famous in post-war photos for its single remaining stonewall -- that started me thinking about San Francisco. Not the polished place it is today, but the ruin it became.


The massive temblor, like the bombs dropped on Dresden, triggered events that saw horrific firestorms consume much of the city. Dresden burned for five days. San Francisco for three. When it was over, San Francisco, like Dresden, was a smoldering ruin.  As Jack London reported, "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone."

Eventually another San Francisco arose; the one we have today. It is a spectacular place, as was, I'm sure, the ruined city buried at its feet.

With a Perspective, I'm Holly Hubbard Preston.