This Is San Francisco
A Classic Portrait of the City
by Robert O’Brien, Chronicle Books, 351 pages, $12.95 soft cover . CODE: CRN-2
Robert O’Brien’s guidebook was a hit when it originally appeared in 1948, and, long out of print, it has been a treasure for city historians ever since. Many have happily cribbed from it, “never dreaming it would be reprinted,” writes the San Francisco columnist Adair Lara in her foreword. O’Brien, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle when he worked on the book, was a transplanted Easterner; the book is a literate, irreverent appreciation, a smoothly guided walk from the Embarcadero (“the street where the city and the hills meet the sea”) across to Montgomery Street, Broadway, Market Street, and South Park. The text is punctuated by Antonio Sotomayor’s charming line drawings of sailors, cable cars, and Barbary Coast mischief.
O’Brien specifically set out to get past earthquakes, fires, and “old stand-by personalities” in favor of fleshing out an “informal biography” of the town. And so we learn about the 1870 explosion of Blossom Rock in the bay and everything about the departed San Francisco cottage industry of shanghaiing. He explains a more recent San Francisco tradition too: “A few Aprils ago, there was a surplus supply of daffodils in San Francisco. Maiden Lane merchants bought one hundred fifty thousand, decorated their block with them and invited the city to a party…. San Franciscans, who love flowers in the street anywhere, milled around by the thousands. Bands played…. now it’s called the Daffodil Festival.” He is less rhapsodic about Bush Street: “You won’t remember it; you will get it mixed up with some street in Seattle or Chicago or that Armageddon of drabness and futility, Pawtucket, Rhode Island.” Throughout, O’Brien’s writing shows the special love of the converted.