The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1981, Volume 27, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Imperial San Francisco: Politics and Planning in an American City, 1897-1906. By Judd Kahn. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. Appendices. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Tables. 263 pages. $17.95.

Reviewed by William A. Bullough, Professor of History, California State University, Hayward. Author of Cities and Schools in the Gilded Age: The Evolution of an Urban Institution (1974) and The Blind Boss and His City: Christopher Augustine Buckley and Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (1979).

In this monograph, Judd Kahn appropriately applies the term imperial to the ideologies of the City Beautiful Movement in general and to the attitudes of specific San Franciscans in particular. Like their counterparts nationally, planners in the California city revered the Athens of Pericles, the Rome of the Caesars, and the Paris of Hausmann and Napoleon III, as much for the social and political order which they inspired and the authority which they symbolized as for their esthetic qualities. They also envisioned their young metropolis as the capital of a commercial empire in the Pacific. The author develops his theme—the interaction between politics and this version of city planning—as it was epitomized locally by James Duval Phelan and nationally by Daniel Hudson Burnham.

Phelan was involved in many of the affairs of his native city; he was mayor (1897-1901), a participant in recharter movements (1896 and 1898), and active in commercial and civic associations. He also evolved a concept of urban community (Kahn calls it “civicism”) which associated beautification and improvements in the quality of urban life with the growth of civic pride, with social order, and with public responsibility. And it was Phelan who brought Burnham to San Francisco in 1904. The nation’s foremost exponent of beautification presented his plan for a grand system of boulevards, monuments, and civic facilities to city leaders in 1905. Thus, when earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, a blueprint for comprehensive rebuilding along “broader lines” already existed. But because of contradictions inherent in Phelan’s civicism and in planning ideology itself, the potential was never realized. Improvement might stimulate civic pride and cooperation, but without its prior accomplishments little general commitment to the concept could exist. Parochial interests thwarted the imperial vision of the planners. Merchants refused to relinquish property for wider streets, relief committees declined to “break” private markets to provide housing or food to the displaced, property owners accused planners of scheming to enhance the values of their own holdings, and an already-suspect municipal administration lacked the authority to carry out a comprehensive plan in the face of resistance.

Kahn provides a detailed and cogently-argued analysis of the complex sequence of events. Several flaws, however, mar his otherwise solid work. He does not, for example, effectively link his rather extended discussion of the local labor movement and the Abraham Ruef-Union Labor Party episode with his central theme. Also, the interpretation of the Eugene Schmitz regime as, among other things, a mediator between labor and capital when “open class warfare” threatened the city (p. 54) is not entirely convincing. These problems are relatively minor; some readers may find missed opportunities more disturbing. By expanding his treatment of recharter movements in 1896 and 1898 and Phelan’s involvement in them, Kahn might have elaborated ideas and attitudes shared by municipal reformers and city beautifiers both locally and nationally. The impediments to rebuilding the city after 1906 are discussed, but a larger question is not addressed: Was there no agitation for a San Francisco version of Galveston’s much-admired, widely-imitated, and highly-centralized commission government, also a response to a disaster? Attention to these and similar considerations would have added dimension to the book and placed the city into the broader historical context of the national urban experience.

Despite these criticisms, Imperial San Francisco deserves careful reading. The research is thorough, the style lucid, and the interpretations generally judicious. Data contained in the tables and appendices are informative, as are the well-chosen illustrations. Kahn’s book fills a serious void and is a most welcome addition to the historical literature of San Francisco.