Will San Francisco Burn Again?

There is no doubt that San Francisco is an important city in today's technology economy. Giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, along with many other large companies are headquartered there. But in recent years, the tech community in San Francisco has been harshly criticized as an echo chamber and a primary driver of economic inequality.

How did we get here? Can examining the history of San Francisco shed any light on its current state? A leisurely stroll through the city's Wikipedia page reads like a modern-day TechCrunch article.

In the beginning:

The California Gold Rush brought a flood of treasure seekers ... prospectors accumulated in San Francisco... raising the population from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1849. The promise of fabulous riches was so strong that crews on arriving vessels deserted and rushed off to the gold fields, leaving behind a forest of masts in San Francisco harbor... Silver discoveries, including the Comstock Lode in 1859, further drove rapid population growth. With hordes of fortune seekers streaming through the city, lawlessness was common, and the Barbary Coast section of town gained notoriety as a haven for criminals, prostitution, and gambling.

The similarities to present times are uncanny. Simply replace "gold rush treasure seeker" with "Stanford dropout with an app idea" and the story reads exactly the same. The substitution works because their mindsets are the same: get rich quickly with as little effort as possible. At both points in time, an influx of treasure seekers drives explosive population growth. Disorder ensues. The city's infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the increase, which leads to rampant crime and illicit behaviors.

The story continues:

Entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on the wealth generated by the Gold Rush. Early winners were the banking industry, with the founding of Wells Fargo in 1852 and the Bank of California in 1864... Catering to the needs and tastes of the growing population, Levi Strauss opened a dry goods business and Domingo Ghirardelli began manufacturing chocolate... In 1870, Asians made up 8% of the population... The city's sea of Victorian houses began to take shape, and civic leaders campaigned for a spacious public park, resulting in plans for Golden Gate Park. San Franciscans built schools, churches, theaters, and all the hallmarks of civic life... By 1890, San Francisco's population approached 300,000, making it the eighth-largest city in the U.S. at the time. Around 1901, San Francisco was a major city known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions on Nob Hill, and a thriving arts scene.

Again, correlation abounds. The capitalists capitalize on the gold rush, profiting on the backs of aspiring gold seekers. Those coming in search of quick fortune are happy to accept the handouts freely waved about. No one bothers looking for a chair while the music plays so loudly.

Aren't we seeing exactly this situation, right now, in all of Silicon Valley? Pet industries catering to non-essential inconveniences as legitimate business models? Thankfully for denim and chocolate enthusiasts, Strauss and Ghirardelli made products that have lasted 150 years. Can the latest dating app purveyor say the same?

In true Buzzfeed clickbait tradition, what happened next will astound you:

At 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, a major earthquake struck San Francisco and northern California. As buildings collapsed from the shaking, ruptured gas lines ignited fires that spread across the city and burned out of control for several days. With water mains out of service, the Presidio Artillery Corps attempted to contain the inferno by dynamiting blocks of buildings to create firebreaks.[4] More than three-quarters of the city lay in ruins, including almost all of the downtown core.[2] Contemporary accounts reported that 498 people lost their lives, though modern estimates put the number in the several thousands.[4] More than half of the city's population of 400,000 was left homeless.[4] Refugees settled temporarily in makeshift tent villages in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, on the beaches, and elsewhere. Many fled permanently to the East Bay.

*Emphasis added.

By many accounts, the 1906 San Fransciso earthquake was an unmitigated disaster, leveling nearly the entire city. First-responders had to blow up several buildings in an attempt to contain the gas-fed fires. Had the Richter scale existed, studies have estimated that the earthquake would've measured an 8.3 magnitude.

So how did an industrious city like San Francisco recover? How else, but by following the ancient proverb of "Move fast and break things":

Rebuilding was rapid and performed on a grand scale. Rejecting calls to completely remake the street grid, San Franciscans opted for speed… The earthquake hastened development of western neighborhoods that survived the fire, including Pacific Heights, where many of the city's wealthy rebuilt their homes.[5] In turn, the destroyed mansions of Nob Hill became grand hotels.City Hall rose again in splendid Beaux Arts style, and the city celebrated its rebirth at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.[5]

A nouveau riche populace seeks to pat themselves on the back in front of the world. What better way that with an ostentatious party, showing off the latest technologies of the time? The hardware may have changed, but the self-congradulatory echo chamber remain.

What can we learn here? Do we believe the treasure seekers? Or are they flying too close to the sun to realize their shortcomings? Perhaps they are right, and a new world is just around the corner. Perhaps they've simply gotten good at ignoring their melting wings. If history teaches us anything, it's that the essence of San Francisco is the never-ending obsession with finding gold, no matter how many times they get burned.