Tag Archives: fire

Book: “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

detroitburn In “Detroit: An American Autopsy”(Penguin Press, 2013), Charlie LeDuff tells us that over the entrance to the Detroit News building is inscribed:

Troubler of the Public Conscience

After reading this book, one feels that journalist LeDuff was about the last “troubler” left in that city. A Detroiter from childhood, LeDuff had been an award-winning reporter for the New York Times when he decided to return to his humble (to put it mildly) neighborhood on Joy Road in Detroit. The book is a conglomeration of past history and present despair of the Motor City. In the book, LeDuff tells of his investigative reporting of the corruption, incompetence, decay and crime, including the devastation of his own family and friends. He befriends witnesses, firemen, victims and families, to get his stories, embarrass public officials, and obtain some measure of justice (or at least closure). LeDuff often uses decaying landmarks as jumping off points to recount important episodes in the history of the city, many of which involve race relations and/or his own family. This is a gritty book, shocking initially, numbing. Daily murders, continual fires, arson as cheap entertainment, abandoned homes, failure of public services, politicians plundering revenues and serving up the last assets of the city to their jackals…there is little hope in this portrayal, other than the gradual return to nature of abandoned parts of the city. Whose fault was it? LeDuff doesn’t concern himself with that question, to any great degree; he seems to divide the blame between the automobile manufacturers and the unions.  OTL,S! can assure the reader that this is true. Both parties negotiated outlandish contracts under siege conditions, and both were parties to the production of terribly designed and badly assembled automobiles.  The factories were virtual war zones, populated by angry and sometimes intoxicated workers under awful working conditions, and managers who had no investment in quality. General Motors made it easy for buyers to go into debt by inventing the installment plan. Even in the 50’s, reasonable people knew it couldn’t last forever. Even before gasoline prices spiked, the handwriting was on the wall, and it was in Japanese.

LeDuff’s career has been somewhat checkered, but bravo to him for his courage; his book is a must-read for anyone who has been touched by the city, the state, the industry or the culture of the automobile, which is just about all of us.
Update 6/24/2013: OTL,S! notes a piece in Rolling Stone regarding the financial mess in Detroit and other Michigan cities. It seems that the predatory lending extended to the public sector as well as to homeowners. Several municipalities (mostly African American majority) are hard hit, with no solution in sight.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

San Francisco’s Two Flood Mansions (and another in Atherton)

"New" Flood Mansion
Went to a wedding this weekend, at the Flood Mansion, 2222 Broadway, in Pacific Heights. But there is also an “old” Flood Mansion, on Nob Hill, at 1000 California.floodOldmansThis “old” Flood Mansion is now occupied by the Pacific Union Club.

Nob Hill: winners and losers in 1906

Nob Hill: winners and losers in 1906

The “Old” was built by silver baron James C. Flood, in 1885, of Connecticut brownstone brought “round the Horn” at great peril and expense. It is one of the two buildings (along with the Fairmont Hotel) on Nob Hill to have survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, though both were gutted. In 1912, Flood’s son, James L., began construction of the “new” mansion on Pacific Heights. The “Old” ‘James C.” Flood Mansion was refurbished under the direction of Willis Polk and is now the Pacific Union Club.
Not so lucky were the Big Four of the Union Pacific Railroad (see map): Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker… their mansions were all destroyed. The Stanford Court, Mark Hopkins Hotel, Huntington Park, and the Grace Cathedral, respectively, occupy those sites.
The “new” “James L.” mansion, on Broadway, was donated to the Catholic Order of the Sacred Heart and is operated as a wedding/party venue and school.

There was once a third and even more extravagant Flood Mansion, called Linden Towers, in Menlo Park (now Atherton), not far from the “farm” of Nob Hill neighbor Leland Stanford. The neighbors called it “The White Castle.”

Linden Towers

Linden Towers

Situated on 600 acres, this marvel (or monstrosity, depending on your viewpoint), was built in 1878, and was undoubtedly the most opulent home in America. The residence was torn down in 1926 after the death of James L. Flood. The ornate furnishings were sold at auction, and are of some interest to architectural salvagers and collectors.

58. Robida, A. LA VIELLE FRANCE: NORMANDIE, BRETAGNE, TOURAINE & PROVENCE. Four volume set. 160 full page lithographs (40 per volume) plus text illustrations & designs by Robida. Bookplate of Flood Mansion, Menlo Park. Librairie Illustree, Circa 1890. Gold decorated grey cloth bindings. 4to, Over 1200 pgs. Shaken, rubbed, inner hinges cracked. Good. $2500.00

The glory of these books is fine illustration & handsomely produced lithographs. Text in French.

Linden Towers gate, Middlefield at Linden Road, Atherton

Linden Towers gate, Middlefield at Linden Road, Atherton

The only remaining structure is the long brick wall and gate along the bay side of Middlefield Road. The property was subdivided in 1938.


Filed under Uncategorized

The lake that gave Mission Dolores its name and location, and how it came back to life in the 1906 earthquake

thumbnail of old map

The City of San Francisco was named after the Catholic mission there, which was in turn named after St. Francis of Assisi. But the Mission there is almost universally referred to as the Mission Dolores. Apparently, it was named informally after a small lake (or a lagoon within the lake) upon whose shores it was built. Early Spanish explorers gave the lake the name Lago de las Dolores because they saw Indians weeping on its bank, or because it happened to be raining that day. The mission was built there because it seemed to be a good place to obtain fresh water and grow crops. The lake no longer exists; it has been largely filled in and almost forgotten.

The best way to understand the lake is to go to the southwest corner of 17th and Mission, and look up and down both streets. You will notice that you are actually in the center of a basin that has been somewhat filled in but is still about 20 feet deep, that extends several blocks in every direction.

The spot at the southwest corner of 17th and Mission is very near what was the deepest part of the lake. The lake extended about two blocks in all directions. If you look west on 17th street, you can see that the Mission Dolores is three blocks away, at Dolores between 16th and 17th.

Now walk west on 17th a block and a half to Albion, which marks roughly the western shore of the lake; look north up Albion a half block to Camp, where the fathers built their first crude shelter, June 29, 1776.

Now walk a few feet farther west on 17th and turn south down Dearborn, still the shore of the old lake, to 18th. You have now reached the creek which fed the lake. Look to your right, west, up the creek, on 18th, past the BiRite Market, past the edge of Dolores Park, toward the heights of Twin Peaks.

Looking west on 18th, from Dearborn

Looking west on 18th, from Dearborn

This was a ravine, called Arroyo de las Dolores, containing the creek coming down from Twin Peaks. The Mission Dolores was built one city block north from the edge of the ravine and about the same distance west from the shore of the lake, and dedicated in 1791. Water exited the lake at about what is now 16th and Howard, going east down 16th, and then draining generally east to the Mission Bay tidal wetlands and then to the San Francisco Bay.

Bayard Taylor who saw the Mission valley in 1849 says: “Three miles from San Francisco is the old mission of Dolores situated in a sheltered valley which is watered by a perpetual stream fed from the tall peaks towards the sea. * * * Several former miners in anticipation of a great influx of emigrants in the spring, pitched their tents on the best spots along Mission creek and began preparing the ground for gardens. The valley was surveyed and staked into lots almost to the summit of the mountains” (Eldorado pp. 64, 298-9).

As is implied in the passage above, eventually the lake was drained and filled in with dirt, and built over. In 1906, the loose fill dirt created havoc during the earthquake).

According to a recent geologic paper:

The ground deformation on Valencia Street between 18 and 19th streets was arguably the single most devastating event of the 1906 earthquake.

One eyewitness describes a famous scene on Valencia:


Along Valencia Street from 21st to 17th, there was a hole big enough to bury at least 50 people, not to mention horses. The old Valencia Street Hotel, where I had played sliding over the banister, was lying flat on the ground and all the people in it had lost their lives, was the report.

Valencia Street was an old creekbed, [actually the creek ran through there, but it was perpendicular to Valencia, more or less under 18th Street; but whether it was the lake site or the creek site that collapsed is of little importance.] which had been filled in and then built on. The severe jolts of the quake caused the soft-packed fill to settle suddenly, leaving gaping holes in the street. The buildings on top of the fill reeled with the force of this settling, and houses for several blocks leaped off their foundations. The four-story Valencia Hotel [718 Valencia, almost at 18th Street] collapsed like a tower of cards. Its top floor landed intact in the middle of the street with the bottom three floors flattened underneath, crushing at least 15 people. [Here is my favorite image looking north at the Valencia Hotel and surroundings, and here is another image, from the other side of the hotel, looking south.]

This scene found its way into the 1936 movie San Francisco. As Clark Gable searches desperately through the city’s rubble for Jeannette MacDonald, he comes upon the collapsed hotel. A policeman tells him, “Those on the top floor stepped right out their windows to the street. The others were out of luck.”

That this was literally true can be seen in this photo.
Another eyewitness recalled:

I was curious to see the nearest fire at the corner of 22nd and Mission St. Our house was located at 931 Dolores Street in the block between the 22nd and 23rd Streets. As I ran across Valencia St. going to the Mission St. fire, I noticed on my left down Valencia St. a small old three-story hotel. (Evidently it had been built over a subterranean faultline.) The first story had partly sank in the earth while the second and third had fallen out into the street. That was the first structural destruction I had witnessed.
Free Image Hosting

Another image of the Valencia Hotel can be seen here

Here is another image looking north along Valencia toward 18th. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the ground is trying to collapse down to the right or east, down the old watercourse that was covered over by 18th St, with some help from broken water mains.

The total devastation of Valencia in the area of 19th and farther north can be seen here, in the aftermath of the fire that swept through a few days later, burning most everything north of 20th Street. Partly because the Mission Dolores was built west of the lake on solid ground, and thus not in the later fill, it was undamaged in the 1906 quake.

Much of the Mission District was in ruins but, unlike many other areas of the city, it did not burn in the first two days. The shifting soil apparently ruptured the water mains between Valencia and Mission, but the fire department was able to keep the Mission District from burning by using the Twin Peaks water coming out of the hydrants on Valencia.

At the fire which destroyed the building at the northwest corner of Mission and 22nd streets immediately after the earthquake, there was no water to be had east of Valencia Street, but the double hydrant at the northwest corner of 22nd and Valencia and the southwest corner of Valencia and 21st St. furnished an abundant supply, which, with the aid of the cistern at 22nd and Shotwell St., extinguished the fire.

Some of the damage along Valencia, in fact, was probably caused by the burst water mains:

Botzbach was a bookkeeper at the Valencia Hotel, where it is believed at least 80 people were initially trapped by the quake, and later killed by the firestorm that swept through the city. Some are also believed to have drowned by burst water mains which flooded the collapsed hotel.

A geologic investigation in the aftermath of the earthquake provides more interesting details of the upheavals along Valencia.


Filed under religion, San Francisco, travel