Pacific Postcards

Where the Watermelons Grow: An Analysis of Booker’s "Down by the Bay" (Stefan Popescu)

     San Francisco seems like a large, diverse city whose origins may as well have been lost to time. However, it has only been a city for fewer than two centuries, its current form as a city and port having been created in the mid-1800s. San Francisco’s rise was a result of its tidelands, areas that are sometimes submerged under water and sometimes dry land. Because these areas are an intermediary between land and ocean, they can be easily transformed into either, and San Francisco took full advantage of this to become an economically-competitive port, spurring trade and development. One scholar who has studied this growth is Matthew Booker, a researcher who examines the relationship between humans and nature, especially in North America. This growth and these changes can also be captured by maps, such as the 1/62,500 series of USGS topographic sheets from 1895 (after the initial San Francisco boom). An extract of this series was recently taken and used as a San Francisco creek map, with overlays showing present water-land boundaries, which shows just how much wetland has been transformed into dry land. As a result, this map can be a useful source from which to understand more qualitative analyses, such as Booker’s Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides. In the second chapter of his book, Booker fundamentally misrepresents private property and its relationship to power, resulting in a misattribution of the fervor around San Francisco’s tidelands in the mid-1800s.

     The misunderstanding begins when Booker makes the problematic assertion that private property requires the recognition of the public. In explaining the way the word ‘property’ has changed over the last few centuries, he states, “Securing private property requires two things. Individuals must recognize other people’s exclusive rights to property, and they must agree not to steal or damage it. Property is inherently public in that the community grants and enforces rights. It is a kind of grant from the public to individuals” (Booker 36). This idea, however, can be shown to be false both by its conditional and by its contrapositive. For the former case, it is easy to imagine someone whose property is well-defended, but not communally recognized. In this case, although the ‘owner’ is the only one who can use that property, the private nature of said property has nothing to do with community agreement; rather, it is simply a result of the owner being powerful enough to hold on to it, and thus does not require a “grant from the public”. In the latter case, the existence and persistence of eminent domain shows that private property is not inviolable. Though a property has been in someone’s possession (with the public’s permission) for a long time cannot prevent the government from seizing control of it, even if the community supports the rightful owner. This case also demonstrates how property is not about communal recognition, but simply about who is more powerful.

     This problematic conception of power continues with Booker’s implication that businesses are the only important part of a city. In over a page dedicated to describing the May 1851 San Francisco fire, he portrays it as a hellish landscape that seems to have come out of a post-apocalyptic world, no doubt meant to scare (or at least unnerve) the reader. As this detailed description that would be much too long to quote in its entirety, the following quantifiable information has been extracted:

“The conflagration had already consumed a thousand buildings and killed at least seven persons. ‘It is sufficient to say that more than three-fourths of the business part of the city is nothing but smoldering cinders,’ the reporter wrote … The next day, May 5, 1851, chaos ruled. Over eighteen city blocks had been entirely destroyed, five or six more blocks partially so.” (Booker 54)

This is a telling juxtaposition: while the description makes the fire seem like the worst disaster that has ever happened, the quantifiable information shows just how insignificant this fire was, having destroyed only about twenty-five blocks. The map on page 34 shows just how little of San Francisco actually burned: even though the map is a very small portion of San Francisco, one can count somewhere around five hundred blocks in this part of the city alone. Using a map of the city as a whole (Fig. 1) and comparing it to the map provided in the article, it is possible to estimate that the provided map is only about a fifth of the city, so it is reasonable to conclude that less than one percent of San Francisco burned in May 1851. It is also clear that the amount of the city actually built on non-dry-land (and thus susceptible to fire, as per Booker’s own suggestion) is actually comparatively small (the cyan overlay, and any land under the pink), so although twenty-five blocks may be considered a sizable portion of this, is is completely insignificant compared to the rest of the city. The complete and singular focus on the business district, comprising less than one percent of the city, suggests that Booker understands San Francisco not as a city, a population, or a culture, but simply as the place where businesses happen to be located.

     This disregard for any other aspect of the city results in a poor understanding of historical speculation. When explaining the perspectives of the San Francisco real estate speculators, Booker misattributes their motivations. In his explanation, he explores the reasons behind their motivations, but these are ultimately flawed:

“The water lots produced no wheat or cattle hides nor any saleable product … San Francisco’s water lots were totally worthless in and of themselves. What made tidal frontage valuable, as speculators knew full well, was its potential. Water lots represented a new kind of productivity in California in which the value of land derived from its future use, not its present use.” (Booker 47)

Yes, it is clearly true that “tidal frontage” is valuable because of “its potential”, as marshes and tidelands are relatively useless to humans if left in their natural forms. However, it is untrue that this was a “new kind of productivity”, new in that its value was due to its potential, as opposed to its “present use”. For all of human history, almost no land was valued because of its present use. Farmers didn’t show up at a field to find, as Booker implies, “wheat or cattle hides” (or even watermelon); they found land and changed its use, growing wheat and raising cattle. Homesteaders didn’t find homes already built; they claimed parcels of land and constructed for themselves a home. The land itself is just that - land; almost all land cannot intrinsically “produce” what humans need, and useful production requires humans to use it for their own purposes. Tidal frontage could certainly be considered more valuable as a result of having more different future uses than any other land, but Booker fails to acknowledge that all land is valued for its future use, whether or not that aligns with its present use. This failure then results in the absence of the idea that land can also be valuable as something other than a business, as Booker’s argument stems from a land’s productivity in producing “wheat or cattle hides [or other] saleable product[s]”.

     The most important flaw with the focus on businesses, however, is the amount of reclaimed land that could have possibly served as real estate for these businesses: not very much at all. Fig. 1 clearly shows the land that was created by 1895, specifically any land (and only land) colored blue or pink on the map; although pink is fill, it is total modern fill, so it includes areas that had not yet been filled in 1895 (still 40 years after the events in chapter 2 of Down by the Bay), but, out of an abundance of generosity, it would be nice to include them as well. The only reclaimed land that matters insofar as it is used for San Francisco businesses is southeast of Telegraph Hill, and inland of Mission Bay. As is made very clear by the map, these areas are only a small part of the city, comprising on the order of 100 blocks. They are also the only parts of the city on the edge of the bay, or, better said, the only parts that are the edge of the bay. These parts necessarily contain the shoreline, as the shoreline is by definition where land turns into sea, which must occur somewhere between the shoreline pre-San Francisco and the shoreline of today, and this possibility space is represented by the pink and cyan overlays. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that these areas are valuable for this reason: they are the shoreline. Someone who buys a so-called ‘water plot’ could easily transform it from sea to land, and thus move the shoreline to the wonderful location of that plot, giving them the ability to construct things on their plots that necessitate being on the shoreline, like piers, for example. Thus, the primary reason speculators were buying so-called ‘water plots’ was due to their waterfront potential as piers and other ship-related business, not as a general potential to be made into anything one might so choose. This is the fundamental reason that these areas should be considered vastly important to the city of San Francisco: not because a new use was invented or because businesses are inherently the most important, but rather because San Francisco is primarily a port, and these reclaimed tidelands provided it the ability to become a port.

     Booker’s misunderstanding of the reasons behind the speculation fervor in 1850s San Francisco is a result of a poor definition of value and private property, when in fact, tidelands were considered valuable because of their ability to become shoreline, and not because of their unique propensity to be developed into anything useful. Since then, these tidelands have been almost completely transformed into land for business and residential zones, and a solid barrier has been erected that separates land from ocean, likely halting any future land reclamation. As sea levels rise, however, this may prove disastrous, as wetlands are key barrier systems that require minimal upkeep but provide enormous benefits. As a result, the process of wetland reclamation has begun in other parts of the bay, in the hope that as sea levels begin to rise, low-lying areas will be protected, ensuring that places such as the Bay Area will not become uninhabitable as a result of the increasingly-obvious effects climate change.

Works Cited
Booker, Matthew Morse. “Ghost Tidelands”. Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History between the Tides, University of California Press, pp. 33-68. JSTOR,
Richard, Christopher. “San Francisco Historical Creek Map”. USGS topographic sheets, 1/62,500, 1895, revised 2008. Oakland Museum of California,

Link to Booker chapter
Link to San Francisco Creek Map

Other maps
SF, 1853:
SF, 1859:
SF, 1859:
SF, 1915:
SF Marsh extent, before 1850:

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