Category: Reviews

Reviews

Growing the California Dream

Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.

Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.

California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.

Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.

Photograph at top by Gregory Wass.

Reviews

Origins of the LA Riots

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 423pp, $29.95)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

On March 16, 1991, African-American teenager Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central LA. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice, slipped it into her backpack, and walked to the counter to pay. Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, concerned that Harlins was trying to steal the juice, tried to take the girl’s backpack. Harlins fought back, and the pair struggled. Harlins threw punches. Du threw a stool. Finally, Harlins disengaged, leaving the orange juice, and turning toward the door. Du grabbed a gun from under the counter and shot Harlins in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died clutching $2 that she had planned to use to buy some juice. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Soon Ja Du would serve no prison time. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin, a Jewish woman, sentenced her to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Less than six months later, police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and Los Angeles erupted into violence. The LA riots had begun.

The three women involved in the shooting of Harlins and sentencing of Du—a poor black girl, a Korean woman from a small-business owning family, and an affluent female Jewish judge—are the focus of UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. By focusing on the death of Harlins and trial of Du, Stevenson moves away from a male-dominated narrative that emphasizes the police beating of Rodney King as the main cause of the LA riots. Instead, Stevenson argues, it was the Harlins murder and trial, a story centered on women, that was the real spark for the violence of spring 1992. The Harlins case crystallized frustrations among African-Americans about Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central LA, who seemed to regard their black customers as criminals. In the wake of Du’s sentencing, black Angelenos acutely felt that justice had been denied to Harlins and the black community. It was in reaction to the Harlins case that boycotts of Korean businesses began. It was through the experience of the Harlins case that African-Americans understood the Rodney King verdict and during the riots destroyed Korean shops. Stevenson’s shift of focus from Rodney King to the Harlins murder and verdict changes our understanding of the LA riots.

In her acknowledgments, Stevenson writes that this book has been in the works since 1991. Her long-term effort shows. Carefully assessing the intersections of gender, race, and class, Stevenson explores the circumstances under which Du could shoot Harlins and get off with a light sentence from Karlin. Stevenson does this by probing into the deep pasts of each player, extending her analytical reach into long histories of slavery, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and racism. This book is about Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin, but in many ways, it is about much more than that. It is about the importance of race, gender, and class in crime, justice, and, most crucially, lived experience. And perhaps most of all, it is about the ways in which history bleeds ever-forward into the present.

Photograph at top by Flickr user Dark Sevier

Reviews

Reading for Liberalism

Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West, by Stephen J. Mexal (University of Nebraska, 320pp, $65)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Before there was Boom or Sunset, there was Overland Monthly. From 1868 to 1875 and from 1883 to 1935, this San Francisco-based regional periodical published writers such as Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Bret Harte, entertaining readers on both coasts with poetry, travelogues, short fiction, and political commentary. But the Overland Monthly aimed to do more than entertain—its early editors hoped it would help transform the social landscape of California itself by aiding in the state’s material development—a process they figured would ultimately expand the magazine’s own readership. The Overland Monthly often portrayed California as sophisticated and civilized—a far cry from its earlier reputation as a lawless, rough-and-tumble outpost—and thus contributed to the construction of some of the enduring, foundational, cultural myths of California. As Mexal writes, “The magazine’s auxiliary pose—dedicated to ‘development’ of both country and reader—meant that its literary output engaged certain master narratives about liberal selfhood and land use and then localized those narratives in California.” The Overland Monthly helped tame the cultural imaginary of the “wild West” by coloring California’s frontier land past with shades of romantic nostalgia. But, as Mexal’s incisive book points out, the magazine’s writers also engaged critically with discourses of wilderness and civilization at a decisive moment in California’s history as the state began to take the form we now recognize as home.

Illustration of Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks from the Overland Monthly.

Reviews

Salsa Rules

Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles, by Cindy Garcia (Duke; 208 pages; $79.95)
Reviewed by Robert Smith

It takes two to tango, but LA-style salsa demands much more: at least one well-heeled pair of dancers and an admiring audience. For in Los Angeles, salsa dancing is a real production governed by unwritten rules that are nonetheless quite visible to the salsa cognoscenti. Apparently what amateur Angelenos do while twirling each other round their living rooms after watching Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights doesn’t cut it, according to Cindy Garcia, a professor of theater and dance whose Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles delineates the dizzying turns salsa takes on and off the dance floor — twists that most casual spectators might not appreciate.

The world of LA-style salsa that Garcia reveals is a select meritocracy that won’t admit dancers with the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, and, especially, the wrong moves. Serious salseros and salseras must submit their bodies and movements to pedantic correction, for they must not betray markings of certain class or national origins. Particularly, the LA-salsa style that Garcia classifies as a “sequined” latinidad distinguishes itself from clothing that is easily identifiable with “la limpieza,” the cleaning industry, or other thankless, low-paying, service sector labor. Beyond the cultivation of an acceptable look, comportment on the dance floor is of utmost importance. To pass muster salsa technique should be specific to LA, for, unfortunately, among Los Angeles-salsa connoisseurs, “dancing like a Mexican” (or, more generally, “like an immigrant”) has become the most pejorative simile.

Those exceptionally adept at LA-style salsa have, even if only superficially, established the most distance between their nightclub identities and some of the most troubled history behind their choreography: the effects of racism, income disparity, gender politics, and anti-immigrant vitriol. Yet, as Garcia shows, salsa’s dance-floor revolutions aren’t just escapist fantasy—the most competitive dancers circulate upwards in a “salsa hierarchy” that rewards the paradoxical combination of conformity and innovation. In several clubs around Los Angeles, Garcia observed dancers attempting to better themselves and best each other in performing a conspicuously LA-style salsa. Salsa Crossings offers an insightful guide to reading these dancers who might look like they’re just having fun.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Madrigal Photography.

Reviews

A Passion for Place

Passion for Place: Community Reflections on the Carmel River Watershed, edited by Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, Laura Bayless and John Dotson. RisingLeaf Impressions, 2012, 172 pages; $49.50

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Like rivers, books can take time to reach their destinations. Published in 2012 after years in the making, Passion for Place—a compendium of art, essays, and interviews—is finding a niche close to the river that inspired it.

Paola Fiorelle Berthoin, the editor and driving force behind the book, is taking the book this August, September, and October, along with her own paintings and photographs, to events around Monterey County. The literary Carmelites Mary Austin and George Sterling, who lived in the watershed a hundred years ago, would likely join the festivities if they were around today. So would their summer guests, Jack and Charmian London, who often visited from Sonoma. Jack London raved about Carmel; he’d probably rave about Passion for Place. Like his best books, it takes readers on a journey, in this case inland, upstream, and into a watershed.

The product of grass roots creativity, the coffee-table book offers short stories, poems, sketches, essays, and a CD, plus color paintings and photographs by Berthoin, an Englishwoman who arrived in Carmel in 1965 and has never taken her eyes off the place. In more than 50 dazzling oil paintings, including “View from Carmel Valley Road,” she transforms familiar scenes into magical landscapes with bold, bright colors. Her “Storm Clouds, Los Laureles Grade” conjures an ominous scene that the Big Sur poet, Robinson Jeffers, might have depicted in blank verse.

In the foreword, Freeman House— author of Totem Salmon, a classic about Humboldt’s Mattole River—distinguishes between denizens linked to the land and citizens connected to cities. He suggests that Californians might want to define themselves as inhabitants of watersheds rather than urban or suburban neighborhoods.

In “How I’m Taught Green,” Barbara Mossberg plunges into the vegetation around the river. “It could be a weed, wild, /How it grows by the river, free,/Unplanted by any human hand—a dart of random green,” she writes. Pam Krone-Davis aims to think and feel like a steelhead trout. “When I first hatched from the nest my mother had made in the small stones with her tail, I was very small,” she writes. Mark Stromberg keep track of the animals in and around the river, including a ring-tailed cat that looks in the artist’s rendition like a creature from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Stromberg and fellow denizens depict the watershed as a wonderland to explore and protect—and as an expensive one, too. Inhabiting a beautiful watershed, Stromberg points out, comes with a price tag these days, in more ways that one.

At its best, Passion for Place creates a strong sense of a singular environment that is sacred to Native Americans and beloved by landscape painters such as Berthoin. Moreover, the book could serve as a guide for artists and writers who might want to explore, portray, and work to save California’s endangered watersheds, from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific, and from urban and suburban neighborhoods to rural farmlands.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and their Work and a frequent contributor to Boom.

Images courtesy of Paola Fiorelle Berthoin: painting “View from Carmel Valley Road,” photograph “Reflections on Black Rock Creek Lake.”

On her website—www.passion4place.net—Berthoin posts up-to-date information about events.

Reviews

Why Walls Do Not Work

Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, by Michael Dear (Oxford; 288 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Robert Smith

Michael Dear, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, is interested in problems of division, problems posed by the literal and metaphorical divides that determine the relationship between the United States and Mexico, problems that may hide solutions in plain sight along the borderline.

In Why Walls Won’t Work, Dear historicizes the U.S.-Mexico divide to demystify it. The plural “walls” of Dear’s title signal the several obstructions that thwart our apprehension of not simply a border but a “third nation” forged in what Dear suggests we should appreciate as the overlap between two contiguous nations. Appropriately beginning with the Treaty of Hidalgo, Dear elaborates how material demarcations succeeded abstract discursive ones, and both the treaty and subsequent fences are subject to Dear’s well-considered interpretations. Citing Andrés Reséndez, Dear reminds us that the border established by the Treaty of Hidalgo was once an invisible and completely permeable line that conscripted, for example, Mexicans into United States citizenship. Dear’s book documents the history of the efforts to make this border conspicuous and impenetrable, a condition that some American citizens translate as “secure.” But for the moment, for non-citizens the border and the politics surrounding it remain a decreasingly negotiable obstacle to better economic opportunity, family reunification, and U.S. citizenship.

When Dear turns his attention to the phenomenon of “twin cities,” such as El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, it is clear that these cities are children of separated parents. If El Paso and Juárez, Brownsville and Matamoros, San Diego and Tijuana are “twins” they certainly aren’t identical, for, as Dear demonstrates, the prosperity of one city often measurably impoverishes the other. Nevertheless, the border that divides city from city and nation from nation also, according to Dear, hybridizes one with the other. For Dear, it is not only individuals but specifically shared “sentiments” that breach the physical barriers between the two nations. Unfortunately, the financial and political interests that the United States has invested in maintaining divisive border security and immigration policies pose formidable challenges to what Dear identifies as the “hybridization of sentiments.” Dear claims that “walls always come down,” which may be literally true of physical walls. But, ultimately, Why Walls Won’t Work makes plain that entrenched attitudes about the U.S.-Mexico border are much harder to fell than physical fortifications.

Photograph at top: U.S. Mexico boundary line, Tijuana, circa 1925.

Reviews

The LA That Might Have Been

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, Never Built Los Angeles (Metropolis, 376pp, $55)

Never Built: Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles, July 28 – October 13, 2013.

Reviewed by Eve Bachrach

Never Built Los Angeles—based on the Architecture and Design Museum’s exhibit of the same name—is many books in one: art book, history, criticism, and choose your own adventure. The meat of the book is a collection of 100 or so unbuilt buildings, master plans, transportation projects, and parks proposed for LA over the past century, complete with drawings and descriptions. So many of the projects leave one with either eyes wide with wonder or head shaking in disbelief that flipping through the pages too quickly is liable to cause dizziness and discombobulation.

Greg Goldin and Sum Lubell curated the Never Built exhibition and wrote the essay and project blurbs here. The book allows us to imagine a thousand different what-could-have-been Los Angeles, and they deftly cover LA’s (admittedly brief) history of development in just a few engaging pages. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, who is based in LA, writes in his introduction that the city’s reliance on private owners and donors to build so much of the city has enabled much of our important, if idiosyncratic, experimentation in building. But he indicts our failures in civic architecture and coherent planning. Goldin and Lubell agree that our civic architecture makes a pretty poor showing, and blame the city’s infrastructure and politics, weak central government, conservative developers, NIMBYish citizens, and some terrible ideas for many of the unbuilt proposals in the book. Where the city lacks the ability to muscle through grand municipal plans, private developers are too often interested only in how a project pencils out.

This diagnosis isn’t new, but it’s striking to see it made in the context of all these fabulous (in all senses of the word) projects. There’s Pierre Koenig’s unlikely design for a mosque in Hollywood funded by the Kuwaiti government, AC Martin’s helicopter buses from downtown’s Union Station to LAX, and Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral—which could have been LA’s answer to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. A proposal from John Lautner could have provided a new model for high-density living, if building it had been technologically possible. And thousands of miles of highways, train lines, and monorail could have either freed us from our cars or locked us in them forever.

The book is arranged by project type, not chronologically, so it can be difficult to see the march of time and trends throughout the proposals; Goldin and Lubell’s essay provides the necessary narrative. But taken cumulatively, the proposals here reveal a city brimming with ideas, but a city that still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be—horizontal or vertical, beautiful or functional.

The book and exhibit come at an interesting time. Los Angeles recently kicked off a five-year program to rewrite the city’s zoning code for the first time since 1946. The current code, which governs what buildings can be built where, is a 600-page doorstop full of confusing, unintelligible, and contradictory rules. While the new code will undoubtedly put rules in place that will reshape the kinds of neighborhoods we live and work in—will they be more walkable and more vertical, or preserve the urban-suburban character?—one of the chief goals of the code reform is to make it easier to build.

Just across the street from the A+D Museum, and the Never Built exhibit, is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, site of an unbuilt 2001 project by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas which would have demolished much of the mishmash, mid-century (plus worse—mid-80’s) campus and replaced it with a single, unified design above a central plaza. Nervous donors killed the radical plan, but LACMA’s current director Michael Govan is now trying for a do over. This time he’s brought in Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who has also proposed demolishing much of the existing museum campus in favor of a single structure, this time a free-form shape inspired by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits. Time will tell if the proposal will transform Miracle Mile or kick off volume two of Never Built Los Angeles.

Images from Never Built Los Angeles top to bottom: SKY-Arc, Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2005; Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol,1965; Hollywood Mosque, Pierre Koenig, 1963; Los Angeles Civic Center, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925.

Reviews

The World in the Curl

Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown Publishers, 416pp, $26)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Surfers will be stoked to read The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing—as will anyone who has, at some point, felt the allure of the sport, if only from the shore. The authors, both surfers and professors of history in southern California, offer a wide-ranging study of the sport, which “shows how surfing, at every point in its history, reflected—and shaped—the world around it.”

The story they tell is ambitious and compelling: a narrative of world history recounted through the lens of surfing’s own evolution. The authors capture the inherent paradoxes of the sport: the tensions between its global appeal and fierce history of localism, between its iconic image as a “natural” pursuit and its institutional history of environmental apathy (or worse, exploitation), and between its cultivated image as a nonconformist counterculture and its perennial trendsetting status in mainstream marketing. The World in the Curl challenges its readers to appreciate the fine points of the sport’s development at the same time that it holds a mirror up to its seedy and even violent historical moments and its deeply-suspect history (in Western manifestations of the sport) of ingrained racism and sexism.

The book is at its best when it conveys the voices of those individuals whose stories intersect with that of the sport itself as they pioneered its growth and development. Some of the most compelling of these voices emerge from the margins of the narrative, and none more so than those of women surfers who faced obstacles more daunting than the crest of a high wave for a place of their own in the lineup. In its final chapters, the story moves deeper and deeper into the postwar twentieth century, becoming dense with the details of military technology and chemical manufacturing, until it is entirely drawn into the whirlpool vortex of contemporary corporate culture. As climate change continues to affect our oceans’ coastlines, the intertwined histories of surfing, environmentalism, and social change, which the authors so deftly tease apart in their early chapters, will only become more powerfully important in the future of the sport.

Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Reviews

Arts for the City


San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012, by Susan Wels (Heyday; 224 pages; $45)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Murals, mosaics, sculptures, and street art— Susan Wels’ San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012 has it all. Lushly illustrated and deeply researched, Wels gives readers the story of the San Francisco Arts Commission from its creation in 1932 up to the present day. The commission was initially formed to to help put San Francisco on the map as a world-class city—to compete with (and maybe become a a little bit similar to?) the SoCal cultural capital, Los Angeles.

Wels then delves into a more familiar story about the city’s art scene, when, after World War II, San Francisco became a space for a racially, economically, and politically diverse movement to emerge and produce art that pushed the boundaries of mainstream western art. This movement continued into the 1970s and ’80s, Wels argues, but was taken out of concert halls and museums and into the streets, inspiring communities and neighborhoods to engage with art. Although an economic downturn that lasted until the early 1990s made it difficult to get funding and created restructuring, by the mid-1990s, arts were flourishing again and moving to new spaces—both in the city and online.

In many ways, Wels’ work is a history of an institution: the San Francisco Arts Commission and the way that it allowed artists to use public funds to push the boundaries of art. But what comes through best are the personalities of the artists that populate the pages, through their words, their lives, and, most importantly, their artwork. Arts for the City contains an enormous number of stunning photographs of paintings, murals, architecture, performance art, infrastructure, sculpture, mosaics, and much more. Readers interested in art in city spaces shouldn’t miss the stories Wels tells and the urban artworks she shows us.

Annie Powers is an assistant editor at Boom and a graduate student in history at UCLA. Images from Arts for the City courtesy of Heyday.

Author Event: “SF Art: Past and Present,”  Thursday, July 25, 2013, 6:00 PM, Mechanics’ Institute Library  57 Post Street, San Francisco. Susan Wels, author of San Francisco: Arts for the City, will give a history of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs, will talk about current and future projects. 

Reviews

Down by the Bay


Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides, by Matthew Morse Booker (UC Press; 278 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.

For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.

Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.

From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”

Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.

By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.

In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”

Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”

Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.

For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.

Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.