September 22, 2007
I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…
“When I was a boy they built an island in the center of San Francisco Bay that was the capsule of my dreams. It was a peaceable island, crowned with towers and glittering with light, that seemed to float like a vision in a sea of gold — an earthly paradise where boys could feast on buttered scones and fried potatoes and the world was flat”
Thus begins Richard Reinhardt’s delightful and beautifully written memoir/history “Treasure Island; San Francisco’s Exposition Years”. As I plowed through piles of material while researching the Treasure Island podcasts, this book leapt out at me, outshining its fellow tomes like a diamond in a dustbin. There’s a blend of lively nostalgia, serious research, and generous helpings of vintage black and white photographs which make for the most inviting and readable history of Treasure Island that I’ve ever come across.
Reinhardt was a small boy living in a quiet Oakland neighborhood when the Great Depression struck, and the advent of Treasure Island was the greatest event of his young life. His writing is unapologetically filtered through these vivid and happy childhood memories, which makes every page a joy.
The story of an era
The work covers the period from the beginning of the Great Depression to the very end of the World’s Fair in 1940. The author has a gift for contrasting the understanding gained by years of historical research and life experience with the vivid but limited firsthand impressions of his youth.
Reinhardt was fascinated by the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, but became absolutely obsessed with Treasure Island! He and a friend paid homage to it by building their own small version in a creek near his home. By the time the Worlds Fair was open, the model had been washed away and he was crossing the Bay Bridge whenever he could to immerse himself in the sensory overload of the real thing. The riotous variety of the Fair is all here, exhibitions, parades, music, food, freakshows, con artists and “high culture” (not to mention the author’s many attempts to sneak into Sally Rands’ Nude Ranch), these experiences all coloured by the menacing undertone of the war already in full swing across the oceans.
“Shards of trivial memory”
Reinhardt apologizes towards the end of the work for a reconstruction of Treasure Island “cluttered with many small shards of trivial memory”, but those individual memories and quirky insights are the strength of the work. the author has had a longtime fascination with San Francisco and the West, having written more than a dozen books and countless magazine articles on these subjects. Among other honours, he was once the president of the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Board, and is currently a trustee of San Francisco’s venerated Mechanics’ Institute.
Lest you worry that what we have here is nothing but nostalgia, never fear — the world’s political scene as viewed from San Francisco in the 30s is well covered, which brings me to the layout of the book — as beautifully conceived as the writing itself. Each chapter begins with a generous photo essay accompanied by a short piece of text. This sets the larger historical context for the ongoing narrative. The introductory sections give you a real sense of how people experienced those Treasure Island days, not just the larger political events, but also how they took the ferries to work every day, ate ham sandwiches, wore hats, and simply lived their lives.
Take this one home
In short, this book is a keeper. I checked it out from the library, renewed it twice, and finally couldn’t live without it — I have my very own copy now, a gift from my Lady Friend.
Sadly, the book is out of print today, but lucky you — San Francisco is packed with used bookstores! Just wander over to, say, Green Apple books on Clement Street or Phoenix over on 24th and see what you can find. Failing that, click on the book cover displayed above to visit AbeBooks.com and order a copy online.
Any San Franciscan will enjoy it, but I especially recommend it to anyone who happens to be living on Treasure Island today… or is planning on moving there in the upcoming decades.