The Other Side of the Earthquake Story

by Jacob Schneider on April 18, 2006

A diverse group of San Francisco politicians, progressive activists, and Chinatown residents packed an elementary school auditorium Monday night for a unique forum. As the city marked the eve of the 100-year anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake and fire with a variety of commemorative events, “Ruin, Rubble and Race,” sought to connect the social fallout of that disaster with the reaction to Hurricane Katrina last year.

The event was organized by a variety of community organizations, including The Chinatown Community Development Center, Mission Agenda, the Progressive Voter Project, Senior Action Network, and the San Francisco People’s Organization.

The panel of speakers, which included historians, prominent activists, and a Katrina survivor, discussed the similarities between the near demolition of Chinatown following the 1906 earthquake and the poor portrayal of black refugees in Katrina’s wake.

“After huge disasters, you can rest assured that those in power will be the folks who create the city,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who attended the event.

Indeed, immediately after the earthquake, the richest San Francisco citizens formed a committee to relocate Chinatown, which had been devastated by the quake. A former mayor headed the group, which included several prominent and moneyed citizens.

“There they were, these disdained people, living on the best piece of property in the city,” said Connie Young Yu, a historian and author of “Chinatown, San Jose, USA.” “It’s not foggy, it’s near the financial district. It needed to be developed.”

The vocal resistance of the well-established Chinese community thwarted that attempt at relocation, but it was only one episode in a legacy of racism. For example, there was open animosity between Chinese and white workers, who distributed matchbooks instructing whites to buy goods made by their own race.

“This vitriolic hatred of Asians was common,” said historian Chris Carlsson. “There’s an exclusionary mentality that runs through the history of labor in this city.”

The panelists saw many parallels between the plight of African-American Katrina refugees last fall and the reaction to the San Francisco earthquake.

“When I heard that African-Americans were accused of being looters, I thought of what happened to my grandfather,” said Young Yu, whose grandfather was attacked by a soldier when he tried to return to his shop after the earthquake.

“The way they portrayed our family and our loved ones as looters and foul human beings was disgusting and they only did it to justify their actions,” said Katrina survivor Amber McZeal, evoking the widely-broadcasted images last September of black Katrina victims taking goods from flooded stores.

She added that, as in San Francisco one hundred years ago, New Orleans leaders saw the disaster as an opportunity. McZeal, a student, said she saw her rent double following the hurricane.

“The gentrification process was aided by eminent domain,” McZeal said. “They went into the ninth ward and bulldozed houses without consent of the owners and without searching for bodies.”

Former Youth Commissioner Shanell Williams said she thinks gentrification may pose a great threat with or without a natural disaster.

“Urban renewal is one of the greatest displacements African Americans have faced,” she said. “I wonder what the future of this great city is, especially for young people. It’s so hard to get a retail job here, and that’s most of what we had.”

The key to surviving whatever disasters hit the city, from gentrification to earthquakes, is getting organized, said Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the Bayview, an African-American newspaper.

“We need to take our destiny into our own hands and make sure these non-profit organizations come together and communicate not just during an earthquake, but now,” said Ratcliff. “We can’t wait for an earthquake.”

McZeal added that you shouldn’t forget practical skills.

“The high school I went to didn’t teach me about the world, about levels of mold and what type of respiratory disease you’ll get if you breath it,” she said.

San Francisco’s level of disaster preparedness will be put to the test on June 5, when the Board of Supervisors holds a hearing.

As the city moves forward, McZeals warned, it must not forget that “it could definitely happen here.”

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