Sifting through the past at The SF History Expo
If history is a tale written by the victors, one wonders who San Francisco’s victors are. A chimeral concept as much as a destination, represented by a Phoenix rising from its own destruction, San Francisco has been lauded as a land of opportunity and “the city that knows how,” and detracted as “ingrown (and) self-obsessed,” a “golden handcuff,” and a “Babylon-by-the-Bay” ever since it surfaced in the national consciousness. A city where eccentrics are celebrated, “family values” extend beyond heteronormativity, and the very real threat of natural disaster colors the mundane with an idealized wash of importance.
This past weekend, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society’s SF History Expo offered a gateway to the various and colliding stories of San Francisco for people interested in delving into what lies below the surface of the present day, assembling around forty exhibitors and presenters in once spot, to confab, to network, to recruit, and to educate.
Held in San Francisco’s Old Mint, built in 1874 and a rare survivor of the 1906 earthquake, just wandering around the building is a rare treat. The lower level is a veritable warren of small rooms, former vaults with ominously heavy doors, slippery stone floors, old graffiti, and no ventilation, situated off a long brick corridor lined with gas lamps.
Upstairs the rooms are larger, airier, with high ceilings and plenty of light streaming in through large windows, encircling a rather bleak courtyard like a prison exercise yard with high sandstone walls. Crowded with exhibitors, the smallish rooms overflowed with maps, pamphlets, sepia-toned photographs, and glass cases of ephemera,
In a central room, folks from Actions Past in period dress gave demonstrations of Victorian parlor arts, while down the hall the volunteers from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park encouraged people to hoist the mainsail on a scale model of historic scow schooner the Alma. At one end of the hall, four neighborhood historical societies from Portrero, Bernal, Visitacion Valley, and the “Western Neighborhoods” (including the faraway lands of the Sunset and the Outer Richmond) shared one room, while on the opposite end the “Guardians of the City,” a historical society dedicated to the Police and Fire departments, rubbed elbows with proponents of “alternative” histories, Shaping San Francisco/FoundSF and Thinkwalks.
Despite this welcome nod to the stories of the typically underrepresented, it did highlight the fact that of all the neighborhood and community historians in attendance, there was hardly a radical element to be found. To be fair, organizations such as the Chinese Historical Society and the GLBT Historical Society did have tables, so the event wasn’t completely devoid of more-than-geographic diversity, but it still could have used a few more nods to the Tenderloin, the Bayview, the Fillmore—or even just a single Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in Victorian drag.
Still, the value of assembling so many various stories under one roof shouldn’t be underestimated. If we consider history not as a static and one-sided document, but a constantly evolving perspective, then the opportunity to compare and contrast a variety of viewpoints has to start somewhere, and who better to spearhead the conversation than a roomful of enthusiasts each advocating the awareness and preservation of a different one?
Most important and interesting to the conversation was probably the attendance of so many amateur historians who gathered around each exhibit to share their personal perspectives on the overviews being offered. One hopes that their contributions to the collective chronicle will not go uncollected, so that future voices will not go unheard.