History as a Commons: a Q&A with Chris Carlsson of Shaping San Francisco

Shaping San Francisco is a participatory community history project documenting and archiving overlooked stories and memories of San Francisco. A multi-faceted project that’s been going for 20-plus years, Shaping San Francisco hosts bicycle and walking tours of the city, hosts public talks, and maintains FoundSF, a growing online archive to help people discover and shape San Francisco history.

Among the standout projects in the archive are a history of the now-vanished amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach, a personal history of the Hunter’s Point riot, a project documenting the history of Sixth Street, a glimpse into the hidden mural at Mission Dolores, and a history of the General Strike of 1934 and the mechanization of the port.

Shareable connected with Chris Carlsson, founder and co-director, along with LisaRuth Elliott, of the project. We spoke about the importance of looking at the social, political and ecological elements of history, how history belongs not in dusty old shelves, but as a part of our everyday lives, and the need to see our shared history as a commons that we all contribute to and draw from. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Shareable: Before there were online archives, Shaping San Francisco was collecting stories, photographs and local histories—originally putting them onto cd roms and even a book. What sets Shaping San Francisco apart from other history projects?

Chris Carlsson: Shaping San Francisco always served a dual function of being a place where you could learn about history by browsing and reading and researching. And what sets it apart is all the stuff from unusual sources, such as oral histories and obscure publications. It comes out of the radical tradition and includes radical publications. Content and photographs from a lot of underground publications have been freely used on our site.

When people look for the history of San Francisco, they end up on our site eventually. We have no pretense that we have the final answer or the final say about much of anything. There’s lots of stuff we’re really good at. We’re really good at ecological history; we’re really good at labor history; we’re really good at social history that most people don’t cover or leave out.

We come out of that long tradition that looks at history over a longer period of time and situates it in a geographic place—the multitude of human experience in that place over time, including the cultural experience as well as the geographic and economic experiences.

We feel like we’re part of this river that is looking at history from below, and history as a creative act. Our motto is that history is something we do together. People think of history as a pile of dusty facts in a file cabinet, and only specialists know how to find the facts. We try to fight that tradition. We’re trying to create resources for future historians, as much as we are using the history that we’ve already received by bringing them forward and put them in critical context with each other.

We go to a place and peel back the layers and talk about the landscape beneath the cement, because it’s still there. Once you point that out to somebody, you’ve changed their imagination about the urban life they’re living forever. We call it an ecology of critical thinking. If there is an agenda for the project, it’s to get people to think critically about the city.

San Francisco sand dunes. Shaping San Francisco brings together the social, political and ecological history of the city. Photo: Willard Worden, courtesy OpenSFHistory.org

You use oral histories from ordinary San Franciscans to help people understand what you describe as the “complex fabric of life at various times in history.” In what ways do you see this project shaping or influencing how people see and experience the city?

It’s important for people to understand that nothing is or was inevitable at any given moment. There are always points of contestation along the way. The more you can excavate those episodes of clashing, you can try to make some sense of what that was about. There are always multiple points of view and we’re happy to accommodate conflicting views of history

It’s hard to get the different views of history. One of the reasons is because so many people who do have something to contribute to history are self-disqualifying, thinking that they don’t write or they don’t have anything to say.

Beyond that, there’s the importance of demonstrating the malleability and ephemerality of the physical environment, that seems so permanent and timeless. A lot of our work is to show how recent it is, and how short-term it is, and how quickly it disappears

Then there’s the social contestation and the social relationships. They’ve changed again and again. How we produce together at work, who controls it, what the agendas are, what kind of work is done, who has the money and control of land, what decisions get made in this city that effect the entire Pacific Rim, etc.

We help people begin to understand how we shape our narrative of history. It’s not a “great man” theory of history, it’s a theory of conflict and contestation being key to understanding points of divergence, points of opportunity, points of creativity as human beings working together. Collective possibilities are inherent in every moment. The more you can recognize them behind you, the more you might recognize them in the present and it will allow you to make different decisions about how to affect the future.

The face of San Francisco is changing rapidly, as people—some of whom have lived in the city for generations—are pushed from it, unable to afford to live there. What kinds of stories are being told on Shaping San Francisco about this shift?

I live in the Pigeon Palace. We’re already an example of minor success at resisting this tidal wave of displacement that’s going on in the city. We became a land trust a year ago and got Office of Housing money that helped buy this building and help maintain our cheap rent and our ability to stay. It made us unevictable. That’s been a great boon for my ability to do this work, because I get paid hardly anything to do this.

If I had to pay San Francisco rent, I would be gone and this project would be grinding to a halt. It’s very nice of the city to figure out a way to help me, and others who are major contributors to San Francisco’s history stay.

Cheap rent is the key to an interesting culture so when we talk about the displacement that’s going on in San Francisco right now, we are talking about the gutting of a culture. The curious question is, after this boom busts, which it will, because they always do, is, what will be possible to pick up from the wreckage afterwards?

A lot of my allies and people I want to be here with are gone. It’s a terrible sensation that’s unlikely to be reversed. Since before World War II, San Francisco has always been a mecca for dissenters of different types, whether culturally or sexually or politically or literarily or musically or whatever. They come here and reinvent themselves and reinvent the world. That always was possible because it was easy to find cheap rent in San Francisco. That is gone. They’ve absolutely destroyed that.

Most of the people who come here now are app developers or techies who see the world through technology and spend all their time working. They’re working 10, 12, 14 hour days routinely and think it’s quite OK because they’re going to cash out and move somewhere else. Not very many people do. It’s a whole societal fantasy based on being the winner and the vast majority of people are the losers because winners depend on losers to exist. That’s how society works.

This boom is not all that different from the ones that have come before. There was a huge tech boom in the 1850s. It was the technology of metalworking and metallurgy to serve the needs of the mines, to be able to wash away the mountains of California. They essentially washed away the equivalent of eight Panama Canals worth of debris into the Central Valley. It’s an ecological consequences we’re still living with.

Sit-in during SF State College strike, 1968. Photo: Jeffrey Blankford

It seems to me that, as the demographic and landscape of San Francisco is changing, telling the stories of the city and its inhabitants becomes more important than ever. Is that how you see it?

One of the things that gave rise to this project is that we live in an amnesiac culture, and that’s no accident. There’s a systematic effort to eliminate a sensibility of continuity to the past in American culture that’s rooted in the earliest periods in America. It was about turning your back on where you came from and what you used to be and what you used to do and reinventing yourself as something different.

California and San Francisco, in particular, are the exaggerated versions of that. It’s only more exaggerated than ever in that it’s so deeply rooted in the culture to look forward. We tell ourselves that we’re unmoored from the past and we’re unmoored from an ethical connection to what’s happened before us.

For us, this project was always about confronting that amnesia head-on. Calling it what it is and calling out who benefits from it and why it’s a systematic effort to inculcate it in our culture.

There’s an interesting goal for Shaping San Francisco to “define a new kind of public space around a shared interest in our interrelated social histories.” What does this mean to you?

We think of it as a history commons. The idea is that history is, and should be, something that we collectively share and participate in. No one owns history. The problem is that, for most people, history gets locked up in archives and in books and they can’t get it.

Luckily, recently, archives have become much more open. Most archivists who have entered the field in the last 10 years understand that their mission is to get their archives in use and in the public eye, and not locked up. We’re excited about that because we were part of the effort to blow them open for years.

I respect and honor a living artist or photographer or writer’s need to control their art and make a living. But, if it’s a family claiming that they get residual royalties forever and ever from their 19th century grandfather, I think, give me a break. It’s our job to challenge that.

The whole world is moving toward openness and access. The history commons is a public space in which people both shape it by contributing to it and critically engaging with it, and consume it openly and freely and reuse it.

This participatory aspect of the project is very exciting. By engaging everyone in the creation of our shared history, you draw in a very human element. What kind of community has been built around Shaping San Francisco? Who do you see contributing the most to the project?

There have been a lot of bursts of contributions from individuals over time. Several hundred people have contributed material to the project, including Dick Walker, a well known geography professor at UC Berkeley. He recently gave us all of his writings.

We don’t get that many interesting essays or well-thought out collections from just average citizens. My role as curator and director of the project is to seek out what we want.

Looking south along Dolores Street after the devastating 1906 quake and fire, viewed from today's Mint Hill above Market.

What’s the big picture for Shaping San Francisco? What would you most like to see happen?

We’re in a consortium of other community history groups that has met the last two years. A year ago, I realized that we live in this city that’s the epicenter of new economy and the new economy is all based on networking and memory. We live in a city that can’t even realize that we have a network museum.

There are all these efforts going on throughout the Bay Area that are, together, preserving and enhancing the collective memory of the city. And there’s not one dime of public support for it. Almost all of it happens for free by people working in their garages in their spare time. We’re just one group of many.

We are the Department of Memory. Let’s start branding ourselves that way and do an inventory of all the resources that exist. There are plaques and installations all over the city, on sidewalks and waterfronts, museums. I’d like to advance the concept that it’s a network museum that exists in multiple locations around the city.

It’s crazy how underfunded we are. The grandiose vision is to get the city of San Francisco—that is to say public dollars—to finance the work that is going on to some extent. We don’t need to be paid top dollar salaries, but just give us something to work with.

A lot of the groups have no place, so why not finance three or four storefronts throughout the city that could be programmed by neighborhood groups that are already doing the work. We want to facilitate that process. It’s about taking what exists and enhancing it by showing how it’s already there, then expanding it.

The simple version is to create the San Francisco Department of Memory, which is an autonomous grassroots network of social history groups doing the work, funded by public tax dollars provided by the city, to present history to its own people.

If you propose something like this, the first response is that you should find a corporate sponsor. I refuse to be a billboard. We have never been one and we never will be. It’s just not happening and I’m not participating in that corporate or religious propaganda. I believe that the public has a right to its own memory. It’s very difficult to do it on a volunteer basis, although I have done it for 20 years. I’m willing to do it for the rest of my life, but I don’t know if that means that there’s a big future for the past

Anything you’d like to add?

Our project has been free from the beginning. It always has been, it always will be, and we love that. We are also desperately in need of support. We try to encourage people to think of this as a public utility. We’re all paying a lot of money every month to entities we really despise. It would be nice if people took that same level of commitment and responsibility towards a resource like what we produce. You can’t believe how much we can do with so little.

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