San Francisco: A noir and new City in 1947

Though I live in and love Berkeley, San Francisco is my favorite noir city. Though Philip Marlowe is from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago are often considered the gritty backdrops quintessential in crime fiction, San Francisco noir and hardboiled fiction has an established and legitimate history. There’s a great book on film noir in San Francisco that I enjoyed while researching for The Clear Case called San Francisco Noir, by Nathaniel Rich.

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But rather than talking about noir San Francisco, I want to talk a bit about the context in which my novel and SF film noir take place. I have always been interested in literary and cinematic cities. I took a few classes on that specific subject while I was at Cal. I wanted to do something (subtly) with what I learned about cities and pick one specific point in San Francisco history in which to stage a mystery. To do that, I had to investigate what led up to that chilly afternoon in which Le Cleur and Gance come together.

Rather than beginning with what Californians might consider our “ancient” history, I went right for the City. Sartre, in an essay of his travels, commented on the “temporary look” of American cities. In California, especially, their “frail” newness and a certain suddenness contrast with the fact that Paris has been a prosperous city since 52 BC.

The American West was very much the “last frontier.” We have no castles, no ancient aqueducts. Indeed, in 4th grade California history, Spanish Missions seemed like archaeological discoveries rather than relatively new and brutal military outposts. One thing about being a new city, though, is that it’s difficult to keep secrets.

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Imagine that “discovery” is in quotations.

World War II is one of America’s historical fetishes. It essentially pulled us out of depression, providing us with something to build for. And the years that followed are tinted with a sense of mobility, hope, and production. Frank Sobotka in the second season of The Wire commented, “We used to make shit in this country, build shit.” While Frank has a point, what he and many Americans fail to remember (or simply never learned), was that sometimes what we built actually was shit. Ironically, there’s no productivity in romanticizing America, and yet that seems to be the last remaining thing we produce in abundance.

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With an influx of ex military setting up in the city they fell in love with, San Francisco changed. The Sunset district was erected for these new American settlers and it became host to the streetcars. I take the F line to work every day and while tourists in the summer regularly ruin the experience by refusing to pay attention to their surroundings or learn public-transit etiquette, I am regularly impressed to think the system has existed for around seventy years. (Though, again, this is not that long compared to ancient Mesopotamian waggons.) Mobility has been an integral part of human civilization, both literally and metaphorically. What we built in San Francisco is a great example of that. Mel Gance is unlike many private detectives of his era in that he doesn’t drive. He takes streetcars and cabs. The mediation of public transportation can be a metaphor for Gance’s inability to completely control his environment or his direction. This can make him easy to find.

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But, beyond the city public transportation, Caltrans tried to build freeways. They tried to rush, serve the population boom despite minimal planning and underdeveloped methods of civil engineering. Their efforts to accommodate car culture produced stupid-looking and unsafe freeways. Good job, San Francisco: You killed Toon Town for nothing (RIP SFTT). This is also illustrative of Capitalism’s tendency to favor speed and cost over quality. I once heard that projects can only be two out of three: Fast, Cheap, Good.

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Visitacion Valley boomed, too, following the war. Though instead of cliche, white, streetcar suburbs, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard drew in new settlers during the war that were predominately African American. San Francisco has always had color. And while I did not find a place for more varied cultural exposition in The Clear Case, the time and environment of the novel would be wildly different without people of color and the literal mobility of working-class people. I hope to write more about non-white San Francisco in future mysteries.

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Chinese culture, however, is an inherent aspect of San Francisco history. California history in a comprehensive sense was heavily influenced by the influx of Chinese immigrants who filled the need for exploitable labor and scapegoats. Despite the infrastructure the Chinese built in this country and San Francisco, they were and still remain “foreign.” Nativist, anti-Chinese (and anti-Japanese) efforts to maintain a white California illustrate the systemic hypocrisy of racist America. Asian immigrants and their cultures functioned (and still function) as a kind of background dressing in the city, the culture, and its art. They built, were appropriated, and thus decorated, yet were (and are) systematically rejected as architects in the closing of the American frontier and the weavers of the California cultural tapestry.

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Ellen Chin, also known as the “Chinese Betty Grable”

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The way white characters in The Clear Case notice and deal with non-whites illustrates how well they (and we) actually read people and situations, and how their readership is altered by the privilege of which they’re generally unaware.

While urban planning, transportation, and racial/gender demographics in the workforce evolved, San Francisco also managed some pretty fantastic accomplishments, another extremely charming feature of this American boom time. SF hosted the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They signed the Charter at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center in 1945. That incredible, world-changing meeting took place right there, right in the city by the bay, right in this city where Mel Gance lived on Bush and Taylor, across the street from his office. And that same year? To cash in on the post-war fad of the Hawaiian experience, The Fairmont Hotel opened the Tonga room. A collective back-patting colored with “exotic” aesthetics make this time in San Francisco history an extremely illuminating one.

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Two years after those monumental events, Gance gets a Clear Case. He doesn’t drive. He must stick to the rail line. He doesn’t fight. He must stick to diplomacy. He’s an excellent reader, but the question is what he and we consider readable. What kinds of texts do we recognize as texts? What kinds of languages do we consider language? How is our understanding affected by the rhetoric, air, and system of the oddly temporary American city?

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San Francisco may be “formless and unfinished”  and America may not build as it once did, but the history of The City has the unique advantage over the ancient: it’s all been recorded. We have the whole context available on the internet, in libraries, and on plaques and sidewalk medallions. You can see amazing historical maps on Google Earth. If you want to better understand 1947 San Francisco, you only have to go back to 1769 to begin learning its context.

Context is essentially world-building. While San Francisco may not be Westeros or Hogwarts, the environment and history is like a breathing animal, an animal that gives birth to narratives. And some of those narratives are mysteries.

Check back next Friday for more fun stuff in anticipation of The Clear Case, which launches on November 21st!