Faculty Spotlight: Rachel Brahinsky

Rachel Brahinksy began her career as a Bay Area reporter. During our conversation, we talked about her research, historical geography, and how San Francisco has changed over the years.

Rachel Brahinsky

 

How did you first become interested in research?

Before I did my Ph.D., I was a journalist. I was always curious and wanted to find the stories that weren’t being told. Before that, in college, I took a lot of African American Literature classes, which opened up this narrative that was absolutely outside of the standard history that I had been taught. Experiences like that set me down the road of trying to find more of those stories. There’s a multiplicity of narratives and lives and relationships. The power dynamics at play, and how things are written, is really important.

How did you start with journalism?

I always wanted to write. When I was working on my undergraduate thesis my writing professor thought I was too political, and my politics professors wanted me to get away from the storytelling. I wanted both and thought both were possible. I went off and got an internship at The Valley Advocate, which is a lot like The Village Voice, The Bay Guardian, or City Paper, and did that for about a year. Then I came here for an internship at The Bay Guardian and was a reporter there for 5 years.

How did you transition from journalism to your Ph.D.?

I had repetitive strain in my arms from typing really fast all the time, which is what you do when you’re a reporter, so I went through a round of physical therapy to deal with that. I came out of that process a lot better physically but realized that it wasn’t sustainable for me to be at a desk in a stressed-out position all day long.

I wanted a different pace, and teaching was something I was always interested in. Ultimately, I was trained as a human/critical geographer. That does mean certain things about how I understand what matters and what to look for in research, but my work is very interdisciplinary. I bring history, urban planning, ethnic studies, African American studies, and a little bit of gender studies together in a geographical frame.

What are you working on now?

My primary book project evolved out of my dissertation, which was called “The Making and Unmaking of Southern San Francisco.” It was a story about Bayview Hunter’s Point, race, redevelopment, and industrial land use—and how all of those things fit together over the course of about 100 years, so it covers a long historical geography. I’m expanding that and the working title is Race in the City: A Story of Property. It’s a book about the way that race fits into those categories of property and ownership, how race and space make each other, and how urban change and urban development can help us understand both how race and racism are created and re-formed, and also how to deconstruct them. It’s a story of urban development and fights over social justice and urban planning.

I also have a collaborative book that is called A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a social and political history of the Bay Area, mostly focused on social-movement histories in the form of a scholarly guidebook. We take you to lots of sites and tell stories about social movement histories that intersect with that place. It builds out of an urban field class that I teach at USF where we walk around different neighborhoods and I teach students about landscape theory and the history and politics of place.

Is there a story that really resonated with you?

When I was doing research on the Fillmore District and thinking about the intersecting displacement of African American and Japanese American communities, I came across this about this group of women in Bayview. People would say “If we had the Big Five around, things would be different—they knew what they were doing.” And I was like: what’s the Big Five? I ended up studying them—there were more than five of them, it turned out, and the people included in the group changed over time. It was an evolving organization. They were African American women who were struggling economically and financially in Bayview, and they saw what had happened in the Fillmore where twenty square blocks were razed to the ground by the redevelopment agency, with people displaced from their homes and businesses.

At the time, Bayview was covered with temporary war housing. It was never meant to be permanent, and about 20 years later it was falling apart. The redevelopment agency turned to Bayview and started making plans for clearance and development there. The Big Five went down to various meetings and said: “If you want to develop in Bayview, you have to come through us.” They persisted, and they became part of the redevelopment process. Bayview Hill was actually remade actually quite beautifully. The vision people have of Bayview now is distorted by time, but when housing was first remade on Bayview Hill with little cul-de-sacs, it was quaint and cute and welcoming. The streets are all named after these women, so you’ll see their names all around the hill: Eloise Westbrook, Marcelee Cashmere, etc.

But there was not really an economic development plan that came with the housing development plan, so Bayview continued to struggle, even though people were happy to be living in this brand-new housing. The end of the story is challenging, but there was this moment of about 15 years where community members were figuring out how to turn resources toward the community and learning how to work together to organize. There were challenges, but these women were what some people call street scholars, and they learned all the language of urban planning “setbacks” and “maximum heights.” They taught it to themselves and each other and they went down to the meetings and they said this is what we need in our neighborhood. And they kept doing it, and sometimes they would get hired. That gets complicated. Some people said they sold out because they were willing to become part of the agency, but what they won for the community was very significant. It was a small community effort where people learned from other neighborhoods and were really able to make a difference, for a moment.

How do you bring your research into the classroom?

My research shows up in the material through lectures, and sometimes a student will ask a very innocent question, which kind of sparks me to think, “I don’t know the answer and I need to go figure that out,” and it sends me down some new research paths. I find the teaching process really fun in that way. Ultimately, I want my students to leave with the capacity and curiosity to keep asking questions and to see that as an integral part of their lives.

Do you have a moment when a student asked you a question and it guided your research?

A couple of years ago I had students reading a book by Neil Smith, a classic book on gentrification. The question that came out was “what comes next after gentrification?”  In some ways it’s simple—of course we don’t know what’s next, but when you’re studying cycles of urban change, you need to think about the patterns of the past and what they may be turning in to, as we study them.  And there was something about the simplicity of that question that sent me down this research path, hoping to clarify the language I use when I teach about the changing city. There’s always something new to understand.

Is Development on San Francisco’s Treasure Island Viable?

Professor Tanu Sankalia discusses the history of Treasure Island and how earthquake risk, toxic contamination, and sea-level rise still imperil plans for large-scale, capital intensive, development on the island.

The man-made, low-lying, Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Photo copyright Barrie Rokeach 2017.

Few Bay Area residents are entirely aware of Treasure Island’s presence, and fewer still know its history: when it was built, how it has been used over the past decades, and what are plans for its future. Despite its very central location in the San Francisco Bay, this flat, low-lying, man-made island has remained at the periphery of most people’s local and geographical consciousness.

As an architect and urban planner, Treasure Island first caught my attention when plans for its redevelopment were unveiled in 2005. The project was promoted as a cutting-edge sustainable development, especially at a time in the early 2000s when sustainability had caught on rapidly among architecture and planning firms. Yet I was intrigued as to how a multi-billion dollar development that consumed great resources, required massive new infrastructure, and was proposed on what appeared to be a risky site (more about this later), could actually be sustainable.

Over the last eight years, my research on the planning and design history of the redevelopment project, together with contributions from a group of excellent scholars on a range of historic and contemporary issues concerning the island, has recently culminated in a co-edited book, Lynne Horiuchi and Tanu Sankalia, Eds., Urban Reinventions: San Francisco’s Treasure Island published by the University of Hawaii Press. While our work focuses on a single site and underscores its local significance, it also reaches out to topics of global importance such as the Pacific Rim, New Deal, world’s fairs, World War II, Cold War military industrial complex, nuclear contamination, sustainability, and eco-cities, among others. This research has also informed my teaching as I have been able to use Treasure Island as a case study in the urban planning and design course I teach in the Masters of Science in Environmental Management (MSEM) program at USF.

The Army Corps of Engineers built Treasure Island between 1936-1937 with New Deal money. It was constructed concurrently with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, to serve as San Francisco’s airport, at a time of major transportation infrastructure expansion. Between 1939-1940 the island hosted the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), which shifted the focus of world’s fairs as venues of science and industry to representations of international unity exemplified in the idea of a Pacific Rim interconnected through commerce and trade. World War II scuttled this utopian imagination, and in early 1942 Treasure Island was converted into an active naval base that cycled 4.5 million US soldiers on their way to and back from the Pacific theater of war. After World War II, Naval Station Treasure Island focused on training and distribution activities until it was officially closed in 1997. In 2011, the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a redevelopment project for a new sustainable city of 19,000 residents, which critics and commentators see as an example of twenty-first century, “ecotopian” urbanism.

Underlying Treasure Island’s historical narrative, our research found that since its conception, the island has remained a contested site with federal and local agencies vying for its control. These agencies have recurrently shaped the physical character of the island (what we call urban reinventions) through ambitious projects like the airport, world’s fair, military base and now, eco-city. But despite these important historical lessons, which are crucial in understanding how cities and communities conceive projects, the material risks—earthquakes, toxic soil and rising seas—surrounding its latest grand vision are rather pressing.

Treasure Island was built on the shoals of the natural Yerba Buena Island from dredged bay mud filled into a trough enclosed by a sea wall made of large boulders. The shoals, which function as bedrock into which tall buildings must pierce their foundations, are deeper away from the island. Although most buildings in the proposed plan are clustered where the shoals are shallower, there is considerable infrastructure on parts of the island that geotechnical reports (produced in the first reuse plan of 1996) indicate to be unstable. Given the island’s proximity to some of the Bay Area’s largest earthquake faults, a significant tremor can cause the landfill to function like jelly.

Toxic soil remains a major concern on Treasure Island. The US Navy established a Damage Control School in 1947 during its tenure on the island to train naval personnel in decontamination procedures in the event of an atomic, chemical or biological attack. For training purposes they built a mock training ship—the USS Pandemonium—from scrap metal, which was periodically contaminated with cesium-137 and a diluted solution of radioactive bromine-82. In 1971, they dragged this mock ship from the northwest to the southeast of the island further spreading radioactive substances across the island. According to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency charged with monitoring toxic cleanup at Treasure Island, the island’s soils contain a long list of toxic chemical substances harmful to humans including plutonium and radium. Furthermore, the current Historical Radiological Assessment report that the Navy must produce to guide management and remediation of toxic soils states that the island’s soils simply cannot return to their pre-military state.

Almost twenty years after the redevelopment process for the island was initiated, we have greater awareness about climate change, global warming, and one of its major effects—sea level rise. Maps produced by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the San Francisco Public Press show Treasure Island and the edges of San Francisco Bay under threat from rising seas and storm surges. There are plans to raise the entire island and build a higher, stronger seawall to protect against this danger. Still there is little evidence—especially considering the example of Miami Beach, which is constantly inundated despite its massive seawalls and giant pumps—that such measures will actually succeed.

The Bay Area indeed needs more housing, which Treasure Island’s development could well deliver. There are also many good ideas such as manmade wetlands, urban agriculture and energy efficient buildings, in the redevelopment plans. But they well may be great ideas in the wrong place. Why jeopardize billions of dollars in development and risk the lives of almost twenty thousand residents on an unstable, contaminated, low-lying island site?

Looking back to the very construction of Treasure Island and its recurrent urban reinventions, I am reminded of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s prescient observation that “it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.” It is in moments of vulnerability that governments, cities, and communities take on ambitious and, often, risky projects. In recognizing this risk, it still may not be too late to rethink the viability of development on Treasure Island.