April 18th is always a special day in San Francisco. It’s the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fires that in many ways mark the beginning of modern San Francisco. Our tradition has been to gather each year at Lotta’s Fountain at 5:12 AM, the time of the earthquake. Lotta’s Fountain, a gift from the singer Lotta Crabtree, was one of the sites where survivors would leave messages for each other trying to reunite with loved ones and hence a place of special significance.
The highlight of the brief ceremony was the chance to hear from survivors of the disaster. As the years went on, though, their numbers dwindled and the definition of “survivor” was stretched to include people who were still in their mothers’ wombs at the time of the earthquake. The last survivor died in January 2016 and there was concern that the ceremony might have died with him.
That, fortunately, was not the case. If anything, the celebration is morphing into something new. A crowd of some 300 or so were in attendance, many of them in costume and the atmosphere was ebullient. There was some suggestion that the event might be turning into minor street fair.
What is it about our fascination with past disasters? What are we commemorating? There’s no easy answer to these questions because events like these operate on so many levels. In our case, we remember the 3,000 dead in the disaster who for many years were denied recognition for economic reasons. We remind ourselves of how easy it is to destroy a city if we ignore obvious warnings and do not prepare. We acknowledge how far we have come in preparedness since 1906. Truth be told, many of us are just there for the fun – to drink bloody Mary’s and to mingle with people of similar interests. And, of course, to sing that great old song, "San Francisco"
I think that the 1906 commemoration, and events like it in other major cities, is not really about the disaster. I think it’s more a celebration of what came after. In each case, the cities that rose from the ashes were better and stronger. In his book, The Culture of Calamity, Kevin Rozario argues that catastrophic events have been instrumental in shaping the American commitment to progress and have frequently lead to positive change. There's a reason our city's seal bears a phoenix rising from flames. While these commemorations may seem to look to the past, they are really a celebration of the human spirit and our drive to rebuild and renew in the face of overwhelming calamity.