Catastrophic events leave their mark on a city for generations. I'm not talking about physical damage, although that may be part of it, but rather the memories ingrained on the psyche of the citizens. For us in San Francisco, THE disaster is the 1906 earthquake and fires that destroyed most of the city. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 is remembered and is enshrined in the State's earthquake month in October but it pales in comparison with the feelings and emotional connection generated by it's predecessor.
Just how deep this emotional connection runs was demonstrated last week when my former boss and past Mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, suggested renaming Lotta's Fountain in honor of Mayor Ed Lee, who died in office last year. Mayor Lee was well liked and respected and prior to his election had been instrumental in restoring the fountain. The response to Brown's suggestion was a public uproar, the like of which has not been seen for a while here.
To understand the reason behind this vehement response, you need to know a bit of San Francisco history. Charlotte Crabtree, fondly known as "Lotta", was a singer and entertainer who got her start in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era as a neighbor of the famous dancer and actress, Lola Montez. She went on to become the highest paid actress in America at the height of her fame in the 1880's. In 1875, she commissioned the fountain as a gift to the City of San Francisco. Following the 1906, earthquake, the fountain became a meeting point for survivors and, beginning in 1919, the site of an annual commemoration that continues to this day.
One would think that renaming the fountain was do big deal. The last earthquake survivors, who were actually in the womb at the time of the earthquake, died in 2015 and many newcomers to San Francisco have no idea of the significance of the fountain. But many who grew up here remember and came forward to protest the renaming. Brown very wisely back pedaled on the suggestion. It was a humbling lesson in how disasters can create emotional connections even after the passing of many years.