NEAL CONAN, host:
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: Early this morning, San Franciscans began commemorating the Great Earthquake of 1906. More than a quarter million people were left homeless by that disaster. Thousands ended up at the Presidio, not far from where we're broadcasting today. This became home. To mark the 100th anniversary of the earthquake, the National Park Service recreated some of the tents and cottages that housed the refugees. This Saturday re-enactors will illustrate daily life in the refugee camps. Joining us now is Howard Levitt. He works with the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Very good of you to join us today.
Mr. HOWARD LEVITT (chief of interpretation and education with the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area): Thank you very much.
CONAN: Describe what the Presidio was like 100 years ago today.
Mr. LEVITT: Well, the Presidio's been an active military post for 200, over 200 years. First with the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and then the Americans took over, of course, in the mid-century. So, it was a very active military post. The Army referred to it, even as early as the turn of the century, as the most beautiful military post in America. It had a very large contingent of soldiers, and that proved to be very, very fortunate for the city at the time of the quake.
CONAN: Mm hmm. There was also a fair amount of equipment standing by. That also turned out to be pretty handy.
Mr. LEVITT: Very much so. There were warehouses filled with clothing, with blankets, tents, food, all of which were very, very important in the early days, weeks, and months of the recovery from the earthquake.
CONAN: Mm hmm. Now, you mentioned tents, but I was reading in somebody's book, I forget whose, but in one book they talked about the construction of cottages and barracks, I guess, that went up first. And indeed, this happened, started so quickly, that people were pulling lumber out of lumberyards from one end while the other end was burning.
Mr. LEVITT: That's exactly right. The city's recovery began almost immediately after the quake, and yes, construction of the earthquake cottages actually came later. For the first couple of months, people were housed in tents, in formal camps. And there were 21 formal refugee camps around the city. Later, they were formalized into the earthquake cottages you refer to, and as a matter of fact, at the Presidio, right next to where we're broadcasting today, there are two earthquake cottages. There are several others around the city, probably 19 left from the thousands that were built at the time.
CONAN: Mm hmm. Now there were a lot of, you go back and read some of the materials that people in the months after the earthquake, and some of these people lived in these places for years, as it turned out, but that health was improved and that people were getting along pretty well. Is that mythology? Is that sort of romanticism? Things were going along fine?
Mr. LEVITT: Well, I think it is romanticism in a certain sense, because when you had 60 percent of the city made homeless immediately in the aftermath of the quake, it would be hard to say that their conditions had improved. However, the camps were orderly, the formal camps, and there were many informal camps that were not very orderly. And so, the circumstances for some people probably wasn't too bad, but the disruption, I think the factor of disruption is something that really can't be overestimated.
CONAN: One of the things that historians these days go back and reexamine a lot of issues of race and class, which also were not all that prominent in coverage 100 years ago. How did those manifest themselves at the camp at the Presidio?
Mr. LEVITT: Well, at the Presidio, it's interesting, as well as other camps around the city; there were segregation orders in effect, mostly unspoken, mostly keeping with the custom of the day. For example, the Chinese, who suffered deeply in Chinatown, which was very severely hit by both the initial shock and the fire later, the Chinese were moved to various camps around the city, including the Presidio, and sent really to sort of the far edge of the Presidio. In a policy that we would look at now and say was quite racially motivated.
CONAN: In hopes that they would go away somehow, or be invisible?
Mr. LEVITT: There were interests in the city who were hoping the Chinese would go away, that the valuable property in Chinatown could be taken over by others, other than the Chinese. But I think it really probably reflected the ethos of the day. There were exclusion laws in place. I think it's safe to say that racism did prevail at that time. On the other hand, people were improvising. They were trying to recover as they went. And so decisions were made that we can look back on and say were, perhaps, not the right ones.
CONAN: Toward the end of the experience, I know that there was concern, especially as the exposition was coming up a few years later, that people wouldn't leave the camps. That in fact this had become a way of life.
Mr. LEVITT: Well, there was that concern. Initially, when people were housed in tents, the tents were provided at no cost. Later, when formal earthquake cottages were built, the various recovery committees set in motion a system whereby the residents would pay a rent, about $2.00 a month. And eventually, over a two-year period, they would have paid a total of around $50.00. At that point, they would own the cottage, and move them to a property off of the, outside the boundaries of one of the camps.
CONAN: Some of them maybe hidden inside the architecture of the city to this day. Howard Levitt, thanks very much. Good luck.
Mr. LEVITT: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Howard Levitt is chief of interpretation and education with the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. We want to thank our hosts here in the Exploratorium and the folks at member station KQED, in San Francisco.
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