Urban Studies San Francisco
John Elrick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0056


San Francisco holds a special place in the pantheon of American towns and cities. Its pastel hilltops, Victorian facades, seedy alleyways, and cosmopolitan reputation have long drawn adventure seekers, speculators, migrant laborers, poets, radicals, and immigrants from around the world to the edge of the Golden Gate. “The City,” as it is sometimes referred to by Bay Area locals, is a hearth of tantalizing promise and potential peril, capital-fueled innovation and desperate poverty, and romantic hopes and broken dreams. Perhaps above all else, the City by the Bay is a city of contradictions. San Francisco is one of the richest and most vibrant cities in the United States, home to some of the most powerful information technology companies and venture capital firms in the world. Yet it is also the site of burgeoning socioeconomic inequality, precarious living conditions, and rampant homelessness. The public support for diversity, tolerance, and inclusion so often voiced by city boosters and residents is perpetually belied by ongoing processes of residential displacement and hardening patterns of racial and class stratification. The magnificence of San Francisco’s views and the splendor of its physical setting are matched only by the city’s function as a planning boardroom for the regional extraction of resources and environmental degradation across the globe. And the city’s rich cultural and political history encompasses both the formation of radical movements for racial, class, gender, and sexual liberation as well as instances of racialized colonial violence, anti-immigrant organizing, crass xenophobia, and vigilantism. Indeed, San Francisco presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of urban life in California. The bibliographic essay that follows attempts to offer an initial lens through which to explore the conundrum that is San Francisco. Cited works include historical and geographic studies, period pieces, sweeping overviews of the city and the Bay Area metropolitan region, and ethnographic manuscripts that tackle everyday individual and collective experiences in the landscape. Taking a broadly thematic approach to the literature on the city, the essay tackles key topics such as planning and urban development, politics and the economy, society and sexuality, community formation, environment and nature, architecture and design, music and cultural production, and technology and innovation. Collectively, the titles offered below provide a platform from which to dive into the study of San Francisco in all its complexity.

General Overviews and Guides

Several general surveys and field guides offer able introductions to San Francisco and its environs. Brahinsky and Tarr 2020 highlights historical and contemporary sites of popular political concern across the metropolis. While Sherwood and Powell 2008 documents labor history landmarks in the city, Wiley 2000 focuses on San Francisco’s diverse architectural heritage. Carlsson 2020 provides a compelling excavation of the social and political history of the city embedded in its very landscape. The text and collection of maps presented in Solnit 2010 likewise showcase the subjective and experiential character of life in San Francisco. A number of other texts track the growth of San Francisco and the Bay Area as a whole. Whereas Vance 1964 focuses on physical patterns of metropolitan expansion, Scott 1985 offers the first historical overview of planning and development in the San Francisco Bay Area that focuses on the establishment of regional institutions of governance. Wollenberg 1985 extends these insights by examining the social history of the Bay Area through a metropolitan lens. Nolte 2005 shifts gears to examine the evolution of culture and politics in San Francisco proper over the course of the 20th century. Finally, Issel 2001 ties these general overviews together by probing the role of ethnic and religious groups and social and political movements in the formation of public culture in the city.

  • Brahinsky, Rachel, and Alexander Tarr, eds. A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley: University of California, 2020.

    A field guide that provides brief introductions to and descriptions of various sites of public interest in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  • Carlsson, Chris. Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes, Radical Histories. London: Pluto Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvx077t5

    A thematic exploration of the histories and popular struggles embedded in the city’s landscape.

  • Issel, William. “The San Francisco Bay Area.” In The Scribner’s Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. Vol. 2. Edited by Mary K. Cayton and Peter W. Williams, 597–606. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001.

    Accounts for the development of San Francisco’s public culture by emphasizing ethnic and religious diversity, the formation of social movements, and efforts at political reform.

  • Nolte, Carl. The San Francisco Century: A City Rises from the Ruins of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

    This book examines the history, culture, and people of San Francisco over the course of the 20th century.

  • Scott, Mel. The San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520323933

    The first overview of San Francisco’s physical and administrative development that situates the city within the context of the metropolitan region.

  • Sherwood, Susan P., and Catherine Powell, eds. The San Francisco Labor Landmarks Guide Book: A Register of Sites and Walking Tours. San Francisco: Labor Archive and Research Center, San Francisco State University, 2008.

    A collection of historical landmarks and walking tours celebrating the history of organized labor in San Francisco.

  • Solnit, Rebecca. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    Artful maps that collectively evoke the experiences of San Francisco as a place and set of overlapping communities.

  • Vance, James. Geography and Urban Evolution in the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, 1964.

    A work of urban geography that illustrates the patterns of metropolitan growth in the Bay Area.

  • Wiley, Peter Booth. National Trust Guide—San Francisco: America’s Guide for Architecture and History Travelers. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

    An extensive catalogue of historical and contemporary architecture in San Francisco.

  • Wollenberg, Charles. Golden Gate Metropolis: Perspectives on Bay Area History. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, 1985.

    A survey of the social history of the San Francisco Bay Area as a metropolitan region.

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