Civilizing Swamps in San Francisco

Authors: Lindsey Dillon*, University of California - Santa Cruz
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Urban Geography, Geographic Thought
Keywords: urban greening, whiteness, settler colonialism, urban redevelopment, nature
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Washington 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper intervenes in urban greening narratives in San Francisco today by examining the “colonial lives of property” along the city’s waterfront. The ecologies and spatialities of U.S. settler colonialism in 19th century San Francisco included an extensive project of tideland reclamation, beginning with cadastral surveys and the production of water lots, which were then sold to land speculators and filled with sand, rubble, and other debris, making city streets that stretched out into the bay. Tideland reclamation not only contributed to producing grids of abstract space and private property, it was also needed to protect the white, Anglo body from threatening miasmas. At the time, tidelands were also called swamps, which were widely considered unhealthy for colonizing white bodies around the world, including California. Waterfront improvement through landfill was thus both an economic and biopolitical project, and part of the racial-spatial production of the U.S. settler state. In California, the work of swamp drainage was typically done by Irish and Chinese laborers.

Through this colonial and racial history of San Francisco’s shoreline, I rethink 21st century improvement narratives attached to waterfront greening and wetland restoration projects in the city’s industrial southeast today. Current residents in the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood draw connections between these greening projects and gentrification. Building from some of their critiques, I argue that ideas of nature work to normalize the settler state and obscure the close connection between urban greening and the production of exchange value through gentrifying displacement today.

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