I first encountered Gary Kamiya’s work in his excellent weekly column in The San Francisco Chronicle–Portals of the Past–in which he recounts episodes from the city’s history. As the author of three historical novels set in and around San Francisco (two of them published–The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta) San Francisco history, of course, interests me intensely. The column’s intro mentioned his book The Cool Gray City of Love, and I meant to get it but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I was waiting for it to come to me through a surprise connection with his mother, whom I didn’t even know I knew. I felt foolishly smug about my SF history knowledge. It turns out I knew nothing at all.
Kamiya’s “49 views” are not only historical, and meticulously researched, but personal and poetic as well. He takes us back, back, back to eras (there were several) when the bay was a valley without water, when mammoths and giant bears prowled the territory from Telegraph hill to the Farallones. He walks us through streets and fields we never knew existed and helps us understand them historically, geologically, emotionally. His literary and scientific erudition is enormous. The emotional/artistic aspect of the work announces itself in the title–a line from a poem by a forgotten San Francisco poet named Sterling. Fittingly, a poem engraved on a plaque in a small, unheralded park where the author played tennis. And Kamiya adds plenty of his own poetry as well:
. . . [A]s I walk through San Francisco, as I have done for most of my life and will do until I die, I walk in the company of friendly ghosts. They [the now-extinct, Yelamu, San Francisco’s earliest inhabitants] and their world are gone now, their campsites and villages buried beneath skyscrapers, their trees cut down, their streams covered by concrete. But they look through my eyes. We walk together through this ordinary place in the sanctified world, this 46-square-mile piece of eternity.
Even if you don’t know and love the city as I do (and, did I mention I know nothing of the city compared to Kamiya?), its fine prose and affection of place are reasons enough to open and devour The Cool Gray City of Love. Everyone who has ever loved a city–even if that city is not San Francisco–will find communion with this wonderful book. Grab it.