Rachel Brahinsky is co-author of "A People's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area."
Rachel Brahinsky is co-author of "A People's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area."

Going ‘beneath the sidewalk’ to reveal the Bay Area’s untold history

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Bring up towns like Petaluma and Sebastopol, and many of us think of prosperous country living, wine and apples.

But that’s not the whole story.

In the 1930s, “at the height of the Great Depression, communists supported and worked to organize apple pickers in a strike against orchard owners,” writes Bay Area geography and urban studies professor Rachel Brahinsky in her debut book, “A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Many of those labor organizers were Jewish immigrants, drawn by the possibilities of farming and chicken ranching in the still undeveloped region. But their left-wing politics drew the ire of conservative local landowners and others, Brahinsky recounts.

“On the night of August 21, 1935, chicken farmer Sol Nitzberg awoke to find several hundred vigilantes surrounding his home in Petaluma, shouting ‘Lynch him, lynch him!’” Nitzberg got away with his life, but not before being beaten, tarred and feathered, and told to leave town.

“I didn’t know that story initially,” Brahinsky, professor of urban studies at the University of San Francisco, told J. She found out about that event, and countless others, over eight years of research for the book, which was released this month. It is part of “The People’s Guide” series, following similar approaches taken in regional depictions of Los Angeles, Boston and other areas.

One part of the book mentions “the pogroms of the Chinese in California,” which happened repeatedly all over the state, Brahinsky said. For her, that historical fact brought to mind the pogroms in Europe that drove so many Jews to emigrate.

“That’s one of the things we tried to do in the book … to show connections between different struggles,” she said, referencing co-author Alex Tarr. “The challenges faced by one community may not be exactly the same, but they may have a lot in common with the challenges faced by another.”

My sense of social-justice Judaism is very much a part of who I am as a scholar.

One chapter homes in on the history of the Petaluma JCC, today the home of Congregation B’nai Israel. Aside from these stories, the book doesn’t delve much into the Bay Area’s Jewish story.

“But a lot of what I understand about Judaism, personally, has a lot to do with justice,” she said. “It’s part of what makes me interested in labor struggles.”

Brahinsky was raised in Roosevelt, New Jersey, which was founded to resettle working-class (mostly Jewish) people from the overcrowded slums of New York during the 1930s. It was something of an experiment in utopian living. However, by the time her family moved there in the 1970s, “it was no longer that,” she said, although a strong sense of community remained. Her father, David, performs folk songs with the Roosevelt String Band, as do Rachel (guitar and vocals) and her brother Josh, on occasion.

“My experience of Judaism is secular, very much around music, stories and justice,” she said. “And I do feel like my sense of social-justice Judaism is very much a part of who I am as a scholar.”

Brahinsky, who developed an interest in what she variously calls cultural, human or critical geography while earning her doctorate at UC Berkeley, met with People’s Guide series editor Laura Pulido, who invited her to submit a proposal.  Brahinsky recruited Tarr, then a fellow Ph.D. student and now a geography professor at Worcester State University, to help her write a guide that would be accessible to anyone, from students to casual tourists.

It’s not your typical guide, she cautions. It won’t tell you where to eat, “but it will give you ideas about places to go, why geography matters, and why and how the Bay Area came to be,” she said.

“Fundamentally the idea is about telling stories from the ground up, showing readers and people how to read the landscape for clues into history and culture and politics — and finding the sometimes unseen or the stories behind what is visible in the landscape.”

The 288-page paperback features archival photos, maps, short essays and a list for further reading. By choice, “We didn’t go to all the known places of the Bay Area,” Brahinsky said. “We wanted to reveal unknown places and the vernacular landscape of Bay Area cities, and to show how there are fascinating stories of great struggle, hope and challenge right there on the sidewalks. What lies beneath that sidewalk is what we’re getting at.”

“A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area” by Rachel Brahinsky and Alex Tarr (288 pages, paperback, University of California Press). The authors’ virtual book talk schedule is here.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.