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Revisiting Herb Caen, San Francisco’s Chronicler

Randy Shawbyline‚ Jan. 10‚ 2013

If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1936-1996, you almost certainly read San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. For many, Caen was the chief reason they picked up the paper. For decades he was both the chief source of “inside” scoops about the city’s movers and shakers, and the leading daily chronicler of the city’s downtrodden and working class. Over the recent holidays I read three of Caen’s books and one written about him, and have now read all of his works. They are remarkable. They are worth reading not simply for their depiction of the city’s largely forgotten past, but rather for the insights he provides about San Francisco in 2013. Reading Caen reminds us that our rental housing crisis is nothing new, that Market Street has long been a traffic planner’s nightmare, that racism exists just below the surface of our “we all get along” city, and that people have felt that San Francisco is changing for the worse since at least the 1930’s. Caen’s books preserve the insights of his daily columns, and could not be timelier today.