David Thomson

The stretch of water known as San Francisco Bay was transformed in the 1930s. No one intended this, but the bay, famous for rapid shifts in weather, light and mood, became a kind of stage set for a drama that might have been entitled ‘What makes the US run?’ In November 1936, the Bay Bridge opened, linking San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley, with Yerba Buena Island as a stepping-stone. Then, in April 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge appeared, connecting the northwest tip of San Francisco (Fort Point) to Marin County and the north. The Golden Gate – painted a kind of brick-red, running north-south, and serving as the transom to the Pacific – is shorter, but it is better looking and better known. One of the most striking views of the Golden Gate can be had from a small rocky island due east. But if you wanted to see it from there you had to be a prisoner or a guard on Alcatraz, an island named by the Spanish explorers for the pelicans that once flew there. Well, the pelicans got away.

From where I live in San Francisco, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the ridge that looks onto the bay. It’s a glorious sight, but there’s also something disturbing about it. We don’t expect to see prisons. Like torture or capital punishment, they depend on being kept out of view. If the public really had to witness them, surely they’d cease to exist. So sometimes I ask people who’ve been here far longer than I have: how did people look at the prison without feeling dismay?

David Ward and Gene Kassebaum have compiled an immense study of the prison in what they call the gangster years, from its foundation in 1933 to 1948.[*] Drawing on interviews with inmates and guards that the government gathered decades ago, they have reconstructed the history of the prison in its first years and chronicled the lives of its ‘celebrity prisoners’. Ward and Kassebaum are both veterans of penal studies, properly fascinated with Alcatraz as a test case in the debate about incarceration and whether it should be a punishment and a deterrent, or a way of turning convicts into good (or passable) citizens. Alcatraz: The Gangster Years is crammed with useful facts and stories, but it lacks a little in the way of imagination. It doesn’t grasp, for example, the dotty contrast between the positive attitudes embodied in those two bridges and the clenched fist of the prison. Nor does it see how the landscape of the bay by 1940, say, asked the question whether the US was going to go the way of freedom or restraint.

Both bridges were begun in 1933, part of a Rooseveltian urge to make the Bay Area one country, available for goods, tourism and military expeditions. San Francisco treasures its history. Reunions for survivors of the 1906 earthquake have finally stopped (there is no one left alive who was there), but a lot of people recall the 1930s and the change that came. Until those bridges and the construction of the highway system, the greater Bay Area had relied on ferries for trade and traffic. (The Golden Gate Bridge is still a bit of a fraud: Marin, Sonoma and Napa are part of the Bay Area now, but if you go much further north – and it’s 250 miles before you hit Oregon – people hardly know the place names. Humboldt County is a retreat and a recess, a place where marijuana farming is pursued seriously.) The Bay Bridge worked so well from the start that Gertrude Stein could no longer get away with saying that in Oakland there is no there there.

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[*] Alcatraz: The Gangster Years (California, 616 pp., £19.95, March, 978 0 520 25607 1).