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About Us

Shaping San Francisco is a participatory community history project documenting and archiving overlooked stories and memories of San Francisco. We are committed to defining a new kind of public space, specifically around a shared interest in our interrelated social histories.

We mean “community” in a few different ways, and these definitions help shape our approach to promoting the everyday study of history. 

First of all, we document and archive the stories and memories of the community.  This is not how history is usually taught, and we reject the notion that there is just one way to see the events that have defined our lives. We don't accept that someone else gets to decide what those events are/were, usually favoring those who hold money and power as the agents of history.  Our roots lie in the "new social history" which emerged in the Annales School in the 1930s and was further developed in the 1960s as a way to go beyond the traditional history of "great men" which many of us were spoon-fed in public school.  We have produced three anthologies offering grassroots perspectives on social movements, significant events, and decisions that have led us to the San Francisco that we see and experience today. We also gather oral histories from ordinary San Franciscans whose remembrances help us understand the complex fabric of life at various times in history.  Some of them have dramatically affected the course of history, others have been altered by the changes happening around them, and yet others have been empowered and politicized by history as it unfolds.

This brings us to our second definition of community: that history is a participatory, creative act, a shared project of shaping our sense of life. Shaping San Francisco seeks to bring out the historian in everyone.  Naturally, each individual will have an unique take on and different experience of events of which they are a part.  Thus we welcome diverse contributions from the public, with their multiple perspectives, to the canon of history.  We administer an online archive,, which is on a wiki-based platform, and open to additions, enhancements, corrections, and edits.  Collectively we are smarter than we are acting as individuals, and we hope that any gaps, omissions, and errors will be pointed out and changed by the community. 

Finally, we also believe in the creation of community through a shared interest in our common history.  We think community arises in the effort to create a better future from the work we are doing in the present. We are committed to defining a new kind of public space, specifically around shared and interrelated social histories. Through a free Wednesday night Public Talk Series, Bicycle History Tours, and occasional Walking Tours, we offer opportunities for the public to come together and share ideas, inspiration, struggles, resources, and conversation.

Our online archive, is a place to discover and shape San Francisco history. We focus on the history of the labor movement, the relationship between urban development and the natural environment, racial politics in San Francisco, land use, the history of women and feminism, immigration from many parts of the world, the emergence of gay San Francisco, the artistic life of the City, and of course, the specific history of each neighborhood. We believe that history can be a process that grows naturally from our desire to understand the world, and that history can be de-professionalized, made into a popular, participatory process.

We also explore the ways San Francisco's urban development has always depended on the transformation of the land and the Bay-Delta ecosystem. Comprised of over 1,400 pages, and 2,500 historical photos — and continually growing — is a product of hundreds of contributors, and well over 15,000 volunteer hours from writers, researchers, photographers, artists, computer programmers, community organizers, and, most importantly, regular people who were compelled by the chance to investigate some piece of this City's past. 

We offer a wide range of histories in, some excerpted from professional histories, and many others taken from amateur sources. We have many examples of a traditional historical essay, fully footnoted, relying heavily on pre-existing documentation to establish the truth of its point of view. And we have writings that are based on journalistic sources, anecdotes, and oral histories. Many new historians of the past few decades have sought to legitimize other sources and other voices as plausible evidence for understanding the past. Racial minorities, workers, the impoverished underclass, women, all have been overlooked in traditional histories, largely because the rules of history required that there be documentation as proof. But that is a highly class-biased and self-selective system of rules of evidence, which automatically excludes that large majority of the world's population who didn't--or weren't able--to record their histories in the past. We believe that history can be a process that grows naturally from our desire to understand the world, and that history can be de-professionalized, made into a popular, participatory process.

Where We Started, Where We've Been

The idea for a multimedia archive emerged in late 1993, the first computer iteration of – then also known by the name Shaping San Francisco - was demonstrated in 1995, and the first official version was released as a CD-ROM alongside the publication of Reclaiming San Francisco, in 1998.  The archive of San Francisco history went online in 2004, and the current version using MediaWiki debuted in 2009.   A free iPhone app was released in June 2011.

Back in 1993 some of the creators of Processed World magazine, Chris Carlsson, Jim Swanson, and Greg Williamson, imagined a digital lost history project. The life of Processed World was coming to an end, having been produced by collective refusing to rush toward business/yuppie professionalism, and who were steeped in the culture of dissent that stemmed from anti-nuclear, anti-war movements from Vietnam to Central America, punk/new wave, a new ecological sensibility around water, energy, and food, and challenging the prevailing ideology of the 1980s.  The history project was imagined as a sort of game built on a concept of a bike messenger who got lost in time after a big earthquake.  After beginning in 1994 with countless trial paper versions and development of content in the form of articles and animations, the first computer iteration was demonstrated in 1995.  Other contributors started adding new material, and a grant from the California Council for the Humanities solidified the effort.  We produced a book alongside the official launch of the archive in CD-ROM edition in 1998, called Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, a City Lights Anthology. Installations of public kiosks were to be found in two dozen temporary and three permanent locations around the City until 2009. 

Over the years, as software trends changed, so did the project's platforms.  A second edition CD-ROM was released in 2000, and in 2004 Shaping San Francisco was finally online using an archival open-source platform. In January 2009, thanks to many volunteer hours, we launched the latest incarnation online, using MediaWiki software. Users can easily add content or edit existing Unfinished Histories as well as take one of several tours through the material. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society underwrote the administration and expansion of from March 2009 - December 2011.  A free iPhone app was released in June 2011 that enables lovers of historic photos and SF history to identify where photos in our collection are located, by geotagging them.

Several articles accompanied the release of Shaping San Francisco in 1998, with in-depth articles in the San Francisco Chronicle (which was picked up by the Associated Press and reprinted in many papers around the country) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Our media coverage after the first rollout in January 1998 included Wired, Microtimes, New Media, Film and Tape World and more. We gave radio interviews on several local stations, and Reclaiming San Francisco rapidly advanced to a 2nd printing. Shaping San Francisco was a featured title at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 1998.  The San Francisco Historical Society bestowed an Award of Merit on director Chris Carlsson in May 1998, and in the summer of 1999 the San Francisco Bay Guardian named Chris a “local hero” for his efforts on Shaping San Francisco.  In 1999 Chris Carlsson was flown to Liverpool by the Initiative Factory to provide software design and information architecture consulting and technical support to their efforts to produce “Liverpool 2007: A Digital History of Liverpool’s 800th Birthday.” 

In 2003 the Bay Area Center for Art and Technology, of which Shaping San Francisco was a project, merged with 848 Community Space to form CounterPULSE. CounterPULSE opened its doors as a theater at Mission and 9th Streets, operating as a catalyst for art and politics in 2005. Political Edge...2004... In 2006 Shaping San Francisco began a free Public Discussion Series held on Wednesday nights at CounterPULSE from September to May.  Co-presenters have been Independent Arts & Media, Nature in the City, PM Press, and the Global Commons Foundation.  City Lights Foundation partially underwrites the series.  In 2007 our Bicycle History Tours, led by Chris Carlsson since 1995, began to be offered eight times a year.  Also in 2007 the Bicycle History Tours were awarded “Best Cruise Through the Past” as part of the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Best of the Bay.  With funding from the California Story Fund of the California Council for the Humanities, we showcased discussions and reflections on the history of Bay Area ecological activism in 2010 as Ecology Emerges.  Four public programs were based on 26 oral histories.  A grant from The Seed Fund allowed us to expand Ecology Emerges in 2011.  Building on a San Francisco Arts Commission Cultural Equity Grant Chris Carlsson received in 2010, we published Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, a collection of first-person and historical essays with City Lights Foundation in 2011. Ten Years was awarded a California Book Award Gold Medal for Contribution to Publishing and is currently in its second printing.

In July 2012 Shaping San Francisco moved its operations to the Eric Quezada Center for Culture & Politics, and became a fiscally-sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media


Contact info

Shaping San Francisco
518 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415-608-9035 (for info on bicycle history tours)

Drop by our office open hours every Monday afternoon from 2 PM-5 PM (ring our doorbell or call from outside and we'll come and let you in)

Shaping San Francisco is an affiliate project of Independent Arts & Media


Help sustain our efforts to make San Francisco’s history a shared resource.
By making a donation, you'll be supporting the online and public projects that Shaping San Francisco offers.  This includes our Public Talks Series and Bicycle History Tours, as well as maintenance, continued development, and expansion of—a San Francisco history website, and special projects like our recent book and oral history gathering. If making an online donation, please indicate Shaping San Francisco in the designation field. You can also send a check to us!  Please make payable to Independent Arts & Media, with "Shaping San Francisco" in the Memo line. Please send to us at our address above.

Thank you for your support of our ongoing work in documenting the City's collective history.

Shaping San Francisco Donations



Shaping San Francisco exists because of thousands of hours of volunteer dedication.  We always have projects in need of help, and with our informal approach, it's easy to find a way to plug in!  Shaping San Francisco also offers a lot of independence for college students studying history, social movements, American Studies, and more who want an internship.
Areas we regularly need extra hands/brains/eyes/bodies in:

  • Mapping (pdf)
  • Videography
  • Programming
  • Editing and enhancing our online wiki-based archive
  • SF urban photography
  • Geotagging our photo archive
  • Adding new content to our online archive
  • Event set up and transport of equipment
  • Assisting with oral history gathering
  • Curating content on our online archive
  • Sourcing and footnoting

Contact us at to inquire!

Public Presentations

Chris Carlsson and Shaping San Francisco have been invited to present, Ten Years That Shook the City readings, and conduct custom walking and bicycle tours for:

  • the California Nurses Association,
  • Various local universities including University of San Francisco, the San Francisco Art Institute, California Institute for Integral Studies, San Francisco State University, University of California at Berkeley, City College, California College of the Arts, New College
  • the Studio for Urban Projects in conjunction with SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association) for Reclaiming Market Street!
  • SPUR: Archiving San Francisco
  • Local high schools: Mission High School, University High School,
  • San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch, and several neighborhood branches
  • San Francisco History Expo 2011
  • History organizations: the Labor Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration, San Francisco History Association, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, Potrero Hill Archives,
  • US Workers Coop Convention
  • the US Social Forum in Detroit 2010
  • SF Community Land Trust
  • Alexander Berkman Social Club
  • American Educational Research Association
  • Community College Humanities Association
  • Autonomous Media Conference

Press releases

In the News