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About Us

Shaping San Francisco, enjoying its 25th year in 2023, is a participatory community history project documenting and archiving overlooked stories and memories of San Francisco. We do this in a variety of ways. We have a vast digital archive at where we invite everyone to contribute to our shared history. We held Public Talks regularly at 518 Valencia; during the pandemic we came up with our new preferred activity: the Urban Forum: Walk 'n' Talk, where we explore little visited hilltops, neighborhoods, stairways, and more all over the city. We co-host history programming with other organizations around the Bay Area. We conduct walking and bicycle history tours at least a half dozen times each season, and have two seasons of Talks and Tours each year. And we often partner with local university classes, helping students to produce new historical research that we incorporate into our online archive.

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 (published by City Lights Books) offering grassroots perspectives on social movements, significant events, and decisions that have led us to the San Francisco that we see and experience today. Our most recent book, Hidden San Francisco, was published by Pluto Press in February 2020. We also gather oral histories from ordinary San Franciscans whose memories help us understand the complex fabric of life at various times in history. 

For us, 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.  Our online archive,, uses a wiki-based platform, and is 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.

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, housing, food, water, 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 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 2,100 pages, and 10,000 historical photos—and continually growing— is a product of hundreds of contributors, and well over 25,000 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 1994, 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 current version using MediaWiki debuted in 2009.

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. In 2006 Shaping San Francisco began a free Public Discussion Series held on Wednesday nights at CounterPULSE from September to May.  City Lights Foundation partially underwrites the series.  In 2007 our Bicycle History Tours, led by Chris Carlsson since 1995, began to be offered a half dozen 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. (We won it again in 2014.) 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)

Contact us at

We don't have regular open hours these days, but appointments are easy to arrange.

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.

Donate via Flipcause.



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!