Big golden-hearted city

A traveler's guide to the history and traditions of San Francisco


Burt Wolf
March 24, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The frontier cities of the United States were originally settled by small groups of people who shared the same values, the same religion and the same hope for a new life in the New World. They wanted to build communities based on agriculture, craft work and trading -- Puritans in Boston, Mormons in Salt Lake City, Catholics in New Orleans. There is, however, one extraordinary exception -- San Francisco.

There's gold in them thar hills

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San Francisco was settled by 25,000 guys who showed up one afternoon to find gold. They came from all over the world -- Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. They were Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Buddhist and Jewish. They came from just about every ethnic or religious group you can think of, and as they mixed together they established the traditions that make San Francisco what it is today.

Native tribes had been living in the neighborhood for thousands of years when the Spanish wandered in during the 1700s and began building missions along the California coast. But nothing much happened until 1848, when gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Word of the find spread throughout the world and each day hundreds of people arrived hoping to find their fortune in the gold fields. And each day the fields yielded over $50,000 worth of gold. Within three years of the original discovery, the area's population had gone from 850 people to over 50,000. They worked in the fields or in the support structure that was set up in San Francisco. The cultural diversity was amazing -- and almost everyone was a newcomer and a risk-taker.

And right there, in the gold rush, is where you find the cultural traditions that make San Francisco what it is today. During the rush newcomers from all over the world were welcomed to San Francisco -- and they still are. You never knew where your neighbor was going to come from, so you learned to be open and accepting of other cultures and religions -- and San Franciscans still are. And you never knew who was going to strike it rich and start leading a life of affluence beyond your wildest dreams -- and maybe share it with you. Today San Francisco may be the most tolerant city in the world; at the same time, it is seriously devoted to the pleasures of life, two traditions that make it a great city for tourists.

What's shakin'

The second most significant event in the history of San Francisco was the great earthquake. On April 18, 1906, at 5:16 a.m., every church bell in San Francisco suddenly began ringing. There was a deep rumbling sound throughout the city. The pavements twisted. Electric wires split apart and fell to the ground. Within 48 seconds, more than 5,000 buildings had collapsed. In less than a minute, the great San Francisco earthquake was over, but the real damage was caused by the fires that lasted for five days after the quake. In 1906 the buildings and streets were filled with gas lines and gas lamps and when they ruptured the city went up in flames. As soon as the fires were out, reconstruction began. Cooperation between all groups became essential for survival and the rebuilding of the city once again reflected the diversity of the community, its tolerance for new ideas, its love of opulence and its appreciation of risk-takers.

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Extraordinary ethnic diversity

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods that overlap. It's not always easy to mark the spot where one ends and another begins, but once you've arrived, it's easy to see that each neighborhood has its own distinct ethnic history, religion, culture and food.

North Beach is the ancestral home of the Italian community. During the 1830s it was a cattle ranch that supplied fresh meat to trading ships that sailed into San Francisco for provisions. Many of those ships were from the Italian city of Genoa. When gold was discovered, hundreds of Italian sailors decided to shift from rigging to digging and sent word about the gold back to their relatives in northern Italy. Hundreds more made the exhausting five-month trip, only to discover that the good stuff was already gone. Yet life in San Francisco was better than what it was in the old country. The land was good for farming, the waters were filled with fish and it was easy to start a new life. They stayed and sent home for their relatives.

During the 1880s there was a second wave of Italian settlers. This time they came from southern Italy and Sicily. They joined with the original Italian immigrants and turned North Beach into a classic Italian-American community. In its churches, shops, coffeehouses, bakeries and restaurants, the neighborhood still honors its Italian heritage.

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North Beach is also the home of City Lights Bookstore. It was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and was the first bookstore in the country to be devoted entirely to paperbacks. It also became the epicenter for the beatnik literature of the '50s and '60s. Dozens of internationally renowned writers have worked in San Francisco, including Jack London and Mark Twain, Ken Kesey, who wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and Dashiell Hammett, who set "The Maltese Falcon" in San Francisco.

After North Beach was destroyed in the fire that followed the earthquake, the residents lived in Washington Square while they rebuilt their homes. This was one of the first communities to recover -- within 10 months North Beach was up and running. One of the men responsible for the rapid recovery of the city was A.P. Giannini, owner of the tiny North Beach Bank of Italy. Within hours after the quake ended, he dug through the rubble to find the bank's safe, took out the cash and set up a table in the street to make loans to people who were trying to rebuild. As the bank grew it changed its name to the Bank of America.

Life at the top

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At the same time that the Italian community was putting together North Beach, some of the men who had made their fortunes during the gold rush were building their great mansions, and the greatest of them were built on Nob Hill. The word "nob" is a contraction of nabob, an Indian word that means prince and that's who moved up here -- the princes of industry.

Nob Hill is the highest of San Francisco's hills, but it was so difficult to get up that no one wanted to live there -- until 1873 when the cable car was invented and the California railroad barons agreed to build their homes on the hill and their own cable car line down California Street to their offices on Market Street.

The real fortunes were not made by the gold miners but by the people who lent them money or sold them goods. These people, like Leland Stanford, a grocer, and Charles Crocker, a dry goods salesman, also built their mansions on Nob Hill.

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One exception among this group was Bonanza Jim Fair, who made his fortune with the world's largest silver strike. Bonanza Jim planned to join his fellow millionaires on Nob Hill, but died before his dream house could be built. His daughters inherited the property and began construction of a hotel. But just before it was scheduled to open, it was gutted by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. Reconstruction on the hotel began as soon as the fires were out and it opened with a fantastic party just one year to the day after the quake. The Fairmont Hotel quickly became the social center for San Francisco's high society.

The Mexicans and the murals

The first Europeans to build anything in San Francisco were the Spanish. Starting in 1769, they began building a chain of missions between San Diego and San Francisco. The Mission Dolores was built in 1776 and is still standing; it's San Francisco's oldest building. The ceilings are covered with ancient Native American designs that were painted on with vegetable dyes. The decorative altar came up from Mexico in 1796. The original bells were cast in the 1790s and hang above the entrance area.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the area of California that stretched from San Francisco to San Diego became part of Mexico. It was taken over by the United States in 1849. During the early years of the 20th century, almost 10 percent of the population of Mexico migrated to the United States, with hundreds of thousands of those immigrants settling in California. One result is a distinct Hispanic influence throughout San Francisco.

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The most dramatic visual manifestations of the Mexican community are the street murals. There are more than 100 of them in the Mission District alone. Many are the work of the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, which was set up by Susan Cervantes in 1977 to encourage, train and support artists who wanted to paint murals. You can stop into the center and pick up a map that will guide you to the murals or you can sign up for a walking tour. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts Visitors Center is at 2981 24th St., San Francisco, CA 94110; the telephone number is (415) 285-2287.

The Chinese community

The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle in the area and the Chinese were the first Asians. At the time of the gold rush in 1848, China was in total chaos. The Manchu dynasty was falling apart. There was widespread starvation and the peasants were in rebellion. Thousands of Chinese went in search of their golden opportunity, which they believed was in the hills surrounding San Francisco.

The earliest Chinese workers to arrive in the mines were known as "coolies," a word that comes from the Chinese "ku li," meaning "bitter strength." They did the toughest jobs for the least money and set up their own community in San Francisco. When the gold rush came to an end, the silver rush started and they were back in the mines again. And when the silver petered out, they went to work building the railroads, always at half the pay of whites. At one point nine of 10 workers on the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. Many Chinese also worked in the vineyards and made an outstanding contribution to Northern California's winemaking.

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Today San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia. The population is estimated at about 100,000 and the community represents a powerful political and economic force in the city.

Chinatown is a fascinating place to visit. The main shopping street for both residents and tourists is Grant Avenue. It was named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, who wasn't much of a shopper, but was a devoted tourist. Before he became president, he spent many years touring the southeastern part of the United States.

If you come during the morning, visit Mary's Square, where you can watch people practicing tai chi, an ancient form of Chinese exercise. Hundreds of years ago Buddhist monks noticed that cranes and turtles lived longer than most other animals and decided that part of the reason for their longevity was to be found in the way they moved. Accordingly, tai chi motions are based on the movements of cranes and turtles.

You might also like to take a walk through Waverly Street, known as the Street of Painted Balconies. It feels much like the traditional streets of China, and if your stash of powdered antler horn is running low, you'll love this block.

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The gay community

The same need to accept the beliefs and lifestyles of other people that was part of the gold rush period has helped make San Francisco a center for the world's gay community. During World War II the U.S. military decided to muster out all homosexuals. Their primary objective was to prevent any gay troops from being shipped to the Pacific. The town they chose for this mission was San Francisco.

The discharge papers issued to gays marked them as homosexual and made it almost impossible for them to re-enter their hometowns across America. Many of them thus stayed in San Francisco and created their own neighborhood. Today about 120,000 of the city's 750,000 residents are gay.

Trevor Hailey was a military nurse who became an important member of the gay community. And as part of her desire to create a better understanding of her society, she runs a historical tour of the Castro District. To arrange for a tour, call Trevor at (415) 550-8110.

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The African-American community

World War II was also the catalyst that brought many African-Americans to San Francisco. Word had spread throughout the southeast that there were good jobs in war-related industries around town and thousands of African-Americans resettled here. An amazing example of the appreciation of ethnic diversity and understanding that is part of San Francisco's tradition and the African-American community is the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. This has been called a model religious institution that can help save America from the social stresses of our time, a church for the 21st century. Attending the Sunday morning services (held at 9 and 11) is an event I will always remember. For more information about Glide Memorial Church, call (415) 771-6300.

Golden Gate Bridge

San Franciscans build bridges that surmount the barriers between ethnic and religious communities, but they also build bridges that surmount the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge has become the best-known visual symbol of the city. Many engineers felt that the bridge could not be built in water that was over 300 feet deep and continually subject to strong currents. In 1918 a study was authorized, but construction did not begin until 1933. The bridge finally opened in 1937. It is 1.7 miles long, and each year more than 40 million cars drive across it going south. No one knows how many cars drive across going north because tolls are only paid when heading into the city. There's no charge for walkers and both locals and tourists can enjoy a brisk walk along the span. The views are spectacular.

Tolerance and a love of opulence are the legacy of the San Francisco gold rush, and a great gift to the traveler.


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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