Baghdad by the Bay — San Francisco

The new and the old

Pre-Gold Rush

The story of SF before 1849 is linear and boring. The best natural harbor on the Pacific coast was a mere sandy cove with a population of a few thousand natives and a handful of Spanish moors trying to make sense of it.

San Francisco in March 1847 had approximately 1,000 inhabitants–Image courtesy Library, Berkeley, CA

The Gold Rush Years

Almost as soon as the USA took Alta California from Mexico, and changed this city’s name from Yerba Buena back to San Francisco, a Mormon businessman ran through its streets holding aloft a bottle full of gold dust, yelling “Gold! Gold from the American River!”

49ers arrive!

The Presidio

Presidio is one of the two original Spanish-era legacies in the city, the other being the Mission.

Palace of Fine Arts
Land's end labyrinth

The Mission

Old man in fedora — SF Mission

Robber Barons rise

Before the madness of gold discovery could recede, in 1859, vast deposits of silver-nitrate ore were discovered on the slope of barren mountains in Nevada. Over the next two decades, mines in the region produced a wealth of ~ $6 billion (in modern value), and most of that money sloshed and churned in SF.

California Street, Nob Hill
A poster showing the vice-like grip of the railroad monopoly on the west coast

The Chinese Dragon

Meanwhile, the cycle of boom and bust had started. The stock market started crashing in the 1870s and the biggest bank on the West Coast–Bank of California–folded up in 1875, evaporating a sizeable chunk of wealth from the city. Jobs vanished and public unrest grew.

The poster reads — “Why they can live on 40 cents a day… and they can’t,” i.e. white men can’t possibly compete with Chinese workers because they need to support their moral families.

Golden Gate Park

In the latter half of the 19th century, as SF contoured around its East facing bay, the citizens felt the need to grow roots in their adopted land–literally and figuratively. On the other side of the continent, New York’s Central Park had already started taking shape, and SF was not to be left wanting.

View from the top of De Young — city streets grid in the background

Ferry Building

San Francisco’s magic lies in its natural bay, for otherwise, it was a wasteland perched at the end of the world ready to tip over into the Pacific Ocean. And that Pacific is a beast–it’s green, deep, dangerous, impossible to tame, and stays the same for 5000 miles, all the way to Japan.

1906 Earthquake and Fire

The most cataclysmic event in the city’s history occurred on 18th April, early morning when a 7.9 scale earthquake flattened the city. The resulting fires raged for the next 4 days; the shouldering ambers were only extinguished by rains. Over 60% population was rendered homeless. San Francisco, which was then the largest city on the west coast, with a population of 410K, the “gateway to the Pacific”, with the busiest port, changed forever in its aftermath:

Ravages of 1906 fire — Courtesy California Views Archives

Golden Gate & Bay Bridge

Two bridges hem the city — take them away, and it reduces SF to an island, accessible mostly by water. And that is how it was until the 1930s when both the bridges were opened to the public.

WWII and the Japanese Chapter

A few thousand Japanese had trickled into SF. Since the Gold Rush era, and post 1906 fire, most of them had congregated around a neighborhood that came to be called Japantown, north of the ‘Western Addition’ today. They ran small businesses, many worked as domestic servants, and very few owned properties. And they were looked down upon by the white Americans, even more than the Chinese.

Beatniks and Hippies

It all started rather innocuously in the 1950s when a few non-conformist souls met up at North Beach, which finally gave the world a ‘Beat Generation’ (Beat stood for the downtrodden). Frankly, I could never get my mind around the idea— perhaps it conveyed a feeling of emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and suppressed sexuality, yearnings, mixed with a potpourri of Eastern religious philosophies, but without specifying what they stood for. A brooding intellectual Allen Ginsberg penned a dark poem ‘Howl’ that shook the literary circles of those times. The publisher — Lawrence Ferlinghetti of ‘City Lights Books’ was arrested and charged with obscenity. Those ideas were seen as a protest against the smug consumerism of post-war middle-class America. Slowly, the Beat movement turned into a faddish sub-culture by the 1960s, much like the woke liberals of today.

Vesuvio — the original haunt of Beats, North Beach
The Hippie era was a cultural H — bomb whose radiation spread far and wide.
Marriage solemnized at City Hall

Tech Boom & gentrification

The city continues to evolve, but not always to the liking of old inhabitants. The present-day grouse of the city is gentrification and its Manhattanisation. Over the decades, the economy of the city has shifted from manufacturing to Service, with IT and Finance leading the way. Its Financial District skyline is now studded with skyscrapers, where once the building height was restricted to 40 feet.

Anti Gentrification Street Art, Mission

PS — Sonoma and Point Reyes

To experience the land as it existed a century or two before, one just needs to drive out north for a couple of hours. Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes, or Sonoma all retain nature in its raw form, with craggy rock-strewn shores where many mariners came to grief.

Raw and pristine — Point Reyes



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Ajay Goel

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.