Baghdad by the Bay — San Francisco

Ajay Goel
25 min readNov 30, 2021

San Francisco (SF) was born with a bang in 1849 when the rest of the world tilted to deposit hordes of the poor, the swashbucklers, the swindles, the explorers, and the exploited into this 7 square miles hilly hamlet with a cove. The lure was cloaked in gold and the promise of a clean-slate-better-life.

Compared to other larger cities, SF is small — a mere 47 square miles — with a population of 880 K that is 1/10th of New York or 1/4th of LA. Seen as the maverick of American cities, it punches above its weight, stays left of center, is always open to change (and challenge), is eccentric at times, and has lived with an ethos of ‘live-and-let-live’.

The new and the old

It is a beautiful city of 50 odd hills, with streets inclining at a terrifying 30%. It warns you to brace your knees while walking, and angle the car front wheels when parking. Here, the neighborhoods and ethnicities change from one block to another, and so does its weather. The word ‘micro-climate was coined here, and it’s wise to carry an umbrella and a sweater on a sunny day, just in case. Locals claim that west of ‘Twin Peaks’ is normally foggy old school, east of it, usually sunny liberal.

As much as I love experiencing the present-day scents and sounds of a new place, I also find going down the rabbit hole of history fascinating — to hear the murmurs of ghosts long buried, to look at the scars and scabs since painted over.

Here are the bits that SF revealed to me over many visits, yet I feel there is more to discover….

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.

During the age of exploration (16th-17th century), present-day California was impossible to reach. One had to either sail through two vast oceans separating it, or walk across a newly discovered land, and deal with mountains, deserts, and hostile natives. Map Makers imagined the west coast of North America to be part of Asia, and popular legends spoke of a magical land, full of pearls and gold, inhabited by Amazonian women.

Spain conquered Mexico in the early 16th century and for the next three hundred years, those conquistadors sent a handful of dolts to ‘Alta California’ to protect Mexican claim on the land, and maintained a few missions where clergy worked to save the natives from their pagan practices.

In today’s SF, Presidio (the garrison) and St Francis Mission (the Church) are the major remaining landmarks of that era.

Occasionally, Russians nosed around in quest of fur pelts, and even ‘Sir’ Francis Drake, the famous British pirate privateer hunted in the Spanish-controlled Pacific coast, and made rich pickings, landing north of SF, near Point Reyes, without discovering the strait of Golden Gate bay.

In brief, for 300 years, nobody paid attention to this dreary, ocean-battered, arid forgotten corner. SF and its natural bay remained hidden, while voyagers and sailors occasionally passed by, unaware. The promised Al Dorado was nowhere to be found.

Things changed once Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and opened California ports to foreign trade. Newly independent state abolished Mission’s control on land, sending the church to destitution and decline. Earlier promises of land and freedom, made to the converted natives, were simply forgotten.

Mexican settlers were granted large tracts of territory, and ranching and farming took off. A new breed of ranching royalties came about, composed of former privates and retired soldiers, of modest origins and mixed blood. They called themselves the Californios.

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

SF’s hilly terrain did not yield to cattle farming, but its natural cove and harbor proved ideal for ships. While the rest of California produced vast volumes of hide and tallow, SF’s natural cove and harbor shipped it to Boston. The cove at the time was called Yerba Buena (good herb), after a fragrant minty herb that grew on the slopes of Telegraph Hill.

Increased trade brought more Americans to the west coast, and these hard-edged Yankees showed little respect for the ways and customs of nouveau riche Californios.; they carried contempt and harder anti-Mexican sentiments. The word ‘Greaser’ was coined to address Mexican workers loading greasy tallow bags on their backs to the Boston ships; later, it was used as a demeaning term for Californios.

Meanwhile, on the east coast, the dream of America was in full bloom, and so were its political ambitions. US of A was on a naked expansion spree. After buying Louisiana from the French in 1803, it had started looking further west. It annexed Texas in 1845, and with the feint of a war on Mexico, Alta California came to the USA in 1848.

A young officer named Ulysses S Grant, who gained his first combat experience in the war, wrote–“To this day I regard the war… as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

In the following years, Yankees did to Californios, what the latter had done to the natives–i.e. renege on the agreements. The Californios were dispossessed of their vast real estate holdings, through unjust American laws that threw their land titles into dispute and pressed them to sell-off.

And the removal of natives from the land became a state policy. Treaties were signed with native tribes and then secretly abandoned. ‘Indentured servitude’ — a fancy term for bondage was legalized in 1850. In the 1860s the State of California issued ‘War Indebtedness Bonds’ and called the banks and the wealthy to contribute to ‘war’ against the natives, and to push them into reservations.

The new American needed control of the Sierra Mountains now that gold was discovered there…

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!”

It’s no metaphor that San Francisco was formed with a big bang. As Kevin Starr put it, “for a few brief years, in far-off California, the bottom fell out of the 19th century” and SF was in the center of that free fall.

GOLD was discovered in the foothills of neighboring Sierra Nevada, and the largest mass migration in US history started. The population exploded from a few thousand to over 90K within a year.

49ers arrive!

They rushed from everywhere, regardless of class, creed, wealth, social status, or education. Most were men; more than half in their 20s, and all bore a burning desire to strike rich and were eager to gamble their old life in doing so.

Reaching SF was an adventure: locomotives had not been created, air travel not even imagined. The sea route, starting in New York or Boston, rounding Cape Horn took five months, Sea-land route through Panama, though shorter, ran through disease-ridden jungles. The overland route involved crossing mountains, deserts, and hostile Indians. For Europeans and Asians, there were the endless Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Many perished on the way, and those that survived headed to the hills upon arrival, leaving behind their ships adrift at the cove. They had given up their homes, and burnt the bridge — going back was not a choice after such a grueling journey.

“And everybody made money, and was suddenly growing rich. The loud voices of the eager seller and as eager buyer — the laugh of reckless joy — the bold accents of successful speculation, the stir and hum of active hurried labor, as man and brute, horse and bullock, and their guides, struggled and managed through heaps of loose rubbish, over hills of sand, and among deceiving deep mud pools and swamps, filled the amazed newly arrived immigrant with an almost appalling sense of the exuberant life, energy and enterprise of the place… The remembrance of the eventful year, 1849 days comes across us like the delirium of fever.”–Annals of San Francisco, 1855.

Of course, not all of those ‘49ers’ struck gold, but the floodgates opened. They arrived from Ireland during the potato famine, from China to evade war and famine, depression in Chile, Apache raids in Mexico, political turmoils in Germany, Italy, France… and so on.

Some recognized that there was more profit to be made in “mining the miners.” Prices went through the roof. The city turned into a massive campsite, suffered from a lack of sanitation, and was wrecked by six major fires during 1849–51. And those young hot-blooded miners needed R&R–gambling dens, drinking holes and red-light district sprouted.

But those were also liberating times–people who otherwise would have passed their entire lives within a few miles radius of the place of birth found themselves suddenly free from family, work, church, and from one’s own past. The city in those initial years was lawless, self-regulated, lonely, daring, licentious, and democratic at the same time.

“I may not be a competent judge, but this much I will say, that I have seen purer liquors, better cigars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtesans, here in San Francisco, than in any other place I have ever visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are attainable in America.” — Hinton Rowan Helper in The Land of Gold: Reality vs. Fiction

But the city’s liberating, anarchic, ‘every-man-to-himself’ ethos soon gave way to gangs like “Sydney Ducks,” (Australian ruffians), and the “Hounds,” (a gang of former Mexican War soldiers), that terrorized the town. Merchants and traders reacted by taking the law into their hands and large vigilante committees were organized.

Those founding years of a city were sowing the seeds of counterculture, gay life, legal marijuana, and a tendency to test limits of individual freedom, into its DNA.

The Presidio

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

Presidio for most parts, was back of beyond for the Spanish powers that be until Mexico achieved independence in 1821. From the start, it had a handful of illiterate soldiers, without weapons, halfheartedly guarding an adobe that would turn to mud during storms. No battle was ever fought here, and soldiers sometimes helped the Mission to round up escaped Indians that were brought for conversion. The guards were sometimes paid in cigarettes, or not at all, and had the tendency to quietly disappear from their posts. The news of Mexico gaining independence in 1821 reached Presidio one year later–that’s how distant it was.

Today, there are no traces of that Presidio, except its name. The real estate belongs to a government trust and a golf course. It offers million-dollar views of the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) and two remarkably different but equally satisfying walking trails.

Trail I — Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Point–7 miles, with options for a snack, coffee, or a beer.

It starts with a very touristy Fisherman’s Wharf milling with tourists waiting for ferries and seals sunning on Pier 39. The earlier one can escape from here, the better. Ghirardelli Square appears on left, but more interesting is Fort Mason–an area that was under military control for a century since the Civil War, but now houses attractive Art Galleries, bars, and cafes. The GGB stays in the frame throughout.

Palace of Fine Arts

A stroll with roller-bladers, cyclists, and joggers along the Marina Boulevard and rows of pretty homes lead to the Palace of Fine Arts–originally built as part of Pacific Exposition, 1915 to celebrate the post Earthquake reconstructed city. They rebuilt this impressive rotunda and surroundings in 1965. A trail through the Crissy Field takes us to Fort Point at the base of GGB, to gaze at the enormity of the engineering marvel. This was a US Army Airfield in earlier years.

The entire walk is urban, pastel, and very picture-worthy, with GGB in the frame throughout. And I can’t imagine that the area once was so forsaken that even the guards assigned to protect the strait often decamped… for that we need to continue further west, towards the Ocean Beach…

Trail II–Fort Point to Sutro Bath — 5 miles — carry a water bottle

Land's end labyrinth

The trek quickly gets wilder and more authentic as one crosses the crags and shaggy vegetation onto the Land’s End labyrinth. As one walks along the curve of Baker Beach, the GGB plays hide and seek, and then withdraws and the great expanse of Pacific opens up. The trail ends at Sutro Bath and Cliff House Cafe is a delightful spot to view the sun sink into the Pacific.

The Mission

Old man in fedora — SF Mission

Erected at the end of the 18th century, and devastated by earthquake, fire, and the city’s explosive growth, this church is the oldest surviving Spanish adobe. Today it stands as a distinguished old man in a white fedora, on a tree-lined street in Mission. Interiors are simple high ceilings filled with soft light percolating through stained glasses, whispering the tales of times gone by…

Spain’s colonial model had three pillars to do God’s bidding and King’s work–the Presidio (Military Garrison), the Mission (Church), and Pueblo (the town). SF had the first two, and the nearest Pueblo was San Jose (SF became a pueblo much later, once Mexico attained freedom in 1821, and opened it up as a trading port). We have seen that Presidio meant little in old days, but the Mission was more effective. Its prime duty was to convert and civilize the natives, who then provided a workforce for the farming, cattle raising, and industry that would make the colonial enterprise self-supporting.

At its peak in 1810–1820, the average Indian population at Pueblo Dolores was about 1,100 people. The California missions were not only houses of worship, but they were farming communities, manufacturers of all sorts of products, hotels, ranches, hospitals, schools, and the centers of the largest communities in the state. In 1810, the Mission owned 11,000 sheep, 11,000 cows, and thousands of horses, goats, pigs, and mules. Its ranching and farming operations extended as far south as San Mateo and east to Alameda. Horses were corralled on Potrero Hill, and the milking sheds for the cows were located along Dolores Creek at what is today Mission High School. Twenty looms were kept in operation to process wool into cloth. The circumference of the Mission’s holdings was said to have been about 125 miles. — Brother Guire Cleary (Mission historian)

This regimentation and local slavery, in the garb of religion and enlightenment, was a disaster for the native population. People who had roamed freely through the hills and forests, had a casual attitude toward sex, and hunted only when they needed to, were now required to rise at dawn, pray, work, and sleep in segregated dormitories. Everything, from their daily life to their spiritual faith, was turned on its head. On top of it, the contact with the Spanish gave them measles, tuberculosis, venereal disease, alien illnesses brought from Europe.

In plots next to the mission at one time held over 5000 graves of such natives that died of illness, misery, and depression.

By the time the US took control, the mission and its activities were in decline. And after the gold was discovered, the city started worshipping a new God. Some of the Mission properties were sold or leased for use as saloons and gambling halls; racetracks were constructed, and fights between bulls and bears were staged for crowds. Mission’s size and influence further shrank. Subsequent 1906 earthquake and fires wiped out the entire neighborhood–what stands today is a small section of Mission, in its original place.

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.

Rumors and speculation consumed the city during those years. The prices of metal stocks gyrated with wild abandon, as news (or rumors) of discovery of a new vein in a particular mine rippled through the streets. One could make a fortune overnight, or lose it, and many did. Stories abound of chambermaids buying out houses they worked in, or the ditch-diggers driven by liveried coachman through the newly fashionable Kearny Street.

The newfound wealth led to a construction boom in the city, which had been sprawling around the bay. The adjoining hills were yet inhabited, simply because of their steep incline, too difficult to climb for men and too slippery for the horse-drawn coaches.

California Street, Nob Hill

But then, in 1873, the first Cable Car clanged on Clay Street, and at that moment, the city hills were conquered.

Unprecedented wealth was flowing into the city and inevitably, some fellows rose to the top through luck, market manipulation, and industry. Now they needed to flaunt their wealth. The neighboring Nob hill (the word derives from Nawab) became the coveted address where this new plutocracy started outdoing each other in garish opulence and splendor.

Notable amongst them were a group of four interesting characters, the ‘Silver Kings’–John Mackay, James Fair, William O’Brien, and James Flood. Flood and O’Brien were street smart Irish immigrants who used to run a saloon offering booze and corned beef. They slowly moved into brokering silver mining stocks, met up with Mackay and Fair, and ended up controlling the largest chunk of silver mines.

Even wealthier than the Silver Kings were a quartet of capitalists (known as ‘The Associates’) — Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, who had made staggering profits through their railroad monopoly.

A poster showing the vice-like grip of the railroad monopoly on the west coast

None of their wooden painted peacocks today exist, they got wiped out in the 1906 fire. Yet the Associates’ legacy lives on in the city:

Hopkins and Huntington's properties have since converted to top-class hotels. Both stand today on California Street bearing their names. Stanford and his wife went on to establish Stanford University, contributing a large part of their own wealth. And Crocker’s land parcel has a comic tale–on the block of land that he purchased, stood a smaller house whose owner refused to vacate or sell. Thus rebuffed, Crocker built 40 feet high ‘Spite Fence’ on three sides of his neighbor’s property. The plot was finally sold to Crocker by the neighbor’s heirs and the fence demolished. After the 1906 fire and destruction, the Crocker family donated it to church, and that is where Grace Cathedral stands today.

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.

Ever since the Gold was discovered, the largest chunk of overseas workers had been arriving from China. They didn’t mix with the local population, refused to take US citizenship, stayed in their own ghetto (present-day China Town), worked all days of the week, and at offered cheaper rates. The railroad monopoly of the ‘Associates’ used Chinese labor extensively since the white European labor was unwilling to work in those inclement conditions at those rates. Within the city, the Chinese monopolized shoemaking, sewing, and cigar industries.

“We hate the Negro because they are citizens. We hate the yellow dogs because they will not be.” — a street sentiment during the 1880s.

White San Franciscans resented them. Politicians channeled this anger when the markets collapsed and savings and jobs vanished, leading to the draconian Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which essentially froze America’s Chinese population — under the law, a limited quota of single men (and no women) from China were allowed US immigration. The oft-touted city virtue of tolerance and cosmopolitanism was MIA. The law was finally repealed in 1943 WWII years.

Today, one in five inhabitants in the city is of Chinese origins–the largest aggregation outside mainland China. And they are no more limited to the ghetto of Chinatown, having spread to Sunset District or Nob Hill.

Walking the city blocks of Chinatown today is a more sanitized experience. Today’s neighborhood has instagrammified a little, with red paper lanterns swaying over the streets and its dragon gate entrance. Nostalgia surfaces in Mandarin/Cantonese hoardings or shop names, the occasional snatch of mahjong, Dim Sum restaurants, a Chinese temple with joss sticks, or a shop making fortune cookies.

The gambling saloons, opium dens, and whorehouses are long gone, destroyed or looted in 1906 fires, but crowded tenements with shared bathrooms and kitchens exist. At its core, it remains a hard-working mercantile-blue-collar cluster of city blocks.

Whether one views it as a cheap rental housing option for new Asian immigrants, or a slum needing rezoning and redevelopment, is one’s individual perspective.

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.

The city too started planning such a public garden in the 1860s and chose its western edge–windswept, dune covered, inhospitable, and sparsely inhabited. The park was meant to serve a dual purpose of westward expansion and housing development (Richmond and Sunset districts in later years).

They consulted the landscape architect for Central Park; his proposal that suggested the use of native species of plants more suited to local climate was rejected, in favor of more salubrious options. The ultimate design was a 3-mile long rectangle, preceded by a narrow strip of ‘Panhandle’. It opened to the public in 1870–with boasting rights of being 20% larger than its New York cousin.

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

Today, the park houses a world-class Arts Museum (De Young), a Science Museum, Music Concourse, Botanical Garden, Conservatory, yet its shaggy-man-made-wilderness is more authentic than the manicured elegance of Central Park at Manhattan, or the romance of St James at London.

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.

So it was logical that the city grew up around the bay. Its nucleus was a shallow, curved cove in what is now the Financial District. Its most prominent hills and neighborhoods — North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill — look out over the bay, and not the Pacific. The best anchorage was Yerba Buena on the bay. The cove was much bigger at the time but later reclaimed for what now is South of Market (SOMA) up to the edge of Mission District.

Today, at the end of Market Street, stands The Ferry Building in its stately elegance, overlooking the bay. Opened in 1898, until the 1930s, it was the busiest transit terminal in the world, second only to London’s Charing Cross Station. Its clock famously stopped at 5:16 A. M on April 18, 1906, but the arched arcade withstood a 7.9 scale earthquake.

In its heydays, when the bay was the city’s heart and soul, Berkley and Oakland could only be reached by ferryboat–and this terminal processed 60k of those commuters, each working day, twice–from 5.30 AM until 11.35 PM. The piers around Ferry Building serviced hundreds of ships from its 82 docks. It’s impossible to imagine the rush, the traffic of streetcars, horses, cable cars, railroads, the noises, the commuters, and the longshoremen that rubbed shoulders on these streets.

Then it changed dramatically in the mid-1930s. First to go were the ferries when the Bay Bridge opened in 1936, and automobiles started plying across East Bay. Shipping was slower to die as rails replaced trucks and containerized cargo made the longshoreman obsolete.

Today the building still functions as a tourist ferry terminal and hosts an expensive Farmer’s Market on Sundays. The arcade overflows with tourists and is home to cafes and glitzy gift shops. Embarcadero Plaza fronts it with a clumsy modernist fountain that looks like art for art’s sake, and at the backside, Gandhi gets ready to walk across the bay bridge.

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:

1. It rebuilt quickly, making it earthquake- and fire-resistant, with a planned grid and broader streets.

2. Trade, industry, and population moved southward and LA bloomed; LA now has more than 4X the population of SF.

3. Politicians agreed to flood the Hetch Hetchy valley, to supply the additional water demands of SF. A valley at par with Yosemite was sacrificed so the city could survive.

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.

Golden Gate (GG) Bridge has been the poster child of the city ever since its birth–with its red paint, latticework, and flying arches and filigree, playing hide and seek through layers of fog that rise from the bay. When viewed from Marin headlands, it even conjures up an image of a giant harp, serenading the downtown skyline behind it. One can draw a parallel to Statue of Liberty receiving the immigrant hordes at New York port, to this beauty, greeting the inbound ships through the strait.

In modern terms, it’s not too long–a mere 2.7 km that can make for a pleasant — though extremely windy walk. And once upon it, if you dare to look some 250 feet below, at the churning icy waters, this audacity of men to tame its environment sinks in. It is a blend of nature and artifice, as much as a marvel of engineering, like the last movement of a symphony that lingers on…

Yet this is an ominous place. The pull of swirling water below is hypnotic, and then one notices the Suicide Help Line booths along the way. The bridge, unfortunately, attracts those who have given up on life, and at the time of writing this piece, the SF administration was still debating the funding to install suicide barriers.

If GG Bridge is all dainty charm, the Bay Bridge is masculine workman’s élan. It is actually a two-decked complex of bridges that connects SF to Yerba Buena island and then to Oakland. And it is over 7 kilometers long; I just couldn’t believe this never-ending span when I first drove over it.

They constructed both these bridges during the depression era and opened in 1936, within six months of each other. Connecting the mainland to automobile access finished ferries’ monopoly on commuter traffic.

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.

“Chinatown, with its reeking filth and dirt, its gambling dens and obscene slave pens, its coolie labor and bloodthirsty tongs, is a menace to the community; but the sniveling Japanese, who swarms along the streets and cringingly offers his paltry services for a suit of clothes and a front seat in our public schools, is a far greater danger to the laboring portion of society than all the opium-soaked pigtails who have ever blotted the fair name of this beautiful city.” — San Francisco journal ‘Organized Labor,’ year 1900

Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed their fate in an instant, as xenophobia and racism painted them as potential agents of sabotage and espionage, all without a shred of evidence. In early 1942, President Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066, ordering immediate removal and imprisonment of any Japanese on US soil. Some 120K of them (mostly US citizens of Japanese descent) were jailed across the country and released only at the end of 1946. For a long time thereafter, the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park was still being referred to as the “Oriental Tea Garden’, and its ownership reverted to the Japanese community only in 1958.

Order 9066 was formally repealed in 1976, and formal apologies were issued. The episode remains one of the darkest blots of racial bigotry against Asian immigrants in the ‘land of the free’.

Meanwhile, the forced vacuum of Japantown at once filled up with Blacks (a 13-year-old Maya Angelou was one of them). US Navy was mass recruiting workers for the shipyards, and blacks were arriving in large numbers, trying to break free from Jim Crow South. The adjoining mile-long Fillmore Street became the ‘Harlem of the West’, which pulsated with the hottest jazz, blues, and R&B for years.

The area has gone through many rounds of urban development since the 1960s, and one needs to inhale hard to detect any lingering aroma of tempura and raw fish that once sizzled here.

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

Then it all came to a head in the summer of 1967 “Summer of Love” when 75K youngsters flooded the streets of Haight-Ashbury, seeking the promise of nirvana in LSD and Rock music. The next wave brought out gays and lesbians from closets across the country, for SF seemed to promise an open life, sans judgment; Castro became an open Gayborhood. Historians are still writing books on what and why of that seismic shock. But at that moment, SF soil was loamy enough to protect and nurture those significant counter-culture movements of the last century.

The Hippie era was a cultural H — bomb whose radiation spread far and wide.
Marriage solemnized at City Hall

Yet the very anthem of these anti-establishment brigades sowed the seeds of what was to come later. By the time the tie-died slogans of “Love, Peace, and Freedom” dried, the city faced the banal realities of feeding the acid high hordes and their medical needs. The anguished howl of beatniks and dazed trance of hippies turned into a nightmare, as “Hell’s Angels” turned out to be no angel; when Jim Jones led 900 people to forced ‘suicides’, and a confused homophobe shot dead the top honchos of City Hall in its marbled corridors; if that wasn’t enough, the city was ravaged by AIDs in the following years.

Personally, I wonder where to draw a line on individual freedom, ‘live-and-let–live’ credo, and embrace of new ideas, before society teeters to chaos. No obvious answers, yet one applauds SF for pushing the boundaries and bearing the blow-backs.

Summer of Love and free-flowing 60s flower power has since been used in marketing SF image, but there is enough bigotry, blood, gore, and disease if only one looks under the hood.

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

San Francisco draws more VC funds than any other American city, and highly-paid techies have been arriving in droves chasing this new gold rush. Rents and property prices have skyrocketed and affordable areas like Mission have been gentrified. Creative young artists have started moving out to Oakland and Brooklyn West and those who can’t afford the rents have been pitching tents in the open. The number of homeless on the streets has ballooned.

The question often asked is — Can the city survive all this money? Will its mojo move from counter culture to cyberculture? Can it still nurture artists and mavericks and dissenters, or will only the highest bid stay? The cries of “We are the 99 percenters’ find more resonance today.

Born in frenzy, survivor of a catastrophe, home to renegades and dreamers, San Francisco is again trying to reinvent itself.

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.

Barren, desolate, covered in brine-splattered stones, swept with gale-force winds and acrid sea spray, they have long covered up the tales of men who came and failed before. This is a place meant for whales, seals, and sea lions and then there are birds…. thousands of them, like a Hitchcock movie, like crowds in Istanbul Grand Bazaar on a Friday, feeding on shrimps and seaweed splattered on the shores. The solitary figure of a man walking along the shore appears to be the interloper.

Raw and pristine — Point Reyes

And after a long day in the wilderness, when one drives back through the Golden Gate Bridge later that night, the lights of the city across the bay twinkle like a stained glass symphony, and then one feels grateful to be…just alive.



Ajay Goel

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