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San Francisco


With a shrug of her shoulders, SF wryly admits to a lascivious past. In the Gold Rush days she played madam to the biggest continuous drinking party around, in a wharf area notoriously known as the Barbary Coast (now overlapped by Chinatown, North Beach, and the Financial District). Here, sailors, miners, prostitutes and shady opportunists made a lethal mix, and rich prospectors gambled away or were conned out of the gold nuggets in their jeans pockets. Other bar patrons often found themselves ‘shanghaied’: with the help of a laudanum-laced libation and a trapdoor in the bar floor, they’d be on a ship bound for a faraway port before they knew what was happening. The Tenderloin was home to many speakeasies and gin joints during Prohibition, and there’s one or two that have been cleverly revived. All kinds of drinks were invented here to keep local lushes happy, so take your pick of SF’s specialties. Today, SF’s intoxicating array of bars are more modestly prepped to set you up with a round or two – although some of the gracious old saloons still have a hauntingly wicked feel about them, with their swinging doors and winking clientele.

Cowboys on a mission from God

San Francisco is one dinner party where most of the guests arrived rather rudely late. When Spanish cowboys brought 340 horses, 302 head of cattle and 160 mules to graze here in 1776, the area we know as San Francisco already had a standing dinner date with local Native Americans that went back over 14, 300 years. Early California cuisine included shellfish, bear meat, edible flowers, and acorn-flour bread, and when the seasons changed, the Native Ohlone moved their progressive dinner venue further up or down the coast. The arrival of unexpected guests Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Francisco Palou met with no apparent resistance initially, until the Spaniards began to demand more than dinner.

The new arrivals expected the locals to build them a mission, constructed for the glory of God and Spain, and to take over its management within ten years. In exchange, the Ohlone were allowed one meager meal a day, which didn’t always materialize, and a place in God’s kingdom – this came much sooner than expected for many Ohlone, due to the smallpox the Spanish brought with them. Introduced diseases decimated the native population by almost three-quarters during the 50 years of Spanish rule in California.

While some Ohlone managed to successfully escape the short life of obligatory construction work and prayer, others were caught, returned to the adobe barracks and punished. By 1845, the 6700 local converts seemed much less keen on managing the mission than expected by optimistic Spanish priests, who were scandalized at the local habit of wearing nothing under their traditional fur capes. The mission settlement never really prospered. The sandy, scrubby fields were difficult to farm, the 20 soldiers who manned the Presidio, an army encampment on the Bay, were allotted only one scanty shipment of provisions per year, and fleas were a constant irritation. The mass graves of Ohlone under the Misión San Francisco de Asís give a tragic note of truth to what is today its more common name: Mission Dolores (Mission of the Sorrows).

Easy come, easy go was Spain’s attitude when handing over the settlement to the newly independent nation of Mexico. Little did they know, Mexico would make this colony a profitable venture with a bustling hide and tallow trade at Yerba Buena Cove, where the Financial District now stands.

Yankee trappers soon arrived to make their fortunes, and this trading post became a desirable destination for freed African Americans after Mexico outlawed slavery in Alto California.

Meanwhile, US–Mexico relations steadily deteriorated, made worse by rumors that Mexico was entertaining a British buy-out offer to take California off its hands. News was slow to arrive from Washington DC and Mexico City, leaving locals in a state of wary uncertainty. US Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones actually invaded Monterey on the assumption that the two countries were at war; two days later he realized his mistake, hastily apologized, and returned to his ships. The Mexican-American War broke out for real in 1846, and dragged on for two years before ending with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty formally ceded California and the present-day southwest states to the USA – a loss that was initially reckoned by missioning Church fathers in souls, but within months could be counted in ingots.

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‘gold! gold! gold!’

Say what you will about Sam Brannan, the man knew how to sell a story. In 1848, the real estate speculator and Mormon tabloid publisher of the California Star published sensational news of a find 120 miles from San Francisco at Sutter’s Mill, where sawmill employees had taken to gold-panning duty after flakes had surfaced downstream. Brannan had his reasons for publishing what was then pure speculation as fact: he was hoping it would excite some interest back East in some swampland he was trying to sell, not to mention scooping rival San Francisco newspaper the Californian. San Franciscans ignored Brannan’s bluster at first, preoccupied with news of the handover of California to the US from Mexico. To prove his point, Brannan traveled to Sutter’s Fort, where news of the find was verified under conditions of strict secrecy. Brannan didn’t exactly keep his word by running through the San Francisco streets upon his arrival, brandishing a vial of gold flakes and shouting, ‘Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!’

But Brannan’s plan backfired. Within weeks San Francisco’s population shrank to 200, as every able-bodied individual headed to the hills to pan for gold. Both newspapers folded; there was no one around to read, write, or print them. Good thing Brannan had a backup plan: he’d bought every available shovel, pick and pan, and opened a general store near Sutter’s Fort. Within its first 70 days, Brannan & Co. had sold a whopping $36, 000 in equipment – about $949, 000 in today’s terms. Initially Brannan charged big-spending Mormon buyers a special tax he claimed was for the church. But, when Mormon founder Brigham Young reportedly requested a cut for the Church, Brannan retorted he’d like a receipt from God.

Luckily for Brannan’s profits, other newspapers around the world weren’t that scrupulous about getting their facts straight either, and hastily published stories of ‘gold mountains’ near San Francisco. Within months, boatloads of prospectors arrived from Europe, Australia, and China, and another 40, 000 prospectors trudged through snow and mud overland, eager to scoop up their fortunes on the hillsides. Sailors in sight of San Francisco abandoned ship, and swam ashore to empty their pockets at mining supply stores. Prices for mining supplies shot up tenfold, and Brannan was raking in $150, 000 a month, almost $4 million in today’s terms. Food wasn’t cheap either: a dozen eggs could cost as much as $10 in San Francisco in 1849, the equivalent of $272 today.

A tent city rose up along San Francisco’s waterfront comparable in size to the actual city. By 1850, the year California was fast-tracked for admission as the 31st state in the Union, San Francisco’s population had shot up from 800 a year earlier to an estimated 25, 000. But for all the new money in town, it wasn’t exactly easy living. The fleas were still a problem and the rats were getting worse – but at least there were plenty of distractions.

Most of the early prospectors (called ’49ers after their arrival date) were men under the age of 40, and to keep them entertained – and fleece the gullible out of their earnings – some 500 saloons, 20 theaters and other venues of more dubious repute opened in the space of just five years. A buck would procure whiskey, opium, or one of the women frolicking on swings rigged from saloon ceilings – publicly revealing they weren’t wearing bloomers, 150 years before Britney Spears. Miners with dreams of a millionaire’s welcome back home usually had to wait for weeks in San Francisco for a departing ship, giving them plenty of time to blow all their earnings in the city’s casinos and bordellos.

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Outcasts among outcasts

Con men, visionaries, crackpots, adventurers, fugitives and anyone with nothing to lose: there was a place for everyone in San Francisco in 1849. For a couple of flush years, Chinese, Irish, African Americans, Australians, and Mexicans panned for gold side by side, boozed together, and slept in close quarters. But as gold became harder to find, backstabbing became more common – sometimes literally. The city worked hard to live up to Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 assessment: ‘San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.’

Take for example Joshua Norton, who had arrived in 1849 from South Africa with $40, 000 to invest, which he quickly turned into far more through real estate speculation. Taking into account Chinese arrivals to the city and the inflated price of rice, he invested his entire fortune cornering the San Francisco rice market – and then promptly lost it all when a ship from Peru flooded the city with tons of inexpensive rice. The bankrupt Norton disappeared, only to turn up again in 1859 wearing theatrical gold-braided military attire and grandly proclaiming himself ‘Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.’

San Francisco newspapers published Norton’s proclamation and many more that followed, including decrees dissolving the Democratic and Republican parties, commanding the building of suspension bridges spanning the Bay, demanding imperial lodging from the Grand Hotel, and outlawing use of the term ‘Frisco’ upon penalty of a $25 fine (payable to the Emperor, naturally). San Francisco embraced its eccentric ruler: police saluted him in the streets, some local establishments accepted banknotes issued by the ‘Imperial Government of Norton’ as payment, and theaters invited him to grace opening nights with his presence. When the Emperor’s adopted stray dog Bummer departed for that great doghouse in the sky, Mark Twain wrote the epitaph: ‘He died full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas.’

But the city was not always so amenable to new arrivals. Even though San Francisco staked its shady reputation on freewheeling lawlessness, Australian newcomers were singled out as criminals, whether or not they actually hailed from penal colonies. Before it became known as the Barbary Coast in the 1860s, the waterfront area was called ‘Sydney-Town’ after its Australian boarding-houses, and its inhabitants derided as ‘Sydney Ducks’.

Also at the receiving end of misplaced resentment were Chinese San Franciscans, whose modest service-based businesses survived when all-or-nothing mining ventures went bust. But the scapegoating didn’t stop at vigilantes and riots. In 1870 San Francisco became the first US city to pass ordinances restricting housing and employment options for anyone born in China.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this law served the needs of local magnates looking for cheap labor to build the first cross-country railroad. This involved being lowered to the ground in baskets with sticks of dynamite, and enduring prisonlike conditions in cold, remote mountain regions. At the height of construction, an estimated 12, 000 Chinese laborers were blasting through the Sierra Nevada, and upon completion of the railroad, the majority settled in San Francisco, increasingly confined to Chinatown. After being accused of taking low-paid dockworker jobs no one else wanted, they were violently attacked in the 1877 anti-Chinese riots.

This violence seems to have troubled Emperor Norton, who in one instance reportedly stood between the attackers and their intended targets, and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed. Any hope that the general populace – composed almost entirely of recent immigrants at the time – would soon recover from such hypocritical xenophobia was dashed when the discriminatory laws passed in California were not only upheld by the US federal government but actually reinforced nationwide in 1882. The US Chinese Exclusion Act prevented new immigration from China, and barred Chinese from citizenship until 1943. The passage of the Exclusion Act also spurred parallel Japanese exclusion efforts, with 100 ordinances limiting citizenship, marriage, immigration, and property rights for Japanese San Franciscans.

From 1910 to 1940, new arrivals from Asia were redirected to the Angel Island immigration station, where they were detained and interrogated for months or even years, pending official verification of parentage by a US citizen and/or a bribe to an immigration official of at least $1000 (about $20, 000 in today’s terms). Most of the 175, 000 Asian immigrants detained at Angel Island were eventually deported – though a few escaped their bleak imprisonment by suicide. More than 100 poems of despair, regret, and outrage were carved into the walls of the immigration station, such as this one summarizing the Angel Island experience: ‘America has power, but not justice/In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty/Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.’

Keeping The West Wild

As gold, silver and railroad money flowed into San Francisco, the city grew. It didn’t exactly blossom at first, though – public works were completely neglected, and heavily populated sections of the city lacked attractive public spaces. Eventually the debris-choked waterfront filled in, streets were graded and paved, and scores of fancy French restaurants opened to educate the palates of the nouveau riche. A financial district shot up along Montgomery and California Sts to manage all this new money, and the lawyers’ offices that cropped up alongside Jackson Sq saloons provided less deadly (if more costly) ways to resolve disputes. As soon as Andrew Hallidie made the formidable crag accessible by cable car in 1873, Nob Hill started sprouting mansions for millionaires, including the ‘Big Four’ railroad barons: Leland Stanford, Collis P Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. The Gold Rush was officially over; the land rush was on.

Wherever there was green in the city, real estate speculators saw greenbacks. Developers cleverly repackaged the marshy cattle-grazing pastures of the Mission District and Cow Hollow, and turned them into residential districts. San Francisco’s outlaw prospectors were lured into a state approaching respectability, settling into new neighborhoods far from the red-light districts and dutifully paying property taxes and police bribes. No wonder this is how San Francisco’s cynic-in-chief Ambrose Bierce dryly defined the ‘out-of-doors’ c 1881: ‘That part of one’s environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes. Chiefly useful to inspire poets.’

Some idealistic San Franciscans were determined to preserve the city’s natural splendors, even at the risk of attracting poets. The city’s first park was established in 1867, when squatters were paid to vacate the area now known as Buena Vista Park. The early urban environmentalist and Parks Superintendent John McClaren took charge of tree planting, and the hilltop park was open to sunset-seekers, fitness buffs, and amorous advances by 1894.

Through local activism, the natural wonders that surrounded San Francisco became more accessible to the public. Populist millionaire Adolph Sutro decided that every working stiff should be able to escape downtown tenements for the sand dunes and sunsets of Ocean Beach, made possible for a nickel on his public railway. Sutro’s idea proved wildly popular, and by way of thanks he was elected mayor in 1894. Naturalist John Muir came through San Francisco in 1868, but quickly left with a shudder for Yosemite. The early environmentalist organization he founded, however, the Sierra Club, would eventually find its major backers in San Francisco. The parkland Muir and his organization successfully lobbied to protect includes one of San Francisco’s most popular escapes: Muir Woods.

Just as Bierce predicted, all this non-taxable nature inspired the inevitable poetry. Bierce’s own protégé, ‘the uncrowned king of Bohemia’ George Sterling sang San Francisco’s praises in such corny, exclamation-filled panegyric as ‘City by the Sea, ’ ‘The Evanescent City, ’ and ‘The Cool, Grey City of Love.’ Fittingly, he too now has a park named in his honor.

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Double disaster

No stranger to earthquakes, fires, and other calamities, San Francisco was determined to be more prepared for disaster in the 20th century than it had been in the 19th. The city learned the hard way about seismic retrofitting as makeshift buildings often collapsed in minor tremors. Water wasn’t readily available, and in one fire in 1851 an entire 20-block radius was burned but for one building doused with a handy warehouse-worth of vinegar. Public funds were set side for a citywide system of water mains and fire hydrants, but at the time, city leaders were more concerned with lining their pockets than structural overhauls. Abe Ruef, the city’s notorious political boss, and his hand-picked mayor, Eugene Schmitz, were eventually indicted on charges of extorting huge sums of money from whorehouses.

To attract more legitimate business, San Francisco needed to redirect attention from its notorious waterfront fleshpots and focus attention on its comparatively underexposed assets. The city was determined to be in the vanguard of the urban planning movement ‘city beautiful, ’ and commissioned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to give San Francisco a Beaux Arts makeover to rival Baron Haussmann’s Paris. This elaborate plan had just been finalized in April 1906 when disaster struck twice.

On April 18, 1906, a quake estimated at a terrifying 7.8 to 8.3 on today’s Richter scale struck the city. For 47 seconds, the city emitted unholy groans and crashes as streets buckled, windows popped and brick buildings imploded. Wooden structures snapped into firewood were set ablaze by toppled chimneys, and ruptured gas mains spread the fire.

The city found out just how woefully unprepared it was for any disaster, let alone two. San Franciscans discovered just how many corners had been cut on government building contracts when unreinforced civic structures, even City Hall, collapsed in ruins. Since fire hydrants and water mains hadn’t been maintained, there was no way to contain fires downtown. The sole functioning water source was a fountain donated to the city by hometown favorite, opera diva Lotta Crabtree. Assembly lines were formed to haul buckets of water from Lotta’s Fountain to combat downtown blazes, but the water couldn’t reach the crest of steep Nob Hill fast enough. Mansions with priceless Old Master and Impressionist art collections went up in smoke, and their inhabitants were lucky to escape.

Lotta’s Fountain would become a meeting place for dazed survivors seeking news of children, family and neighbors gone missing; descendants of 1906 earthquake survivors still meet there each April 18.

Federal support was brought in to rescue the flaming city and to restore order. Under the direction of General Frederick Funston, firebreaks were created by dynamiting entire city blocks. But, rather than contain the conflagration, the explosions set off new fires. Fire-fighters couldn’t haul equipment and water through the rubble-choked streets, so in a city surrounded by water on three sides, fires continued to rage. Homeless citizens took refuge atop Potrero Hill and Buena Vista Park, and watched their city and its dreams of grandeur go up in smoke.

After three days and two nights, most of the city was reduced to a smoldering black heap. The death toll mounted to an estimated 3000 people, including an unknown number of prostitutes kept under lock and key. More than a third of the 300, 000 people living in the city at the time were left homeless. Thousands of people left San Francisco for good, convinced its glory days were over.

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The show must go on

San Francisco had learned one thing from its experience with catastrophe: how to stage a comeback. The city was rebuilt at an astounding rate of 15 buildings a day. A city plan was concocted to relocate Chinatown to less desirable real estate in Hunter’s Point, but the Chinese consulate refused to relocate, as did the temples of Waverly Place and several gun-toting merchants. No longer would Chinatown serve as a convenient den of iniquity for the slumming socialites of Nob Hill.

Look Tin Eli and a consortium of Chinatown community leaders ousted opium dens and brothels, and hired notable architects to rebuild the district as a crowd-pleasing tourist destination with a distinctive Chinatown Deco look.

The rest of downtown was brought back to its feet not by City Hall, but by die-hard entertainers. All but one of San Francisco’s 20 historic theaters had been completely destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire, but theater tents were soon set up amid the rubble. The smoke wafting across makeshift stages wasn’t a special effect when the surviving entertainers began marathon performances to keep the city’s spirits up – but it wasn’t hard to bring down the house when buildings were still collapsing all around them.

In a show of popular priorities, San Francisco’s theaters were rebuilt long before City Hall’s grandiose Civic Center was completed. Most of the Barbary Coast had gone up in flames (with the notable, highly flammable exception of Hotaling’s whiskey warehouse) and was destined to be rebuilt as a major port, so the theater scene and most of its red-light entourage decamped to the Tenderloin.

Built soon after the earthquake in 1907, the Great American Music Hall still shows the determined flamboyance of post-earthquake San Francisco, with its carved gilt decor recalling golden days of yore and scantily clad frescoed figures hinting at other possible backstage entertainments. San Francisco’s more highbrow entertainments of opera and classical music flourished, despite the fact that the world’s most famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, vowed never to return to the city after the quake had jolted him out of bed at the Palace Hotel.

Soprano Luisa Tetrazzini ducked out of a 1911 squabble over her talents between Oscar Hammerstein and New York’s Metropolitan Opera to return to San Francisco, and gave a free performance at Lotta’s Fountain for an audience of 250, 000 (virtually San Francisco’s entire population).

Not all Barbary Coast entertainers made the cut with newly discerning downtown audiences, and many retired even before the 1914 Red Light Abatement Act. The celebrated Bella Union had reincarnated itself several times between 1849 and the fires, with the help of sensational advertising: ‘As Sweet and Charming Creatures As Ever Escaped a Female Seminary. Lovely tresses! Lovely Lips! Buxom Forms! at the BELLA UNION. And Such Fun! If You Don’t Want to Risk Both Optics, SHUT ONE EYE.’ But its comeback as the Imperial Theater flopped. Before it folded, the bill that once featured serious theater along with salacious escapades and the agonizingly tuneless comic singer Big Bertha was reduced to a penny arcade and wax museum – a kind of Musée Mechanique meets Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum.

San Francisco’s greatest comeback performance was the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, in celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal. Resourceful San Franciscans used earthquake rubble to fill 635 marshy acres of the Marina, and hired famous architects to build elaborate pavilions showcasing San Francisco’s Pacific Rim connections, exotic foods and forward thinking.

This theatrical flair worked its magic on the masses. Crowds gasped at the glowing Tower of Jewels, mysteriously lit with strategically placed electric footlights, and a parade of the latest, greatest inventions: the world’s first steam locomotive, a color printing press, and a prototype personal typewriter (at 14 tons, a far cry from a laptop). When the party ended, Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts was the one temporary exhibit San Franciscans couldn’t bear to see torn down.

The structure was recast in concrete in the 1960s and in the spirit of the Expo now hosts the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on technology museum.

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The Left Coast

With new piers and the fanfare of the Panama Expo, San Francisco became the major West Coast port. But local longshoremen didn’t see the upside of the shipping bonanza, unloading heavy cargo in dangerous conditions from 8am to midnight for pay that hardly put dinner on the table. A historic 83-day strike in 1934 won public sympathy, forced concessions from the shipping magnates, and established San Francisco’s reputation as the organizing headquarters of the ‘Left Coast.’

When WWII brought a shipbuilding boom to town, African Americans and women claimed key roles in San Francisco’s workforce as never before. But with misplaced anxiety about possible attacks from the Pacific, Japanese San Franciscans became convenient targets for public animosity. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 ordering the relocation of 120, 000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. The San Francisco-based Japanese American Citizens League challenged the grounds for internment, and lobbied tirelessly for more than 40 years to overturn Executive Order 9066, to gain symbolic reparations for internees, and to restore the community’s due respect with a formal letter of apology signed by President George HW Bush in 1988.

The JACL has remained in the vanguard of the American civil rights movement, condemning racial profiling of Arab Americans in both Iraq wars and publicly supporting the right to same-sex marriage as early as 1994 – a decade before Mayor Newsom authorized same-sex weddings in San Francisco in time for Valentine’s Day, 2004. California courts ultimately halted and voided the marriage contracts, but the civil rights challenges to differential treatment based on sexual orientation aren’t over.

Beats: Free Speech, Free Spirits

Members of the armed services dismissed from service for homosexuality and other ‘subversive’ behavior during WWII were discharged onto the streets of San Francisco, as if that would teach them a lesson. Instead, the new arrivals found themselves at home in the low-rent, laissez-faire neighborhoods of North Beach and the Haight. So when the rest of the country took a sharp right turn with McCarthyism in the 1950s, rebels and romantics knew to head for San Francisco – including one Jack Kerouac. By the time On the Road, chronicling his westward journey, was published in 1957, the motley crowd of writers, artists, dreamers, and unclassifiable characters Kerouac called ‘the mad ones’ had found their way to like-minded San Francisco.

San Francisco didn’t always take kindly to the nonconformists derisively referred to in the press as ‘beatniks, ’ and police and poets were increasingly at odds on the streets of North Beach. Officers tried to fine ‘beatnik chicks’ for wearing sandals, only to be mercilessly taunted in verse by the self-styled African American Jewish anarchist, street corner poet Bob Kaufman. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and manager Shigeyoshi Murao of City Lights Bookstore were arrested for having the audacity to print Allen Ginsberg’s magnificent, incendiary epic poem Howl. But artistic freedom prevailed in 1957, when City Lights won its landmark ruling against book banning.

Ginsberg’s generation of ‘angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection’ experimented freely with art, radical politics, marijuana, and one another, flouting 1950s social-climbing dogma and blatantly defying Senator Joe McCarthy’s alarmist call to weed out ‘Communists in our midst.’ When McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee convened for the fourth time in San Francisco in 1960 to expose alleged Communists, UC Berkeley students organized a disruptive, sing-along sit-in at City Hall. After police turned fire hoses on the protesters, thousands of San Franciscans rallied, and HUAC split town, never to return. It was official: the sixties had begun.

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Flower Power

San Francisco would continue to be a testing ground for freedom of expression in the years to come, as comedian Lenny Bruce uttered the F-word on stage and burlesque dancer Carol Doda bared it all for titillated audiences in North Beach clubs. But it wasn’t ribald jokes or striptease that would pop the last button of conventional morality in San Francisco – that was a job for the CIA. In one of its more pronounced lapses in screening judgment, the CIA hired a writer named Ken Kesey to test psychoactive drugs intended to create the ultimate soldier. Instead they had unwittingly inspired Kesey to write the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, drive psychedelic busloads of Merry Pranksters across country, and introduce the city to LSD and the Grateful Dead at the legendary Acid Tests.

After the Civil Rights movement anything seemed possible, and for a while it seemed that the freaky force of free thinking would stop the unpopular Vietnam War. At the January, 14 1967 Human Be-In, trip master Timothy Leary urged a crowd of 20, 000 to dream a new American dream and ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’ Free music rang out in Golden Gate Park; free love was happening in and around the bushes; free food was provided by the Diggers; and free crash pads were available all over the Haight. For the duration of the Summer of Love – weeks, months, even a year, depending who you talk to and their hazy memories of the era – it seemed possible to make love, not war.

But a chill soon settled over San Francisco, and for once it wasn’t the afternoon fog. Civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated on April 8, 1968, followed by the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy on June 5, right after he’d won California’s presidential primary. Radicals worldwide called for revolution, and separatist groups like Oakland’s own Black Panther Party for Self-Defense took up arms. Meanwhile, recreational drug-taking was turning into a thankless career for many, a distinct itch in the nether regions was making the rounds, and still more busloads of teenage runaways were arriving in the ill-equipped, wigged-out Haight. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic helped with the rehabbing and the itching, but the disillusionment seemed incurable when Hell’s Angels turned on the crowd at a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, and beat protestors in Berkeley.

Many idealists headed ‘back to the land’ in the bucolic North Bay for a fresh start. A dark streak emerged among those that remained, including young Charles Manson, the Symbionese Liberation Army (better known post-1974 as Patty Hearst’s kidnappers) and an evangelical egomaniac named Jim Jones, who would persuade 900 followers to commit mass suicide in 1978. By the time Be-in LSD supplier Owsley Stanley was released from a three-year jail term in 1970 (and eventually moved to Queensland, Australia) it seemed that the party was over. In the Castro, however, it was just getting started.

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By the 1970s, San Francisco’s gay community was fed up with police raids, done with Haight squats and ready for music with an actual beat. In 1959, when an opponent had accused the mayor at the time, George Christopher, of allowing San Francisco to become ‘the national headquarters of the organized homosexuals, ’ Christopher authorized crackdowns on cruising areas and gay bars and started a blacklist of gay citizens. Never one to be upstaged or harassed, self-proclaimed Absolute Empress of San Francisco José Sarria promptly ran for mayor and received 5600 votes. When local media joined the growing criticism of the continuing raids, the crackdown stopped – a feat not achieved until 1969 in New York, several years later, by the Stonewall protestors. San Francisco gays soon ditched hetero hippies in the Haight, headed over the hills to Victorian fixer-uppers in the Castro, and proceeded to make history to a funky disco beat.

By the mid-1970s, the rainbow flag was flying high over gay businesses, restaurants and homes in the out-and-proud Castro. The sexual revolution had arrived, and gay San Francisco was let out of its closet to frolic in gay clubs and bathhouses on Polk St and in South of Market (SoMa). San Francisco author Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City serial in the San Francisco Chronicle fictionalized the eye-opening adventures of new arrivals on the city’s swinging scene in real time. Gay San Francisco had its own books, anthems (‘Over the Rainbow, ’ ‘I’m Coming out, ’ I Will Survive’) and businesses; all it needed now was its own representative.

The Castro was triumphant when Castro camera store owner Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay man to become an elected official. But Dan White, a washed-up politician hyped on Hostess Twinkies, fatally shot Milk and then-mayor George Moscone in 1978. The charge was reduced to manslaughter due to the infamous ‘Twinkie Defense, ’ faulting the sugary junk food, but White was clearly deeply disturbed as he committed suicide a year after his 1984 release.

By then San Francisco had other matters weighing heavily on its mind. A strange illness began to appear in local hospitals, and seemed to be hitting the gay community especially hard. The first cases of AIDS reported in 1981 were initially referred to as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, and a social stigma became attached to the virus. But San Francisco health providers and gay activists rallied to establish global standards for care and prevention, with vital early HIV/AIDS initiatives funded not through reluctant federal agencies but tireless local fundraising efforts.

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High tech highs & lows

Industry dwindled steadily in San Francisco after WWII, as Oakland’s port accommodated container ships and the Presidio’s military presence tapered off. But onetime military–industrial tech contractors found work in a stretch of scrappy tech firms south of San Francisco in an area soon known as Silicon Valley.

When a company called Hewlett-Packard, started in a South Bay garage, introduced the unsexily named but surprisingly forward-thinking 9100A ‘computing genie’ in 1968, a generation of unconventional thinkers took note.

Among them was Stewart Brand, an early LSD tester for the CIA with Ken Kesey and organizer of the first Trips Festival in 1966. Brand’s less splashy but still mind-bending follow-up was the Whole Earth Catalog, which took a hippified, grassroots, do-it-yourself approach to technology, reasoning that the technology governments used to run countries could empower ordinary people. There was, however, a tension between access and affordability, as Brand famously put it, ‘Information wants to be free. It also wants to be expensive.’

Initially the technology coming out of Silicon Valley was prohibitively expensive. When 21-year-old Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple II at the first West Coast Computer Faire in 1977, it came with 4 KB of RAM, a microprocessor running at 1 MHz, and an audio cassette interface for loading programs – today’s gigabytes of RAM, gigahertz processor speeds and online downloads would have seemed unbelievable. The Mac II originally retailed for US$1298 (the equivalent today of $4300), or, if you wanted to get really fancy, with 48 KB of RAM, as much as US$2638 (about $8775 today).

This was a staggering investment for what seemed like a glorified calculator/typewriter. Networking suggested that computers might talk to one another, but what would they talk about?

By the mid-1990s an entire industry had sprung-up in SoMa warehouses, as start-up ventures rushed to be the first to hang out their shingle along what was at first awkwardly called the ‘information superhighway.’ Suddenly people were getting their news, dates, politics, groceries and, yes, sex online. But, while investors wanted information to be expensive, users preferred it to be free. When venture capital funding dried up, multi-million-dollar sites shrivelled into online oblivion.

The paper fortunes of the dot-com boom disappeared on one nasty NASDAQ-plummeting day, March 10, 2000, along with unattractive techno-hubris – but it also left service-sector employees and 26-year-old former vice-presidents alike without any immediate job prospects. City dot-com revenues vanished; a 1999 FBI probe revealed that a sizable windfall ended up in the pockets of real estate developers, many of whom were, suspiciously, friends of Willie Brown, the city’s mayor from 1995 to 2003. Real estate prices have yet to return to earth, and today a still-empty SoMa and Mission Bay anxiously await the next predicted booms: Web 2.0 and biotech.

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