Nightclubs on Pacific Street, 1909. Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Going into 1848, James Marshall just wanted to build a sawmill. He had been hired by Swiss pioneer John Sutter to start construction on the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevadas—near the city of Coloma today. Then, on January 24th, while diverting water away from the river, he found chunks of a soft, yellow metal: gold.
Nine days later, the Mexican government came to terms with the United States, ending the Mexican-American War and ceding Mexican lands north of the Rio Grande, including California, to the United States. And so the Gold Rush commenced in newly American territory, thousands from around the world rushed to California. As a city, San Francisco hardly existed prior to the flood of fortune seekers (and their hangers on), but its population grew exponentially. In 1848, there were a mere 1,000 residents in San Francisco. Two years later, there were over 20,000. Three years after that, more than 50,000.
These men—and the initial influx was almost exclusively men—came from all over. The first on the scene were nearby American veterans of the Mexican-American War. In the months following Marshall’s discovery, Mexican and South American nationals joined their ranks. While California and San Francisco stand today as bastions of modern liberalism, racism was endemic during the Gold Rush era. Hispanics, disparagingly called “greasers”, were forced off their lands, had mining equipment destroyed and property looted, suffered indiscriminate rape, and were frequently killed under the pretense of justice, if not outright murdered in cold blood. In 1850, the California State Legislature enacted the Foreign Miners Tax in response to an influx of Chinese immigrants.
Much of this local discrimination was fueled by the staggering money to be made, but the flames of racism were fanned further by the Know Nothings, a then-prominent national political party known for its populism and white nationalism. Of course, the world is different now, but we acknowledge and remember this dark time in our past with the hope we won’t repeat it.
What the miners did with their spoils was little more dignified. Like the lottery winners, professional athletes, and overnight celebrities who followed, the sudden windfall begat predictable spending patterns. The miners and prospectors who had dropped everything to travel thousands of miles in search of speculative fortunes, well, let’s just say they weren’t the type to invest in a 401k. Instead, they spent today with a profligate disregard for tomorrow. Gambling, liquor, and prostitution were most popular, centered in an area known as the Barbary Coast—so named in honor of a North African region renowned for piracy and slave trading. Today we know it as North Beach. Its heart was along Pacific Ave., then, towards the end of the century, a small area between Broadway, Kearny, and Montgomery street known as Devil’s Acre.
Barbary Coast theaters. Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
At resorts like El Dorado and Empire, men would gamble away fortunes at faro, monte, and roulette; twenty thousand dollars (more than $600k in 2017 dollars) bet on the turn of a single card. But why stop there? “Many”, wrote historian Herbert Asbury, “at a loss how else to exhibit their prosperity, employed dentists to put their own gold into their teeth.” Yes, you read that correctly: miners rocked grills. No wonder one correspondent of the New York Evening Post reported back, “The people of San Francisco are mad, stark mad.”
Some surely were, and the lawlessness dominated for a couple of years before the everyday citizens had had enough. A particularly ruthless gang of criminals, the Sydney Ducks, had taken over the Barbary Coast and used bribery and intimidation to escape justice. Judges and politicians were paid off, cell doors left conveniently unlocked and unguarded, and police officers often avoided the Barbary Coast altogether out of fear for their safety. And so, citizens took it upon themselves to administer, quite literally, vigilante justice.
In the summer of 1851, a group of around seven hundred men formed The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, acting as a shadow justice system. Citizens reported crimes to the committee, who would arrest the accused to stand trial in front of a jury of their peers. Sentences were carried out swiftly. Guilty men swung by their necks from a redwood beam stuck through the second story window of the Vigilante headquarters. Like any Minimum Viable Product, it wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The period during and immediately after the Committee of Vigilance dissolved in September of 1851 was marked by relative peace and order. Members of The Sydney Ducks were either driven from town or hanged.
But crime gradually climbed back to previous levels. In 1855, there were 489 murders reported in San Francisco, yet not a single murderer was punished. After James King, a journalist writing exposés on corrupt local government officials, was murdered in May of 1856, the Committee for Vigilance was brought back for a revival tour. They raided the San Francisco Armory, confiscating guns and the only two cannon owned by the city. These they took to North Beach, establishing their headquarters—Fort Gunnybags—near Broadway and Kearny streets. Their members, this time numbering in the thousands, wore uniforms and regularly paraded through the streets of the Barbary Coast in shows of force. After another few months of vigilante justice, the Committee dissolved itself again in August of 1856. They surrendered their arms and returned peacefully to civilian life.
San Francisco continued to grow and prosper until 1906, when a massive earthquake shook the peninsula. The two tectonic plates making up the San Andreas Fault slid against each other in a slip-strike fault—like one car side-swiping another. The stress and pressure released was enormous, estimated to be around an 8 on the as-yet- uninvented Richter Scale. The majority of buildings in San Francisco were built with lumber and so, as they collapsed, were quickly set aflame. Ruptured gas lines added fuel to the fire and burst water lines stymied the efforts of local firefighters. More than thirty separate fires raged across the city simultaneously. As they sucked in oxygen from the atmosphere, the convection whipped up surrounding winds. Those, in turn, spread embers and lit ash to nearby buildings, alighting upon their roofs and lighting them on fire.
Photo: Courtesy of California Historical Society
While the days of the Barbary Coast were marked by chaos and disorder, the great fire was an opportunity for change. The rebuild was best-suited for tight-knit communities working together, and the Chinese and Italian immigrant communities quickly responded. Chinatown and North Beach were amongst the first neighborhoods rebuilt, cementing the demographics of these areas as we see them today. While the heroes of 1906 are immortalized at Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and in Washington Square Park, the subtle makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods is a greater, if more subtle, reflection of the impact of the fire.
A half-century later came the North Beach’s claim to fame, at least so far as tour guides are concerned: the Beat Generation and the so-called San Francisco Renaissance they ushered in. The movement, such as it was, is far too large to summarize comprehensively here, but it’s impact on the local culture, literary scene, and American culture are undeniable. And so, we must try.
In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights, a bookstore on Columbus Ave. Two years later, Martin left and Ferlinghetti expanded into publishing. He began with a book of his own poetry and then expanded into the Pocket Poets Series, which continues to this day. By combining the two—bookstore and publisher—“it is as if,” Ferlinghetti said, “the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.” City Lights would form the nexus of the Beat Generation, which rooted itself in and around North Beach.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Books, 1955 Photo: City Lights Books, http://www.foundsf.org/
As for the movement itself, there are few dates of particular note—eras like the San Francisco Renaissance are invariably creeping, verdant, dynamic, and unbounded. But October 7th, 1955 was one such day, marking the transition from the underground to widespread recognition and acclaim. That evening, six poets read aloud at Six Gallery on Union and Fillmore. The fifth, Allen Ginsberg, read the first part of ”Howl” and, like James Marshall’s first finding of gold, nothing again would be the same. As he recited the nearly 2100 word poem, the crowd was transfixed with his depiction of lost men and women, young and old, with prophetic visions of “suicide dramas”, and those “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.” As Ginsberg read on, Kerouac, sitting with his legs dangling off the small stage, began chanting in time with the meter of the poem. “Go, go, go, go, go, go”—and off they went.
The line on “obscene odes” would prove particularly ironic for “Howl”, after the full poem was published by City Lights in the fall of 1956. Nine months later, on June 3rd, 1957, City Lights’ first store manager Shig Murao sold a copy of Howl to an undercover police officer. He and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were arrested under the charge that they “did willfully and lewdly print publish and sell obscene and indecent writings.” These were still the 1950s after all, a time when homosexuality and sodomy were criminal offenses in every one of these United States. Lines on those “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,” were not welcome in a country of decidedly Puritan values. And so, in another great American tradition, they went to court.
At trial, the pair were represented by Jake Ehrlich of the ACLU. Charges against Murao were eventually dropped, since the prosecution could not prove he had actually read Howl. Finally, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled Ferlinghetti was protected by the First Amendment. As reported in the Chronicle, “[t]he judge’s opinion was hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most fantastic collection of beards, turtlenecked shirts and Italian hairdos ever to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice.” The ruling echoed across America and served as a landmark precedent for free speech protections.
The characters of Beat San Francisco were further embedded in the national consciousness in 1958, when Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums was released nationwide. His characters and their adventures are based on himself and his friends around San Francisco. Future books, like Big Sur, would similarly feature City Lights, Vesuvio, The Place, and other local haunts.
While the movement was open to the public, its heroes and drivers were a decidedly limited group. As Ginsberg wrote in 1954, “art is a community effort—a small but select community.” That community was constantly in flux. Nearly every Beat was from outside San Francisco, and by 1959 most had left. City Lights remained, as did Vesuvio next door, but the cultural movement in San Francisco was changing. The ethos of sexual liberation and experimentation with drugs, paired with the Beats’ deep cultural introspection, formed the underpinnings of the hippie movement which would come to dominate California in the 1960s.
There are, of course, innumerable stories and infinite threads in the fabric of any history. The Gold Rush, Barbary Coast, Great Fire, and San Francisco Renaissance were but lighthouses on the shoreline of history. They shine bright in our memories, as waypoints along our past and illuminating their surroundings. They are hardly the full story, but emblematic of broader cultural shifts within the region.
Their influence, from the upscale throwbacks to the Barbary Coast to City Lights and beyond, are what give North Beach life, color, and identity. These are the stories of a people. If you didn’t know the history of North Beach, well, now you know.