San Francisco is known simply as “the city” among residents. This may come across as a tad self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-important to outsiders. But then again, “the city” is the lively hub of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area – an empire of more than 7 million people!
Surprisingly, San Francisco is compact, occupying a land of only 47 square miles. This has enabled the city to keep its small-scale appeal despite a superlative skyline that is Manhattan in miniature and despite a city proper population of 750,000. Much of San Francisco’s charm lies in its ability to sell itself as both diminutive and grand, both intimate and grandiose. Its fabulous location certainly helps – 42 hills overlook water on three sides providing breathtaking views of the Pacific. Even though San Francisco is pocket-sized, it has a city presence that commands attention. It is crowded with nightclubs, art galleries, fine museums, and more restaurants per capita than any other major city n the U.S. Its weather is cooled during the summer by fog, giving unsuspecting tourists a good jolt. Whereas winters are mild, rarely dipping below 10ºC (50ºF).
Another charm of San Francisco is the visions it instills in people. Which other city has two official songs, both being national favorites? San Francisco, sung by Jeannette MacDonald as the title song of the 1936 movie, and the more recent I Left My Heart in San Francisco sung by Tony Bennett are both hummed perennial by Americans throughout the country. Then there are the books and poems written about the city whose name alone evokes thoughts of beautiful people, glamorous hotels and restaurants, and spectacular bay and mountain views. Like any other city, San Francisco has a respect for wealth and success, but it is balanced by a sense of fun and the knowledge that there is a “riches to rags” story for every tale of success.
San Francisco is also the most European-like city in North America. A potpourri of migrants and immigrants bandwagoned their way westward during the Gold Rush, giving San Francisco the cosmopolitan air it enjoys today. There are more than 200,000 Chinese people in the city and over 115,000 residents of Italian descent who call North Beach or “Little Italy” their home. Blacks and Hispanics each number 100,000, while Japanese number over 15,000. Then there are the newcomers – Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians. And they have been quick to stitch their own patches into the city’s multicultural quilt.
San Francisco ranks only third in California in population with about 750,000 people, mainly because of its limited size – 47 square miles of area. By comparison, Los Angeles measures over 463 square miles. The same area in and around San Francisco accommodates over 6 million people, which is twice the population of Los Angeles proper. Not surprisingly, San Francisco has the highest density of population in California. This is what gives the city a neighborhood atmosphere that other California cities lack.
The best way to begin touring San Francisco is to get a good look at what you’ll be touring. The Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill is the best place to get great views of San Francisco. This tower stands 500-feet or 152 meters high in the heart of the city. The hill was bought by a group of citizens and given as a gift to the city in 1876, so that the unique qualities of San Francisco could be appreciated by all residents. The tower’s open-air viewing platform has a range of about 46 square miles or 120 square kilometers. The view up there is incredible and makes it easy for any visitor to understand why residents consider themselves lucky to be living where they live.
Among the sights you’ll see through the large open arches of Coit Tower include the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge to the west. Few structures in the world are better known around the globe. It is a masterpiece in engineering and San Franciscans have an understandable awe and affection for this man-made structure. Many of them seem to be an authority on the bridge, volunteering facts and figures to others like they cared.
From the tower, you can also see Sausalito, Angel Islands, and Belvedere. Sausalito is tucked into a bay at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge while Angel Islands and Belvedere are actually in the bay.
Another sight is the Gibraltar-looking Alcatraz. In Spanish, it means amiable pelican. At one time, Alcatraz was the most feared prison in the entire country. It was maximum-security jail for the worst criminals. The currents encircling the island made it dangerous for anyone attempting an escape. Only one man ever managed to swim away from these currents successfully.
Farther east is the sprawling college town of Berkeley and the nearby industrial city of Oakland. This latter city is reached by crossing the low-lying Bay Bridge, which is a masterpiece of engineering by its own right and would be a major landmark in any other city. Unfortunately, the Bay Bridge is overshadowed by the Golden Gate.
Besides the major landmarks, San Francisco has simpler structures that are just as appealing. Rows and rows of Victorian houses, for example, spread out over the city’s 42 steep hills, including the Queen-Anne styled “Painted Ladies of Alamo Square” – made even more famous by that cheesy hit sitcom, Full House.
These houses are so treasured that city law prohibits any change to the exterior design and interior structures. Moreover, new buildings must employ the same bay windows in their design.
But some say the real charm of San Francisco is its people. If you walk down the stairs of Coit Tower, you might understand why. The sign dispels the myth that the Coit Tower was built to resemble an upturned fire hose nozzle, but that the design was judged the best on its own merits. The fire hose legend has a basis in fact. Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s (1843-1929) had a predilection for riding on fire trucks, so much so that she was dubbed the mascot of the fire department. She was also an eccentric one, dressing up in men’s clothes, shaving her head to fit wigs, smoking cigars, gambling at men-only saloons in North Beach, and entertaining the city with her antics. Her family and relatives were outraged by her behavior. One of them took a shot at her at the Palace Hotel, which prompted her to move to Europe and travel the world. And she became a darling of royalty wherever she went, just as she was in San Francisco. In her will, Lillie Coit bequested $125,000 to the city and specified that it go towards “adding beauty to the city which I have always loved.” This triggered the fire hose legend that circulated for years.
Another sight of interest is Grace’s Garden at the foot of the hill. It is a beautiful flower garden that can be reached by trodding down some old wooden steps. The garden had its beginnings in the 1940s after Grace Marchant, a beautiful silent film star in the days of Mac Sennett, moved into a house on the hillside. She began cleaning up the unused hillside that was being treated as a garbage dump by locals. Eventually, the dump became a beautiful garden. Her neighbors loved it so much that they chipped in to buy it after Grace died in the 1980s.
The Golden Gate Park is definitely a must in San Francisco. It is one of the world’s greatest city parks. The Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens is a park highlight; it counts more than 6,000 different plants, including the celebrated California Redwood. The Golden Gate Park has many nature trails that are used by residents for jogs, strolls, and bike rides. There is also a golf course, which explains the number of folks you see on golf carts. You’ll also find tennis courts, baseball fields, flyfishing ponds, miniature pools for yacht racing, a polo stadium, and a football stadium. Don’t miss out on less obvious points of interest such as the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden, a children’s carousel that dates back to 1912, and two huge Dutch Windmills. The windmills were once inoperable due to deterioration. It was initially designed as part of an irrigation system for the park, but nobody maintained them after they fell into disuse. Some private citizens raised enough money to restore them a few decades ago. Be on the lookout for the police horse patrols surveying and safeguarding the park.
Another can’t miss is the Palace of Fine Arts. This is in San Francisco’s Marina District. If you’ve watched The Rock, you’ll recognize this example of Roman and Greek Architecture. This was where Sean Connery met his daughter, played by Claire Forlani, for the first time after decades of being locked up by the FBI. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, it has a dome and a number of colonnades providing support. It is the only dome remaining of the eight identical ones built for the exposition. In the 1960s, the structure had to be demolished and rebuilt to ensure its survival. The Palace is fronted by an expanse of water swum by ducks and swans.
Of course, a visit to San Francisco would not be a visit without experience the city’s most famous form of public transportation – the cable car. Not too long ago, the cable cars had to be shut down due to safety concerns. Fortunately, federal and city grants totaling more than $60 million combined with public subscription, which raised $10 million, returned the cable cars to their original working condition. These cars move at 15 kilometers/hour or 9 miles/hour in a circular route.
San Francisco was founded in 1776 by the Spanish who set up a fort and mission. At the time, Yelamu and Ohlone natives resided in a series of small villages in the area. Despite the city’s Spanish origin, San Francisco has always been an American city from the get-go. The Spanish and Mexicans made Monterey their capital and established only a small fort and mission in San Francisco. When U.S. Navy Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into the bay, he did not have to fire a single shot to capture the city, raising the American flag on July 9, 1846. The town’s square is named after his ship, the Portsmouth. At that time, the settlement in the Bay area was called Yerba Buena, which means “good herb” in Spanish. The Americans renamed the community San Francisco.
Almost immediately after the Mexican War ended, gold was discovered. San Francisco was suddenly the destination of thousands of gold rush seekers from all over the country. Most of the gold lay east of San Francisco, but the city was where people spent their fortunes. The city during those tumultuous years was twice captured by vigilante committees. Nob Hill became the choice of residence for the very rich. Mansions were built high above at a safe distance from the boisterous city.
San Francisco was dubbed “Barbary Coast” at the time by many sailors around the world. Everyone had a tough time navigating the treacherous red-light district of San Francisco’s bay. Like most cities out west in that era, San Francisco was a corrupt pleasure capital, but somehow earned a reputation as well as a city of the arts.
In 1906, San Francisco was hit by the worst natural disaster in American history. An earthquake leveled the city and triggered outbreaks of fire. Over 3000 people died and 250,000 left homeless. 28,000 buildings were completely destroyed. All told, the damage was more than $400 million. With determination, the city cleared the ruins and restored more than 20,000 structures. Only three years after the quake, San Francisco was already discussing plans of hosting a World’s Fair.
Interestingly, the earthquake revealed not only a fault line running underneath the city, but also the deep-seeded corruption of its officials. The Beaux Arts City Hall was left in shambles by the quake, revealing a spindly steel superstructure where a dome was supposed to be instead. City officials had cheated the public out of millions of dollars. "They was all a-grafting," remarked one old-timer. By 1915, when the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held, San Francisco had been reconstructed completely.
In the 1930's, San Francisco suffered another disaster, the Great Depression. The city survived the economic crisis with two construction projects: the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Both projects were completed in 1939. WWII brought more prosperity to the city, as it was used as a major port in the Pacific War with Japan.
In the 1950's, San Francisco was the home of the “beat” generation. The city teemed with dropout artists and poets who were termed “beatniks” by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. A cultural movement began, with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book store as its headquarters and Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso as its prominent members.
In the 1960s, the city became the center of another movement: free speech. Social and political activism had its birth on the campus of University of California Berkeley in autumn of 1964. It spread to the rest of America. The activism decrying the Vietnam War and promoting peace and love was dubbed “Flower Power”. The original “be-ins” and “love-ins” took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which was near the Haight-Ashbury district – at the time was a neglected slum area. The “flower children” or hippies made it the capital of their anti-war movement. “Flower power’ spawned hit songs such as Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco”: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair….” The movement peaked in the 1967 “Summer of Love” when more than 100,000 made their way to Haight to enjoy free food, free drugs, and free love.
While “Flower Power” began with flowers, it ended with bloodshed in Washington, DC. The city, however, had made its mark, forever changing free speech, civil rights, and folk and rock ‘n’ roll music. In regards to the latter, Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium in Haight-Ashbury had become a rock ‘n’ roll Mecca with numerous musicians launching their careers from there.
The “me” decade of the 1970s witnessed an increasing “New Yorking” of the city. Many San Franciscans became concerned with the rate at which skyscrapers were being built. The conglomeration of new buildings included a pyramid soaring 48 stories high. This William Pereia-designed monument served as the headquarters for Transamerica Corporation. Initially praised, it soon became a source of derision. Today, it is a reminder to residents that San Francisco is not just a center of culture but the financial capital of the west.
Other social issues arose in the 1970’s as well. Local religious leader, Jim Jones, led a mass suicide of more than 900 men, women, and children; the deed was done in a remote village in Guyana. Mayor George Moscone, an early proponent of gay rights was assassinated in 1978, igniting the city in outrage.
In the 1980’s, San Francisco was the first to discover the deadly AIDS virus, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The city’s large homosexual population was hit hard, but its AIDS program has developed into one of the most advanced in the country. One doctor once remarked “If I had AIDS, I would crawl to San Francisco to get help.”
On October 17, 1989, Northern California was struck by another devastating earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale. The catastrophe is remembered around the country, as it occurred in the middle of a World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Houses in the marina area were the most damaged, thanks to leaking gas lines that resulted in fire outbreaks. The Oakland Bay Bridge also collapsed in the dead of rush-hour traffic, burying several cars. Damaging fires and outbreak of violence and disease struck Santa Cruz and Carmel. As usual, San Franciscans shone through and the city recovered quickly.
In the late 1990s, the city experienced a dot-com boom that saw a large wave of computer programmers and entrepreneurs move into the city. This reinvigorated the city and many poor neighborhoods. Unfortunately, when the bubble burst in 2001, many companies folded and the people moved out. Today, high technology has made a moderate comeback and the city is seeing new life.
Baker, Christopher, Judy Wade, and Morten Strange. California. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1994. ISBN: 0671879065.
“Palace of Fine Arts.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_fine_arts>
“San Francisco.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_francisco>
“Summer of Love.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_of_love>
Young, Perry Deane. Insider’s California Guide, 2nd Edition. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1997. ISBN: 1556507518.
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