I recently read a book, the Season of the Witch by David Talbot. I don't recommend it. The book purports to cover San Francisco from 1960 to 1990. It covers the hippie period, the assassination of the Mayor and a supervisor and Jim Joneses Temple.
The timeline is somewhat accurate, the details somewhat less and the insight is insignificant. Just what you expect from journalism.
I was sufficiently offended to write my own piece about San Francisco. I put it in my blog only because you might be interested. It is long. I have separated the bulk of the piece below the line.
San Francisco can be described as a personal crucible and the eccentric wild West. Most people come to San Francisco in their early 20s to find their identity. Most people who grow up and go school in the city, leave.
How did San Francisco become this way? What have been the consequences?
All institutions are heavily shaped by their founders and their founding circumstances. San Francisco was a sandy, marshy peninsula with regular sandstorms, no permanent native tribes and one grizzly bear who patrolled the entire area. The first settlers were Spanish explorer-monks, who opened a church in the center of the sandy peninsula near fresh water, and a Spanish military contingent that built a fort on the north shore to protect the entrance to the bay.
The few pre-gold rush settlers on the north-east bay harbor side established a few small businesses and lodgings. The first restaurant was a French bistro on what is now Kearny Street, near Sacramento Street. The restaurant had a Chinese chef. Chinatown has grown from that one location.
The vast explosion of the city came in the 1850s in the gold rush. The primary cities of settlement were in other parts of the Bay, particularly Petaluma. San Francisco became a belated destination for business people who arrived to provide resources and entertainment for the prosperous returning gold seekers registering their claims. Most of the early business people came from New Orleans.
By the end of the 1850s, the city had its future characteristics set. There was the highly austere and puritanical Catholic church element, including the self flagellating order of Dominicans.There were the very tolerant sybaritic French, influenced businesspeople from New Orleans. There was the ultra-American young loose cannons of gold rush migrants with few ties to any civilized order.
It is very hard for anyone to get a sense of what San Francisco is really about. A few San Franciscans in politics have a sense of the diversity and the variety of pressure groups that make up the City. It is rare that a person has had a lifetime of experience on which to rely, as well as an extensive variety of San Francisco responsibilities.
I have had that rare opportunity. I have been a downtown banker, and owner of several businesses. I started the main city wide bus and walking tours of the City, I have been the boyfriend of several socialites, political campaign manager for several local political campaigns on a variety of issues and diverse people. I have been a foundation president, survey research director and central figure in many movements, ranging from the sex field to the arts, education and small business consulting fields.
Unlike other cities that were settled by groups of people interested in farming or ranching or pure trade, San Francisco was predominantly the loose ends and outcasts of society from everywhere on the planet.
What has this meant for the city?
First and most importantly, San Francisco, unlike every other city in the world, has had virtually no hereditary upper-class or dominant elite. What little upper-class the city has had has been ad hoc from the beginning. The city has been run and ruled by no one. By no family. By no continuous institutions. Elite clubs come and go. Their membership is never static. When the Jews couldn't get into the elite clubs in the 1880s, they created their own (the Bohemian Club) . When the East European second wave of Jews in the 1930s couldn't get into elite clubs ,they created a new one (the Concordia Club). By 1965, the clubs were dead (open to anyone who could pay the membership fees).
The city is divided into many small subsections. Almost villages. The list of villages is too long to categorize. In 2013, there are Italian sections, Russian sections, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Honduran, Cuban, Irish, Jewish, gay, lesbian, Spanish-speaking, artistic, computer geeks, gang banger sections, etc.
Second, from the savory treats and drinks of the earliest days in the entertainment milieu, San Francisco has been a global center of innovative cuisine and drinks. The first wave of drinks in the 1890s introduced the Manhattan cocktail, the martini, and a dozen more. The second wave in the 1990s introduced the modern mixed drink explosion. The English Breakfast Tea was invented in San Francisco. The microbrewery explosion of the 1980s began with Fritz Maytag's Anchor Steam beer in the 1960s. Innovative food and an entire industry of organic foods came out of the San Francisco hippies. The first market for fine wines in America was San Francisco. The true culinary capital of America has always been and remains the San Francisco area ,especially as a point of origin. During its circulation heyday, San Francisco had more subscribers per capita to Bon Appetite magazine than any other city.
San Francisco has always been a capital of sex and sexual experimentation. The first PhDs in sexology, and the training of clergy and doctors came from the 1960s’ Sex and Drug Forum. The gay community, the lesbian community, innovative pornography and sexual theater all grew out of San Francisco and its historic sexual tolerance and its venue for entertainment.
The 1960 hippies were part of a long stream of young migrants who came to San Francisco to explore their identity in an atmosphere of freedom and innovation. That stream began after the Civil War, which grew to epic proportions in the 1890s when hundreds of communes were begun in the city and surrounds. Such social experimentation continues to this day with geeks and artists of all sorts. Even Zennies, yogies, martial artists, spiritualists and inventors get their start in San Francisco.
The typical creative person will come to San Francisco to experiment with their ideas, their identity, their behavior. They find friends and fellow travellers. When the unique person is fully realized ,he or she will leave... and move to the cities and locales where their identity can be appreciated and exploited. That is true for dancers, poets, painters, filmmakers, writers and creators of every imaginable type.
The primary reason that San Francisco is such a magnet for people seeking their identity and often starting a business is the astounding weakness of the social institutions in San Francisco. You can do almost anything and no one will stop you. You can be an anarchist group, the Sexual Freedom League or Jim Jones’ Lefty mixed-race Church.
The politics of San Francisco has always been organized to create the weakest, most chaotic government possible. The mayor makes all of the important appointments in the first months in office and from there on hundreds of separate city departments, commissions and agencies are operated independently. There has always been conflict between the executive and the legislative branch. Corruption is polite, invisible and the way to get things done. The last corrupt property assessor (Russ Wolden) in the 1960s got his bribes via the cash given to 18 hat check girls at the leading restaurants.
For many decades in the first half of the 20th century there was a decisive Chamber of Commerce made up of the residual railroad baron influence. It disappeared by the mid-1960s.
The chaotic and diverse San Francisco voters have never been reform minded. In the early 1900s they voted against all of the innovations of the Progressive Party that make California a leading state. Corrupt, but well dressed and polite. They voted for corrupt people, threw them out and put in new corrupt people every 15 years. The corruption allowed for small businesses to thrive. It also permitted small businesses to grow into global powerhouses: Levi's, Bank of America, Bechtel Corporation and dozens more.
Nobody to my knowledge has put together a list of the extraordinary people who have come to San Francisco and drunk the water of social exploration and the went on to make globally important contributions. The list over 160 years would be astounding. From Oscar Wilde to Milton Friedman.
Similarly, the city has been the point of origin of more important developments and improvements in the human lot than any other location on the planet. The closest competitors may be Amsterdam and Jerusalem. Again, the list is long and stretches from the raucous sexual and wobblie exploits of the 1890s to the hippies of the1970s who gave us clothing styles to personal computers and the programer-geek ethic.
But the ‘weird politics’, you may ask? Without a social elite, and with the Catholic attraction for the Irish and Italian immigrants the city, San Francisco has always been home to left-wing radicals, wobblies and union gangs. San Francisco was one of only two cities in America to experience citywide strikes in the 1920s and 30s.
The city has also been a magnet for the visual arts from its earliest days, probably because of the advertising and promotion of the bawdy early entertainment industry. Those advertising businesses were largely sex and alcohol related.
In summary, unlike any other city, San Francisco is a very broad diverse population, it is an almost unmanaged entrepot of commerce, entertainment and social chaos.
(Also find in the cloud at: San Francisco)
Photo by reader Bob Swanson