Travels & Traditions: San Francisco - #205

Most of the cities in the United States were originally settled by small groups of people who shared the same values, the same religion and the same hope for a new life in the New World.

There is, however, one extraordinary exception…San Francisco.

This town was settled by 25,000 people who showed up one afternoon to find gold. They came from all over the world and just about every ethnic or religious group you can think of and as they mixed together they established the traditions that make San Francisco what it is today.

To take a look at those customs and conventions and where they came from, please join me, Burt Wolf, for Travels & Traditions in San Francisco.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Native tribes had been living in the neighborhood for thousands of years when the Spanish wandered in in the 1700s and began building missions along the California coast. Nothing much really happened here until 1848 when gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Word of the find spread throughout the world and each day hundreds of people arrived to seek their fortune in the gold fields. And each day the fields yielded over $50,000 worth of gold. Within three years of the original discovery the population went from 850 people to over 50,000. They worked in the fields or in the support structure that was set up in San Francisco. The cultural diversity was amazing---it was the most unique population in the world. Almost everyone was a new comer and a risk taker.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): And right there, in the gold rush years is where you find the origins of the traditions that make San Francisco what it is today. When you were working in those fields you never knew where your neighbor was gonna come from.  What his religion might be or his beliefs or his lifestyle.  You also never knew who was going to strike it rich and live a life of wealth beyond your wildest dreams and perhaps share it with you. So tolerance was very important and some of those guys really struck it rich so there was a love of opulence and that is what San Francisco is about today.  It may be the most tolerant city in the world and it has a great love of opulence, makes it a great place to live in but it makes it a great place to be a visitor.

The second most significant event in the history of San Francisco was the great earthquake. On April 18th 1906, at 5:16 in the morning, every church bell in San Francisco began ringing. There was a deep rumbling sound throughout the city. Within 48 seconds over 5000 buildings collapsed. In less than a minute the great San Francisco earthquake was over, but the real damage was caused by the fires that followed the quake and lasted for five days. In 1906 the buildings and the streets were filled with gas lines and gas lamps and when they ruptured the city went up in flames. As soon as the fires were out, reconstruction began. And once again cooperation between all groups became essential for survival.

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. They overlap and though you can’t always spot the street where one ends and another begins, once you’ve arrived, its easy to see that each neighborhood has its own distinct ethnic history, religion, culture, and food.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): North Beach is the ancestral home of the Italian community in San Francisco. In the 1830s it was a cattle ranch that supplied fresh meat to passing trading vessels that popped in for supplies. Many of those ships came from the northern Italian city of Genoa. When the sailors heard there was gold they decided to give up their rigging for digging they also sent word back home about the gold which meant that thousands of additional Italian men came here and made a five month exhausting journey only to discover that the good stuff was already gone. Yet it was better here than back in the old country. The land was good for farming, the sea was filled with fish, it was easy to make a new life in a new land. So they settled in and sent home for their families.

During the 1880s there was a second wave of Italian settlers. This time they came from Southern Italy and Sicily. They joined with the original Italian immigrants and turned North Beach into a classic Italian-American community.

Churches…Coffeehouses…. Bakeries …. Restaurants…

The entire community honors its Italian heritage.

North Beach is also the home of the City Lights Bookstore. It was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and was the first bookstore in the country to be devoted entirely to paperbacks. It also became the epicenter for the beatnik literature of the 50s and 60s. After North Beach was destroyed in the fire that followed the earthquake the residents lived in Washington Square while they rebuilt their homes.  It was one of the first communities to recover.  Within ten months North Beach was up and running.  One of the men responsible for the rapid recovery of the city was A.P. Giannini, owner of the tiny Bank of Italy, which served the Italian immigrants.  He became famous because the day after the great earthquake he rescued the money and the ledgers from the rubble of his bank.  The next day when the other banks refused to open A.P. set up a table on the San Francisco waterfront and began making loans on the basis of a handshake.  Today it’s known as the Bank of America, and it is the largest bank in the world.  Mr. Giannini would love it.

At the same time that the Italian community was putting together North Beach, those who had made their fortunes during the gold rush were building their great mansions, and the greatest of them were about to be built on Nob Hill. The word ‘nob” is a contraction of nabob, an Indian word that means prince and that’s who moved in here….the princes of industry.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Nob hill is the highest hill in San Francisco, it was so hard to get to the top that no one wanted to build their home here until 1873 when the cable car was invented and the railroad barons of California agreed to build their mansions here and a cable car company of their own running down California Street to Market where their offices were. You don’t find many big homes made by the gold miners because they didn’t actually make that much money --- the real fortunes were made by people who sold things to the gold miners like Leland Stanford, who was a grocer, or Charles Crocker, who was a dry goods salesman. Their homes are up here.  There was almost one exception,

Bonanza Jim Fair, he made a fortune with the largest silver mind discovery in the history of the world and he was just about to build his dream home when he died. His daughters inherited the property and began construction of a hotel. But just before it was scheduled to open it was gutted by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. Reconstruction on the hotel began as soon as the fires were out and it opened with a fantastic party just one year to the day after the quake. The Fairmont Hotel quickly became the social center for San Francisco society.

Under the direction of General Manager Mark Huntley it has undergone an 80 million-dollar program to restore it to its original state of opulence.

MARK HUNTLEY: What we have done is we’ve actually taken that red and black carpet away that the hotel lobby was very famous for and took each piece of marble up piece by piece, repaired the mortar bed underneath and put each piece of marble back down and then tried to create this sheen that you see.

BURT WOLF: That must have been exhausting for you.

MARK HUNTLEY: It wasn’t all by myself.

BURT WOLF: This is the way it looked when it opened.

MARK HUNTLEY: Very similar. The direction.  The design company and the architects we took some of the old pictures that were available and basically gave them the old pictures and said this is what we would like to recreate.

BURT WOLF: Great staircase.

MARK HUNTLEY: It is fantastic.

BURT WOLF: And those are the original chandeliers?

MARK HUNTLEY: Original chandeliers.  The Dutch gilt on the ceilings bringing that back out. This area is called the Laurel Court and again when the hotel first opened this was the area where they served afternoon tea.  One dome was existing and we had to recreate the other two domes to take it back to how it originally was.

BURT WOLF: Quite beautiful.  Did you take all of those up and clean them too and put them back?

MARK HUNTLEY: Yes we did, we had to restore that as well which at times you saw a guy down there like with a toothbrush going through each piece and putting it back down.

BURT WOLF: It’s so important to save the things that are beautiful from the past and not break them down  and destroy them so we can see how people lived.

As soon as the owners of The Fairmont announced that they were going to renovate the hotel people started calling up to tell them “Don’t touch the Tonga Room”. For three generations this room has been a special place for the residents of San Francisco. It’s where thousands of couples got engaged and thousands more celebrated anniversaries and other important occasions. Perhaps its most unique aspect is a machine that produces thunder and rain on demand. The Fairmont has been rebuilt but the Tonga Room remains.

And so does one of San Francisco’s earliest structures. The first Europeans to build anything in San Francisco were the Spanish. Starting in1769 they began building a chain of missions between San Diego and San Francisco. The Mission Dolores was built in 1776 and is still standing. It’s San Francisco’s oldest building. The ceiling is covered with ancient Native American designs that were painted on with vegetable dyes. The decorative altar came up from Mexico in 1796. The original bells were cast in the 1790’s and hang above the entrance area.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): When Mexico won its independence from Spain, California from San Diego to San Francisco became part of Mexico until the 1840’s when it was taken over by the United States. During the early years of the 20th century over 10 percent of the population of Mexico immigrated to the United States with hundreds of thousands of those people settling in California. One result is a distinct Hispanic influence in San Francisco.

The most dramatic visual manifestations of the Mexican community are the street murals. There are over are hundred of them in the Mission District alone. Many are the work of the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center that was set up by Susan Cervantes in 1977 to encourage, train and support the artists who wanted to paint murals. You can stop into the center and pick up a map that will guide you to the murals or you can sign up for a walking tour.

BURT WOLF: Why did the mural movement get started in San Francisco - why are there so many murals here?

SUSAN CERVANTES: Well I think that there are so many because there was a mural movement that started in the late ‘60’s right after the Civil Rights which is still continuing today.  And it inspired the African American artists and Chicano artists to really understand their own cultural heritage and their roots.

BURT WOLF: Tell me about this specific mural.

SUSAN CERVANTES: What it is is family life and spirit of mankind and that was the theme that everyone agreed to have on it - this is a family oriented neighborhood --they wanted it to show community, they wanted to show people getting along with each other and sharing that community and love.

BURT WOLF: So the murals reflects the dozens of different ethnic groups that are in the community and how important it is for them to get together and love each other.

SUSAN CERVANTES: Well, yeah, the one thing about this community is that it is very diverse and it does reflect that diversity in the basis of the people that are painted in the murals and this is what’s really important to everyone to know that is part of everyone’s heritage.  It’s just a wonderful way that they worked and shared and respected each other’s efforts.

BURT WOLF: So it’s a way for someone in the community to discover their own history and then put it in the mural and then to present that history back to their own community in a huge painting.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle into the neighborhood and the Chinese were the first Asians. In 1848, at the time of the Gold Rush, China was in total chaos. The Manchu dynasty was falling apart and unable to govern. There was widespread starvation and the peasants were in rebellion. Thousands of Chinese left their homeland in search of their golden opportunity which they believed was buried in the mountains just outside of San Francisco.

The earliest Chinese workers to arrive in the mines were known as “coolies” which comes from the Chinese ku li meaning “bitter strength”. They did the toughest jobs for the least money and set up their own community in San Francisco. When the gold rush came to an end the Silver Rush started and they were back in the mines again. And when the silver petered out they went to work building the railroads… and as always at half the price of whites. At one point nine out of ten workers on the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. Today San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia…the population is estimated at about 100,000. 

The entrance to the district is Chinatown Gate. The words at the top translate as: “Everything in the World is in Just Proportion.” I’m not sure that’s true but it is certainly a goal to work towards.

The Chinese community is a powerful political and economic force in the city and Chinatown is a fascinating place to visit. The main shopping street for both residents and tourists is Grant Avenue. It was named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant who wasn’t much of a shopper, but a devoted tourist. Before he became President he spent many years touring the southeastern part of the United States.

You might also like to take a walk through Waverly Street, known as The Street of Painted Balconies. It feels much like the traditional streets of China. And if your stash of powdered antler horn is running low you’ll love this block.

In addition to the Chinese community, San Francisco has a number of other Asian groups of considerable importance. Over 12,000 Japanese live in San Francisco many in an area known as Japantown.

There are also large contingents from Korea and Vietnam.

Along with dozens of other ethnic groups showing up in 1849, there was a substantial number of Irish, looking for their rainbow and its pot of gold.BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): St. Patrick’s Day is one of the few national holidays that is celebrated outside of its homeland. It was first celebrated in the United States in 1737 in Boston Massachusetts, and though it is not an official government holiday, if you are in a town with a substantial Irish population it will look mighty official.

One of the primary objectives of any parade is to let the marchers show that they belong to a special group and at the same time to display that affiliation to people who are not part of that group. The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is a perfect example of this ancient aspect of the march.

The same need to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs and lifestyles that was so much part of the Gold Rush period has helped make San Francisco a center of the world’s gay community.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The key event however took place during The Second World War the United States government decided to muster out all homosexuals. Their primary objective at the moment was to keep gay troops from going into the Pacific. The town they choose for that mission was San Francisco.

The discharge papers issued to gays marked them as homosexual and made it almost impossible for them to reenter their hometowns across America.

They stayed in San Francisco and created their own neighborhood. Today about 120,000 of the city’s 750,000 residents are proud to be members of the gay community.

Trevor Hailey was a military nurse who became an important member of that community. And as part of her desire to create a better understanding of her society she runs an historical tour of the Castro District.

TREVOR HAILEY: You don’t see too many gay monuments in the world today now do you?

BURT WOLF: That’s true.

TREVOR HAILEY: This is one.  The city of San Francisco gave us that flagpole that’s 75 feet high and the rainbow flag has been adopted as a symbol for the gay community.

And the concept of using the rainbow flag as our symbol started here in San Francisco twenty-two years ago when Harvey Milk was elected to public office and doesn’t the rainbow stand for hope, peace, the calm after the storm.  The pot of gold.  And it’s very diverse but the end result is unity. Now we’re got many other things to show you.  And look Burt where we’re headed right down here to The Castro Theatre, isn’t that a wonderful marquee.

BURT WOLF: What a marvelous building.

TREVOR HAILEY: Isn’t it.  Actually this building is just as it was when it was built in 1922 isn’t that wonderful.  And I often call this The Castro Cathedral because haven’t most minorities tended to hang on to religion.  And sort of what they’re saying is get me through the struggle on earth and maybe there’s a reward in heaven.  Burt we are a group that couldn’t hang on to religion.  And all groups need icons.  So the arts tend to be our icons and film is our art form.  So Burt where we’re going up here is a place I think you’ll enjoy seeing and it’s Harvey Milk’s old camera shop and the building actually has recently been made one of San Francisco’s historic landmarks which I find very appropriate because you see this little blue Victorian right here is for us like Abe Lincoln’s log cabin.  It’s such a historic place for this group of people.  You see the mural up there --- that’s a very good likeness of Harvey by the way.  And the logo on the t-shirt you gotta give ‘em hope to me that’s quite analogous to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream.  And it was definitely Harvey’s major logo.  That if he got elected to public office and we had a neighborhood like The Castro then if somebody from Altoona Pennsylvania got in touch with the fact that they were gay or lesbian it wasn’t the end of the world.

The Second World War was also the catalyst that brought many African Americans to San Francisco. Word had spread throughout the southeast that there were good jobs in war related industries around town and thousands of African Americans resettled here.    An example of the level of tolerance and understanding that is part of San Francisco’s tradition and the African American community is the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. It has been called a model religious institution that can help save America from the social stresses of our time…a church for the twenty-first century.

REVEREND CECIL WILLIAMS (ON CAMERA): Most people during that period of time when I was a child, 12 or 13 years old, would play Indians and Cowboys, I didn’t, I played church.

Under the direction of the Reverend Cecil Williams it has become the city’s largest private provider of social services…offering recovery programs for substance abusers, domestic-violence workshops, teaching job-skills, and feeding 3,500 people three times a day.

REVEREND CECIL WILLIAMS: And I used my imagination to integrate people into the church on the basis of them not being segregated.  We are the church first and foremost and it’s concerned about justice.  And with justice is always unconditional love.

I’ve got a 144 boys gospel choir, a band that will get down, and I’ve got over 3,000 people who come here every Sunday all colors, all kinds, people from all over the world.

And what we do is we create spontaneous action with each other there’s not telling what  might occur.  This is a place where we celebrate.

San Franciscans build bridges that surmount the barriers between ethnic and religious communities, but they also build bridges that surmount the bay. The Golden Gate has become the best known visual symbol of the city. The views are spectacular.

And that’s a brief view of San Francisco. A unique history. A love of opulence. An appreciation of tolerance and a beautiful city. And if you’ve enjoyed this visit, how about joining me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.