San Francisco, as many will tell you and too many have written before, is a city of contradictions and of almost limitless acceptance. It’s a place at home with the most right-on, hemp-laden, crunchy-organic locavore and hard-drinking, gut-busting, all-night hedonist. Tempeh and foie gras. Liberals and libertarians. Fixies and party buses. Strip clubs and feminists. We can be who we want to be because everyone is welcome, and everyone is a freak. I mean, we can walk around naked here. Legally.
Before it was San Francisco, this place was home to the Ohlone people, descendants of the coyote, who gathered acorns and caught fish from the bay. It has been said that Sir Francis Drake may have passed this way, naming it Nova Albion, but I heard he got lost in the fog and missed the Golden Gate entirely. Later, the Spanish called it Yerba Buena, the good herb (which should be lost on no one): a mission settlement on Junípero Serra’s path of bloody destruction. The mission built here was named for St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic saint who forsook his wealthy upbringing for a vow of poverty, preached to the animals, and considered the moon and sun his siblings. Perhaps more fitting, the mission is also known as Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows.
Part of the revolt of the illegitimate Bear Flag Republic, the town was re-named San Francisco by the Americans, becoming a rough-and-tumble mining camp with the advent of the Gold Rush. Wealth transitioned the area into the city-of-sin Barbary Coast, home to fancy ladies, men little better than pirates, and a whole lot of hooch. It was meant to be the new Rome, its Golden Gate named for the harbor of Byzantium, the economic powerhouse and port of the American West. Robber barons chose its pinnacles for their mansions, which collapsed or burned with the city in 1906. They built it back up just the same, almost.
Home to the largest Chinese population outside of China, San Francisco attracted immigrant rail workers and wealth seekers, who stayed, built a life for themselves, and garnered influence, both illicit and legal, that shaped the city. Stevedores led the West Coast waterfront strike here, bringing unionization. The embarkation point for the war in the Pacific, San Francisco was one birthplace of modern aviation. When the Beats howled their way out from New York, overturning obscenity laws with peyote poems, Zen, and naked lunches at Six Gallery and City Lights, they set the stage for the Summer of Love. Ground zero for the Counterculture in the 1960s, the city’s association with all things hippie won’t fade away anytime soon. Nor will its central role in the movement for gay rights, AIDS activism, and far-from-mainstream happenings like the Folsom Street Fair (don’t Google that at work). It was the cradle of the tech boom and bust and boom again. And now, it’s a mix of everything that came before and the cutting edge of what is yet to come.
Everywhere has a history, but San Francisco’s is more tumultuous, more chthonic, than almost anywhere else. Everyone here has an underground group, a shibboleth, a hole-and-corner meeting spot. There are cultures that I will never find, much less understand. Cryptic street art, the Bohemian Club, ships buried in the ground. In this space, I’ll try to capture those unknown histories, those secrets, those glimpses you catch when passing a narrow alley or a doorway, on the bus, in the park, on street signs. San Francisco is a place where you can come to get lost or where you can come to find yourself, or anything in between that isn’t quite so conventional. This is the edge of the frontier, no matter the direction whence you came, the place where, when we could go no further, we looked up, saw it was good, and put a stake in the ground.