The history of San Francisco and the North Beach District



In 1835, the small village of Yerba Buena was established to trade with ships that came into the San Francisco Bay. It thrived with an ethnical diversity from the onset, its population steadily growing with a mix of people immigrating from other countries, changing their religion to Catholicism and becoming Mexican citizens to receive land grants.

President Andrew Jackson unsuccessfully tried to purchase the area of the San Francisco Bay from Mexico the same year Yerba Buena was established. It was in 1846 that war was declared on Mexico in dispute of the Mexico-Texas borders. On July 9 1846, US Navy ship Portsmouth entered the bay and claimed California for the United States. Lieutenant Washington Bartlett of the Portsmouth took over Yerba Buena as its alcade, the equivalent of mayor. In January of 1847, Bartlett renamed Yerba Buena to San Francisco after the bay it was founded on. About a year later, the little village with a population now standing around 800+, the cry of “Eureka” herald the discovery of gold in the California interior.

It was the Gold Rush of 1894 that actually and quickly transformed the city of San Francisco and the whole of Northern California. Thousands of fortune seekers from all over the world arrived first by ship. That once tiny village grew from 800 to 8,000 within the first year. By 1852, the population had increased to 35,000. In 1860, San Francisco boasted 57,000 people becoming the 15th largest city in the US.

And so it went; San Francisco continued to grow in population, economic and commerce development, financial strength, and political diversity that set it apart from the rest of the nation.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake measuring an estimated 7.7 to7.9 on the Richter Scale devastated the city of San Francisco. More than 3,000 people died in the earthquake itself and the ensuing firestorm that wasn’t extinguished until April 21. The earthquake and fire destroyed 28,000 buildings, including the homes of three-quarters of the city's population.

The San Franciscans rallied and began the rebuilding of the city. The results lead to some of the most remarkable architectural structures that still stand today.

What I have written here is but a minuscule synopsis in the development of San Francisco, the city by the bay.

Now that I have a bit of San Francisco’s originating history laid out for you, it only makes sense that we move on with one of the areas that were closest to those beginnings, that would be North Beach, also known as Little Italy, so nicknamed for its primarily Italian flavor. It is also known as the Barbary Coast.

We begin our tour starting at the corner of Broadway and Columbus Street. Here is the beginning of the Barbary Coast Trail. Its early days can best be described by this quote:

“The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Cheap gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.

Men from Europe, Asia, South America and the Eastern United States, lured by the call of the Gold Rush, sailed into the San Francisco Bay. They were not kept long in the Mother Lode fields, returning to San Francisco to fill their baser needs of a woman‘s company, either broke or with small leather sacks of nuggets and gold dust. Many squandering it away on the prostitutes and drink. But most lost their silver and gold by the more devious prostitutes; pick-pocketed, laudanum-laced libations, guileless liquor or just a hard rap to a noggin.

Sailors dreaded going into the wilds of the Barbary Coast District because it was here that shanghaiing had been perfected. Woe to the sailors on leave to awake and finding themselves on another ship bound for some faraway port. During a shortage of sailors on outbound ships, any able bodied man who wandered into the wrong saloon, or drank with the corrupt companion, would find himself with a mysterious hangover on board a ship.

Nearly all drinking and dancing establishments in the area were destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, but within months, a dozen or so were rebuilt and back in business.

You can go down this legendary trail by watching for brass placards embedded in the sidewalks. In the fashion of a compass, you are lead past today’s saloons, bars, coffee houses and, yes, striptease clubs.  The most prominent of these bawdy establishments is the Condor Club, the birthplace of topless and bottomless entertainment.

Another infamous striptease club is around the corner from the Condor Club on Broadway.  Enrico Banducci born Harry Banducci on February 17, 1922, recently died on October 09, 2007 at the age of 85. He was the legendary North Beach San Francisco impresario who operated the “Hungry I” nightclub and launched the careers of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand, as well as countless folk singers. The “Hungry I” featured the original brick wall in the stage background, a staple for stand-up comedy presentations ever since. Banducci bought the “Hungry I” from its founder, Eric “Big Daddy“ Nord, in 1950. Banducci later also started the Clown Alley hamburger stand as well as Enrico's Sidewalk Cafe on Broadway, a restaurant and jazz club that has been in and out of business (as of 2007 it remains in operation under new ownership). 

One block down on Kearny Street is Larry Flynt’s “Hustler Club”. Flynt has long been a man of some notoriety as an American Publisher (Larry Flynt Publications) of pornographic movies and magazines. He had been in many legal battles over his First Amendment Rights. He is paralyzed from the waist down from an assassination attempt on March 6, 1978, when he and his lawyer were preparing to enter the courthouse for one of his hearings.

So, as you can see, North Beach has definitely earned its rights to being called the Barbary Coast of San Francisco.


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